The Evil of Banality
Stand-up comics learn their craft on-stage. Sure, they might grow up watching old episodes of Evening at the Improv or recreating bits from Steve Martin, Bill Hicks or Mitch Hedberg in their bedrooms, but it's not until they stand behind a microphone under a hot light in front of a handful of paying customers that their act truly takes shape. From experimenting with crowd work to tweaking rhythms to figuring out how certain jokes play to different audiences, the very nature of stand-up involves learning on the job--in public.
Does the same apply to filmmaking? I didn't used to think so. Once, the only way to shoot, screen, and distribute a movie was to have the backing of a major studio. Today, cameras are cheap, festivals all over the world invite young auteurs to show their stuff, and the Internet has made it possible to instantly share or sell any work of art to an infinite audience. The up-side is that moviemaking is no longer the purview of the gods. The downside is that every third person in America thinks they're a writer/director.
Which brings me to Paul's House. Adam Mient's seventy-minute psychological thriller shows a lot of promise, but is crippled by a lack of refinement--refinement one might find either in film school or in deep, independent movie scrutiny. I was alternately fascinated and pissed off while watching this, and couldn't help but wonder if Mient had screened his work-in-progress for people, or if he'd toiled in a vacuum and debuted his first draft as the final draft.
Vic Avis stars as Paul, a lumpy suburbanite who's gone off his meds. He skips work to fastidiously clean his house and engage in screaming matches with whoever it is that he has locked in a basement bedroom. The voice (Mient) taunts Paul, alternately pleading to be let out and warning him that the cops are only moments away from hauling his crazy ass to jail. Over the course of a couple days, we see Paul scrub his countertops, arrange magazines, and perfectly set out silverware in preparation for a TV-dinner dinner. Occasionally, he flashes back to stalking episodes involving his newly-exed girlfriend (Jessica Carrillo), but ninety-nine percent of Paul's House takes place inside Paul's house.
I love the idea of the movie. There's a great Edgar Allan Poe vibe to Paul's story, and Mient does an uncomfortably good job of depicting OCD. Avis brings a naturalism to the physical manifestation of Paul's obsessions that--combined with Mient's alternately quick and snail-slow editing--make for a viewing experience that's as frustrating as it is fascinating. It's a pure filmmaking expression of what's going on inside the main character's itchy mind.
Unfortunately, Paul's House is not a silent film. Every time the characters speak, the narrative coolness of the silent material is flushed down the toilet. It could be argued that because Paul is a Midwestern character that, yes, both his own voice and the voice he hears behind the door could, reasonably, have thick Midwestern accents. Intellectually, I get it. But as an audience member watching a movie, I wanted nothing more than to shut the sound off. Vic fares slightly better than Mient, mostly because of the good will established with his physicality (part of which, admittedly, is his uncanny resemblance to Re-Animator star Jeffrey Combs).
But the director should have hired an actual voice actor to pull off the scary presence behind the door. He's so bad that I had to tune the performance out and focus strictly on the words; as scripted, the dialogue is pretty good--but the delivery has the flat, working-class tone of a half-interested plumber running lines (Mient's poor inflection made it impossible for me to tell when the voice was sincerely crying for help and when it was mocking Paul).
The film's other major issue is its resolution (avoid spoilers by skipping to the last paragraph). Paul decides to confront the person in his basement and sets up an elaborate rig involving two chairs, a shotgun, stuffed animals and dental floss. On busting into the room, he sees a number of random items--including his girlfriend's cell phone--but no people. Of course, he backs into the tripwire he'd just made and is quickly blown away. The final shot of the movie shows a pair of legs standing beside his dead body.
It's a puzzling conclusion that suggests Mient either didn't know how to wrap up his story or that he didn't have the tools to express his ideas clearly. Leading up to this moment, the movie presents three contradictory possibilities:
1. Paul actually has someone locked in a room in his basement.
2. Paul has gone around the bend and holed himself up in his house.
3. Paul's house is haunted.
The last point refers back to the TV-dinner scene, where Paul comes back to the table from the microwave to find that someone has tampered with his perfectly arranged knife, fork, and spoon. This is the movie's one truly chilling moment, as it throws a curve-ball into a script that had been--up to then--firmly set to wind up in the predictable realms of possibilities one and two. Had this not been an isolated incident, it might have been easier to assume Paul was just imagining things--but the phantom silverware is the only instance of Paul's seeing things that might not be there.
Sadly, Mient implies that all three options are simultaneously true--a cruel joke that betrays the filmmaker/audience contract ("We promise to take your film seriously if you promise not to needlessly jerk us around").
Paul's House should have been a half-hour silent film. Mient could have said everything he needed to say in a short-form piece, as well as enhanced Avis' performance by only showing half of it. A near-perfect expression of what this film might have been can be seen in this fifty-seven-second trailer. The full feature only hints at that level of selectivity, and I'm sure that if Mient had workshopped the movie (or workshopped it more heavily), he would've had a minor masterpiece rather than a misfire.
Getting back to my original point, Paul's House is the kind of early, experimental film that David Letterman might dig up to embarrass Martin Scorsese. Not that Mient has anything to be embarrassed about. This film is an intermittently promising sketch that suggests its creator has better things within him that will manifest down the road. Unlike stand-up comedy and theatre, film is a static medium; unless you're George Lucas, endlessly toying with and re-releasing old material, chances are you will only get one shot to impress or disappoint an audience--so every project that's made available for public display counts, big-time. Mient needs more practice* and more outside opinions at each stage before creating something that deserves to be let out of the basement.
*Case in point: the opening and closing titles on Paul's House look like they were created in 1995. The dual arts of font-work and transitions are never more appreciated than when they're executed poorly. I couldn't focus on the establishing shots of the house because I was so distracted by the inconsistent typefaces, colors, and strokes, as well as the weird swipes and out-of-proportion text. And though it's on the way out, proper grammar is not dead yet--apostrophes are critical in letting people know you care.