December 5, 2002

Cornell Cinema

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Though we don’t necessarily think about it, where we live says a lot about us. Maybe you should think about that next time you look around your cluttered dorm room with the mold-attracting pizza boxes in the corner, huh? But if you want to feel better about your own abode, a surefire way to do so is to get a guided tour of the five eccentric living spaces depicted in Chris Smith’s Home Movie. An entertaining documentary on the absurd ways some people choose to live, Home Movie takes the audience inside a tree house on a remote Hawaiian island, a houseboat in Louisiana, a remote-controlled house of gimmicks, a converted missile silo, and the “cat house.”

The film’s greatest strength is, of course, the strong personalities of these homes’ owners. As you’d expect of people who choose to live in such weird places, they are quirky, interesting, and in one case just plain creepy. Smith’s camera, however, is thankfully objective and non-judgmental, taking you on a tour without telling you what to think, and in the process revealing universal truths about the home that stretch far beyond these five houses and their inhabitants.

The film starts with a promising teaser, introducing each of the homes in a quick vignette that provides just a hint of what’s to come. In Louisiana, “Wild Bill” lives on his houseboat, using a speedboat to commute to work at his father’s alligator farm every day. A glimpse into his life reveals a tranquil, happy existence spent eating crabs he catches off the side of his house, and his home is filled with everything that has sentimental value to him–including a butterfly ashtray which he once spent half an hour diving to retrieve after it fell overboard.

Elsewhere, an eccentric old man has rigged his house with sci-fi gadgetry of the oddest sort. His living room rotates, his toilet is obscured by a flower planter which withdraws at the touch of a button, and a hand extending from the wall serves as his soap dish. He shares this unique home with a humanoid remote-controlled robot named Arok, his preserved pet dog (whom he calls his “son”) and a young wannabe actress whose relationship to him is indeterminate at best–he’s shown hypnotizing her and using her as his assistant in displays of his gadgetry. The whole situation is incredibly creepy, but the old guy does tell some entertaining anecdotes, like the time when he constructed a ski ramp off the roof of his house. The still photos of the younger man performing tricks coming down the slope are priceless.

The film’s journey takes a more poignant turn to visit an old woman living out in the jungles of Hawaii in a giant tree house. She originally bought the land for her son, who subsequently died, and after his passing she moved there to fulfill his dream of living on the land. The house, with a tree trunk passing through the middle of it, and miles of wilderness surrounding it on all sides, is a peaceful and beautiful retreat from society.

Another kind of retreat from society is represented by the “cat house,” whose owners have made everything else in their lives secondary to their pets. The entire house is a tribute to felines, from the woven collage of cats on the floor, to the bizarre “cat track” which runs overhead everywhere as a path for the couple’s pets. They even support themselves by selling cat art and photos.

Exploring history and reinvention is a segment on an abandoned missile silo in Kansas, which has been converted by an enterprising family into a cozy home. When they bought the former government property, it was filthy and flooded with water–they transformed it from a site of destruction into their own private domain, with the majority of the home hidden underground. The living room resides in the former control room, and the missile silo space itself has become a workshop separated from the main house by a long tunnel. The most fascinating aspect of this segment is the awareness of the family about the place’s former purpose–they have even invited former missile engineers to revisit the site and tell them about its history.

Chris Smith expertly weaves these five narratives through his hour-long documentary. Each home presented here is an absolute expression of individuality; the owners’ personalities seem to have leaked into the very fabric of the places, so that the homes express their owners’ quirks and charms beautifully. It’s a wonderful film, alternately funny and poignant, philosophical and silly. Going beyond just an examination of the home, it’s an exploration of humanity.

Archived article by Ed Howard