by Benjamin Leonard, Best Boy
This edition of Missed It is a little different in the sense that it's not a blockbuster, award winner or classic that I've been meaning to see. Welcome to the Rubber Room is a recent release by writer-director and voracious Moviejawn reader Trent Harris. He had asked us to watch this film back at the start of the year and, as things go, life got in the way and I never sat down with it. However, Trent just had his hometown premiere in Salt Lake City. So there's a chance he may be bringing WttRR to your area in the near future.
Trent is best known for the goofy road-trip comedy Rubin & Ed, starring Howard Hesseman, Karen Black, and Crispin Glover; and The Beaver Trilogy, with an ensemble cast featuring the very young Sean Penn and Crispin Glover (again). Beaver Trilogy is a collection of three shorts that look at the life of Groovin' Gary, a big personality in a small community. The first is actual footage of Gary while the other two are fictionalized accounts of how his life is impacted by the attention of the camera. Trent’s other features include Plan 10 from Outer Space - a zany look at an alien attempt at world domination and Mormons - and The Wild Goose Chronicles, an offbeat sort of travelogue.
Welcome to the Rubber Room is a self-produced sci-fi/comedy featuring a cast of (mostly) unknowns portraying regulars at an artsy coffee shop/bar who are facing the end of their fantasyland when The Rubber Room, their favorite hangout, is closing to make way for a Pottery Barn. The Rubber Room has been a sanctuary for them where they go to discuss and display art in all its various forms.
All of the stereotypical art-types (and archetypes) are here. Among others, there's Alexis Thrill (the neurotic poet that performs with slide shows), Fatima (the smoldering nihilist), Bebop Bob (the beatnik throwback), Mean Fred (the motorcycle tough-guy that’s actually a big softy), Clover Dover (the sexually-complex lover of animal art) and their savior Caldiero (the one guy that has gained recognition but never "sold-out"). They've gathered at The Rubber Room to mourn and celebrate its end. There are constant debates on the nature of art and love. Each one lives in the fantasy that art is the only thing that can defeat money and greed but no one understands art like they do. This may all sound a bit dense and heavy-handed but it is played to silly effect. And if you've ever spent time in the coffee house world you will know that the representations are done with equal parts affection and humor while attempting to get at the root of the matter: What is ART?
The film plays out in three parts. The first covers the pending closure of The Rubber Room and its salvation at the hands of some aliens that bought the entire planet. The aliens are a bunch of Republicans who think humans should take responsibility for their actions but have agreed to keep The Rubber Room open as part of their amusement park.
Part two tells us that the aliens backed out of the deal and are turning the whole place into a Pottery Barn. That’s ok because Bebop Bob has won the lottery and plans to use his money to fund ART! by buying things to “trip out his pad.” He decides to have a competition between artists to decide who gets funded. The problem is Bob kinda likes dumb art. This, in itself, is fine. Everyone is allowed to like what they like, but Bob’s money influences what art is being produced, narrowing the selection that the masses will see. Alexis develops a plan to win because he wants to expose the crab people taking over the nation. Even though he’s driven by the money, Alexis still has noble goals, “What is art if it doesn’t start a riot?” In the end, he wins because he smashed other pieces that he didn’t like, in effect causing a riot.
Part three takes us to the production of Alexis’ crab people film. His cast is filled with the regulars from The Rubber Room - none of whom are really actors - with Clover as the art director. The look of the movie is “Absolute Not-Realism” and it centers around one piece: the volcano that smolders to indicate impending death. The original intent is still there, to teach the world that butterfly face paint does not make for an arts festival. However, a lot of time and money is wasted on set pieces that don’t work and shooting poorly-acted scenes that don’t make much sense. It all comes down to the big climax with the volcano. The scene ends up working because Alexis is able to get some real passion out of his actors. This is a lucky thing since that has to be the end of the movie. They are out of money. End of the movie it is, as this is where our film ends as well. Very silly and meta, of course.
I watched WttRR a few days after having viewed Darren Aronofsky's Mother! Perhaps that influenced my impression of Harris's discussion on art and its place in the world. Both films explore the effect of the creation of art on its muses, the art's effect on the world, and the effect that the world's consumption of that art has on the creator. Both films travel into the absurd and outrageous to depict these effects and both caused me to repeatedly laugh out loud. The difference here is that Rubber Room was supposed to be silly. While I actually laughed more at Mother! (sorry, Trent), Aronofsky wasn't aiming for these belly laughs and ended leaving me angry at the artist's self-important and entitled message. Harris knows the delicate tightrope that the artist walks and the inherent silliness of attempting to observe society and comment on it while trying to get those same people to consume and fund your analysis of it. In the end, Trent's message came through clearer (good art requires PASSION) and left the viewer amused throughout.
Overall, the film is well made. There’s no escaping the fact that it is self-funded but it uses that fact and incorporates it into the story. It’s a fine example of making the best of what you’ve got to work with. To me, the shining example is the alien’s ship. In actuality, there’s really not much to it, but the lighting and the colors make it look quite impressive. If Welcome to the Rubber Room happens to be making an appearance in your area, go check it out and support independent art. Otherwise, check out Trent’s website at www.echocave.net.
I’m gonna try something a little different for next month’s Missed It. The theme is Desperation. Reach out to us and let me know your favorite hidden gem on that topic. I’ll sift through the responses to find something I haven’t already seen and discuss it next month. Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.