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Home Movie (NR)
Cowboy Pictures
Official Site
Director: Chris Smith
Producer: Barbara Laffey & Suzanne Preissler

Rating: out of 5

"He is happiest, be he king or peasant, who finds peace in his home," spoke Johann von Goethe. However, I doubt if von Goethe could have imagined the extent to which Chris Smith’s (American Movie) new documentary, Home Movie, would reveal the truth in this statement. Many times in my life, I have come across a person—a stranger—who glowed with such vivid individualism that I immediately wanted to know what they were really like—what they were like in their own element.

If the old adage about a home as the extension of one’s being is true—and after seeing this film, I am certain that it is—what better way to investigate interesting people than by examining their houses? That’s exactly what Smith does. A New Age Topeka family, an alligator keeper from the bayou, a Japanese TV star, a Chicago inventor, and two intriguing cat-lovers comprise the cast of this documentary. But their homes are the true stars, proving beyond a doubt that the trek you take through the space another occupies is often a trek into the center of that which defines them.

Bill Tregle runs a Louisiana alligator farm with his father. At first glance, your worst prejudices are realized. He is, as you might expect such a man to be, a muscle-bound and tattoo-laden brute from the bayou whose aggressiveness is only challenged by the ’gators he handles. But once inside his one-room floating lair, an unexpectedly reserved side of Tregle spills forth. With the help of Tregle’s powerful sentimentality for the objects within his house, his tough-guy skin slides off, and beneath it we find the real Tregle—a man of quiet internalization whose swamp life does not center on taming reptiles, but rather on the comfortable solitude he finds as he playfully challenges nature.

In Chicago lives a more urban eclectic. A man boiling over with ideas for inventions of every kind, Ben Skora wrestles with gadgets. With the press of a few buttons on his telephone, the living room in Skora’s all-electric house completely rotates. Perhaps because he wanted someone (or something) to share his high-tech home with, Skora even designed and built a fully functional, life-size robot named Arok that he can manipulate via remote control. And as if Skora’s technological eccentricities aren’t enough to digest, he also maintains an intriguing interest in the world of psychic phenomenon and the paranormal.

Smith’s well constructed and oddly entertaining documentary also takes you to the home of Ed Peden and his wife Diana. The interior of the couples’ home resembles an ordinary ranch house in Topeka, Kansas—commonplace in every way. But once on the outside, their extraordinary free-spiritedness becomes clear. Their home is built in the inter-woven concourses of a converted, underground missile complex. Now, the two hippies are free to host drum circles (which they do) anytime they want… even during a nuclear winter.

Bob Walker and Francis Mooney happily confess that they have devalued their California home by tens of thousands of dollars since they installed a system of raised, miniature footbridges and cut cubby-holes and passages through their walls. No, Bob and Francis are not trying to live in the fashion of cliff-dwelling Indians, but rather have outfitted their home with these additions in order to provide all that they can for their most prized possessions: their cats. And while they purr away in their feline fortress, Linda Beech, a Japanese TV icon from the ’60s, is comfortable in her mammoth tree house, completely isolated in the Hawaiian jungle. Giving up sit-com stardom to become a grief therapist, Beech loves the intangible fortitude she absorbs from her arboreal abode—which, by the way, runs solely off hydro-electricity from the nearby waterfalls. While every vantage from the home offers a riveting view of the forests, she does have one cheerful complaint: She can’t keep photographs because the jungle’s extreme moisture inevitably destroys them.

Not to worry Ms. Beech. Chris Smith has taken care of the photo problem for you. Indeed, Smith’s film succeeds in doing what many have argued is the lost purpose of the celluloid medium: capturing, in a single, transcendent frame, the essence of an object or of a person. While Smith’s beautifully unobtrusive yet energizing style of documentary deserves much praise, I must save some veneration for the subjects themselves. These characters are fabulous charmers—the kind of people you want to know increasingly more about, even at the expense of your grasp on normality. And their homes are overwhelming.

This film is wildly entertaining, hysterically quirky, instantly engaging, and in many ways, raises the bar for documentarians everywhere. Without exploiting the eccentricities of his subjects (a la MTV’s or HBO’s pseudo-documentaries), and without hubris, Smith powerfully makes his point. The home—like a good film—when it’s the pure extension of its creator, can chasten vice, guide virtue, conjure pleasure from solitude, and at once, lend grace to genius.

W. Duke Greenhill


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