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Janet Buck

Life as a House Hits Home

Writers such as Norris, Thoreau, Emerson, and Fitzgerald have been lauded for shaping the American Dream; many of our filmmakers have been accused of deforming it. There are exceptions, some recent. Life as a House, starring Kevin Kline and Kristin Scott Thomas, is one of those rare movies like American Beauty that shakes out the priorities in life and dumps them in your lap -- an automatic icemaker minus the cup to catch a sticky and chilling spray. Both movies narrate the closure of death in an effort to awaken the audience to the value of what remains. Both films drum up shocking and poignant questions regarding the meaning of the American Dream. While American Beauty is moderne noir with a bitter but comic edge, Life as a House is tender, inviting, heart tugging, and redemptive.

The release of the film, by coincidence perhaps, came within an arm's length of 9/11/2001. Perhaps it's no accident that Kline played a stand-in for the President of the United States in an earlier film called Dave, in which his character takes the political office back to the basics of human compassion and common decency. After watching Dave, I suppose I subconsciously expected Kline's character in Life as a House to leave us with more than bad debts when he died, even if he starts the film by pissing over a cliff into the sea.

In the opening scene, we see a decrepit shack overlooking a gorgeous view of the coastline, replete with screaming gulls and lapping waves. Lyrics on the soundtrack say: "Welcome today to everything gray." Cut to a teenage boy, decked out in full make-up and blue-streaked hair, trying to hang himself from a pole in the bedroom closet. The rod breaks and he lives to deliver his grudge. Downstairs, a child tries to hug his dad: "I got chocolate cake for your birthday," he says, hoping desperately for rising warmth from an iceberg. "Are your hands clean?" says the dismissive father, frowning at the white sleeve of his shirt, brushing the child away.

Cut to an office building where another father loses his job as an architect, one he's had for twenty grueling years. George (Kevin Kline) goes wild, destroying his models and toys, symbols of a misguided and dizzying world. He collapses in a heap on a model he's toting to the car and awakens to the knowledge that he will soon die from cancer.

In a blink, money and material trappings turn into sunglasses over a bruise -- one which George intends to heal before he passes. His first move toward absolution is to arrange a summer with his estranged son, Sam. Together they will scrap old angers and demolish a bitter past. To demonstrate his willingness to risk, George jumps over a cliff into the sea below. The rest of the film is a series of small, but significant steps of risk. While suburbia clings to the gray cement, the two men go looking for a rainbow and eventually build a home intended for a woman Kline's father crippled in a drunk-driving accident.

Some of the most arresting scenes in the film are also the tenderest. A callous husband leaving to examine his flaws and coming home determined to change. An ex-husband (George) and his ex-wife (Robin) -- dancing to a radio tune on the unfinished floor with the backdrop of a setting sun. The gray is coming to life, gathering color that was there all along. By the time the house is nearly built, George is on his deathbed in the hospital. His son Sam is hanging Christmas lights so his father can see from the window that he did indeed spark the light, find a socket of soul.

The American film industry has, for some, garnered a bad reputation for tattooing glamour, greed, and revenge on the backside of our continent. Hollywood is the hut of silicone breasts and acrylic nails -- excess to the nth degree. Is it refreshing to see that Americans seem to be wanting more when they look in the mirror, more than a McDonald's franchise and a nearby Wal-Mart? Listen to the movie. It could prevent another crack in the house.

Janet I. Buck, Ph.D., is a three-time Pushcart Nominee and the author of four collections of poetry. Her master's thesis, "Novel into Film: The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner," was published in its entirety in The Literature/Film Quarterly, and her essays and poetics have appeared in The Rose & Thorn, L'Intrigue, Cenotaph, Thunder Sandwich, Moxie Magazine, The Green Tricycle, Retrozine, and dozens of journals world-wide. Buck's interview with Maxine Kumin is forth-coming in the October 2002 issue of The Pedestal Magazine. For links to more of her work, see:

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