Every once in a while a film comes along that connects with us for absolutely no reason that we can tell. Maybe we had a bad day or spent too long reminiscing with old photographs and our emotions are dangerously close to the surface. Maybe we miss someone or lost contact with someone dear and can’t think of how to make contact again. Perhaps there is something to be said for sentimentalism, for the pluck of heart-strings that give us pause, however uncomfortably.
Life As A House was a quiet film when it was release in 2001 and left theaters much as it had entered. It did not make a profit or win notable awards of much merit. You won’t find it on niche lists for best or most memorable; yet there is substance to this story that reaches out to you, a gentle wrapper for her characters, a cocoon that allows us a glimpse in at something beautiful, tragic and fleeting. The premise is familiar enough; a good person struggling to do the right things is struck down by illness, fights the good fight but ultimately, silently succumbs. Those left behind are spurred to action and with no amount of certainty, persevere, better for having had a chance at something immeasurable than going on the way they were.
Sanford Meisner said of acting, “it is the ability to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances” and to that end, Life As A House is keenly aware. There are a great many films that come to mind that adhere to this principle, exploring what moves us and what is familiar. William Hurt as the egotistical surgeon who is forced by an illness to face his demons and is forever changed by the encounter (The Doctor, 1991). Philip Seymour Hoffman as Wilson Joel, a strikingly sparse, emotionally torn character study of a man facing the aftermath of his wife’s suicide and the note she left behind (Love Liza, 2002). Michael Keaton as Bob Jones, a business man with everything to live for, including a troubled childhood, who discovers he’s dying and sets out to put his life in order (My Life, 1993). There are countless others. We return to these tragedies, in the tradition of Aristotle, because they serve the purpose of purging the soul of the “fear and pity” which most of us carry around (Aristotle called this Catharsis). Good movies intent to reflect life, to capture it up like the glimmer of sun upon the surface of the ocean, and guide it toward us with reasonable facsimile to our own trials and tribulations, triumphs and failures. It is in this way that we appreciate that which is so readily taken for granted; namely the lovely and the sublime.
As difficult as it is for mainstream audiences to come to terms with the idea, dying has every bit as much to do with living as anything does. Children become adults and adults grow older, gather wisdom with every season, age, wither and die. There is no chance at a different ending in this lifetime, none other than what we are allotted. Perhaps the thought of dying is less frightening if we pretend it were but a gentle, restful respite from living.
At the end of Life As A House there is finality but as in all things, life begins there. It might be easier to dismiss yet another sad story and how the weight of emotion stifles, like air returning to a room that has been closed off to the world. But the message isn’t the only matter of importance here. What matters is what we bring and take away from the film, how we are affected or not affected is what elevates ordinary movies. In the end, George Monroe (Kevin Kline) slips away, a tiny seedling planted in fertile soil, left to blossom as feelings sometimes do. There is a quiet intensity to his passing, to this story; a sadness that will not sit well with everyone. Still, these are the kinds of stories that we all know a little too well and are reluctant to share until they surface from time to time in cinema, and give back what we’ve known all along.