Monday, October 13, 2008


In the course of looking for all the “house” shows on the BBC, I came across a movie I knew nothing about called “Life as a House.” It turns out to be a masterpiece. Not a bit of realistic construction advice, not an extended therapeutic lecture, not an essay about shelter, it is a parable about Salvation.

How can a person save a family line that has be cursed by the violence and addictions of the progenitor, in this case a drunken killer grandfather? The curse takes the form of a teenager who seems well on his way towards becoming Darth Vader. Well, at least he’s Anakin Skywalker. Actually, he’s the actor who played Anakin (Hayden Christiansen) -- in this case wearing lots of eye makeup and enough metal studs and rings to make his ears droop and his lower lip pout. He’s on the verge of a career as a hustler to support his drive to numbness. He’s already taking drugs, huffing, and practicing auto-erotic strangulation. His California-girl goddess of a mother, Kristin Scott Thomas, is helpless. Her second husband, for whom life is acquisitions, has a non-intervention policy. Only the littlest boy of the second marriage seems happy, constantly throwing his arms around people’s knees in an attempt to comfort them.

But none of these people are the central hero: it is Kevin Kline as a withdrawn, unhappy architect who makes only tiny model houses until he is both fired (computers have replaced him) and diagnosed as terminally ill. He has four months, maybe; a teeny shack of a house in a glorious California cliff location; and enough money to built his mortise-and-tenon dream house which exists in pieces, not assembled. Unrealized potential.

Two central conceits drive this film: first, realizing you are mortal can set you free to act in the NOW and, second, a project like building a house will also build a community. It’s a result of freedom to act and of participation in community that heals human families. These ideas are developed in a good-natured, visually gorgeous, and quite irresistible way. Kevin Kline does a masterful job in this movie, but he is supported by a sophisticated script that avoids all the cliches -- except for the dog, but it’s a plot device anyway. Kline has an ability to be both goofy and wise at the same time which prevents preaching.

Not that this is a realistic movie. Things happen in parable fashion without a lot of explanation, though in terms of plot development there’s a pleasing logic to it. A key character is Jena Malone’s role, a version of “wise virgin” (though she’s more wise than virginal) that we don’t often see in movies though the role is often there in historical stories. “Alyssa” takes a direct, thought-out, warmly logical, evidence-based approach to life’s problems, though it’s clear she didn’t get that from her mother. She is not unrealistic: I’ve met her type in real life, even tried hard to be like that myself. But romantic delusions have taken their toll among many young women who can’t think for themselves.

My problem with the movie is personal. I liked the little beach shack much better than the new house! Though the latter is very nice, very “architectural.” If you saw my little derelict house in Valier, of which the advantages are not least that it’s entirely paid for, you’d see that I’m living my convictions. But I’m in sync with the idea that if you don’t do things NOW, they just won’t get done. I’m almost seventy, so I get up every morning and write as fast and hot as I can, because though I might live to 89 like my mother, I might not.

As for community, in coming back to the edge of the Blackfeet Rez I’m returning to a former community. I hadn’t quite realized how many people would be missing, time’s victims. I chose Valier because it was a community I knew I didn’t fit, so there would be few motivated to interfere with me. Of course, I begin to fit in a slantwise way as I understand them better. But the quite unexpected development was an online community of like-minded people physically located all over the planet. I can take it anywhere with me, even to a nursing home if necessary, unless the Internet collapses.

How realistic is the core premise of “Life as a House,” which I take to be that people need a meaningful project to which they can actually contribute in order to be fully human? Just as real as real can be. So many drifters, so many hustlers, so many acquirers, so many pretentions. It’s hard on the kids. Once I read a little National Geographic type story about a man who was teaching a pack of Inuit kids who were alienated, passive, balky, defensively selfish. He had the brainstorm of taking them out onto the pack ice to help seals in trouble while tagging the animals for scientific study. Many of them had ocean debris like beer six-pack plastic loops stuck over their noses, or fishing line or nets wound onto their flippers and bodies.

He had been able to force these moaning limp teens into the vehicle but could not make them get out. Instead of uselessly berating them, he took his cutters and clinchers and walked out among the sprawling seals. As soon as he started to work, a few curious kids came to see what he was doing -- then more, until they were all out on the ice. They couldn’t resist helping him roll the animals around to get at the place to cut and as soon as they had their hands on solid bodies and huge melting seal eyes looked up into their faces with... was it gratitude?... they were into it. By the time the sun began to go down, so that they had to get off the ice, the kids were begging to come back the next day.

The same principle operates on this cinematic house-building project, though -- California-style -- towards the end atonement gives everything a big boost by providing money enough for a professional crew. By that time the wickedest kid has been punished by falling off the roof. The re-forming kid has by then learned how to jump over a cliff into the ocean and return restored, which is something his father taught him. There are a few good plot twists at the end.

One of the most beautiful small scenes, well-earned, is the architect’s death while his former wife, her head on his shoulder, talks through the video of their happiest memory playing in a recorder on his chest. The modern mantra for writers is “show, don’t tell.” This movie does that, but we don’t see the death. We see the consequences of the life.

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