There Is No Cat

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Monday, May 6, 2002

Home Movie

Laura and I went into the city yesterday to see Home Movie, the new documentary by Chris Smith, one of the people who made American Movie, which I've been raving about for the past two weeks. It's playing at exactly one theater in the world right now. Fortunately for us, that theater is within day trip range. Laura had seen an article in the Star-Ledger about the movie over the weekend and pointed it out to me, along with a suggestion that we go see it. I'm a useless jerk, so I hemmed and hawed, but being fortunate enough to have someone like Laura to prod me into doing things I really want to do but am too lazy to get out of bed to do, we went.

It was a wonderful movie.

A lot of critics thought that American Movie was condescending toward its subject, aspiring filmmaker Mark Borchardt. I didn't see that at all. I found the story of this guy from nowhere overcoming a lot of obstacles (admittedly, some of them self-inflicted) inspiring. The guy actually made something, something that didn't exist before, and that without his efforts, wouldn't exist now. And now nobody can take away from him the fact that he actually made something. I think that's one of my prime motivations in life, pride of authorship. That feeling of having actually made something is one of the best feelings you can have, and Mark Borchardt has it, and that's why I thought American Movie wasn't at all condescending.

Anyway, so Home Movie doesn't get the same rap as American Movie. The Star-Ledger review starts out, "Chris Smith loves eccentrics." I think that's true, and I think it says a lot behind what he and Sarah Price did with American Movie. The conceit behind Home Movie is pretty simple. Five houses, five sets of residents. The houses are all in some important way a reflection of the people who inhabit them, and help illuminate the stories these interesting people have to tell about how they live their lives. Structurally, the film was like a sedate version of Errol Morris' wonderful Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, which similarly jumped from storyline to storyline about a number of fascinating eccentrics. Morris did so in a manic fashion, though; Smith's movie is much more relaxed about it. The part of the movie that took place in Louisiana reminded Laura of the section of Sherman's March that took place on an island off of Georgia where Ross McElwee lived for a few months with a grad student who was studying the local flora and fauna in primitive conditions.

Home Movie is not a particularly deep movie. It doesn't really delve into the motivations of why these people live in such odd surroundings. That may be because of the way the film was made. Smith was commissioned by a dot-com company, homestore.com, who run the official site of REALTORS, to make a film about homes and their owners, and he would also use the same footage to make a number of commercials for the company. The credits at the end show that homestore.com does in fact own the copyright on the film, but according to Smith, the commercials only aired a couple of times, and only in one city, Austin, Texas. Smith only spent two days with each family, so he perhaps didn't get to build the same kind of rapport with the subjects of the film that he did with Mark Borchardt and Mike Schank over two years of filming. But the portraits he comes up with are still charming and enjoyable.

I wondered if homestore.com had anything about the film on their site. They didn't. I guess they've been preoccupied, because their press release section tells a typical dot-com tragedy of inappropriate accounting procedures being used to prop up the stock, restatement of earnings for years where the accounting was flawed, the near-delisting from NASDAQ, and the firing of the entire management team and their replacement with friends of the venture capitalists. It seems the film was green-lighted before the implosion, and the company kind of forgot that it owns it or something. Or maybe they just don't want to point it out, since in a way it's a symbol of the profligacy of that era. But hey, commissioning a talented filmmaker to make a documentary seems to be to be one of the best profligate uses of the dot-com billions that I've heard of. That's one excess I'd like to see duplicated.

Posted at 11:47 AM

Comments

Note: I’m tired of clearing the spam from my comments, so comments are no longer accepted.

Thanks for writing about this -- I didn't know the movie existed, though I'm very fond of American Movie.

Posted by Anita Rowland at 11:10 AM, May 9, 2002 [Link]

Yeah, I had heard he was working on it, but I didn't realize it was finished and released until Laura pointed out the article in the newspaper to me. American Movie was wonderful; Home Movie was wonderful too, in a different way.

Posted by ralph at 8:59 PM, May 9, 2002 [Link]

I'm so glad you enjoyed the movie. I'm one of the executive producers on the film. I worked at TBWA/Chiat/Day, the ad agency for homestore.com, and it was our idea to do the film so we could cut commercials out of the film. Fortunately, the film turned out great, due in large part to the efforts of my friend Chris Smith. The commercials actually turned out great too and were recognized at the Cannes Film Festival for advertising. Unfortunately, the unscrupulous people at homestore.com never intended to keep their company or their brand afloat and consequently nobody saw the work. But hey, it was a painful, yet highly rewarding experience.

Posted by Rich Siegel at 7:45 PM, June 1, 2002 [Link]

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What do you mean there is no cat?

"You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat."

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