Thursday, January 18, 2007

Unusual Homes.

I've always been fascinated by the idea of living in an exceptional environment. Whether it be in a harsh desolate place, or in a crowded and compact area, I enjoy seeing how people have adapted their lifestyles to their surroundings. It simply follows that when I get the opportunity to digest a print or video representation of unusual living arrangements, I get pretty excited.

Such was the case when I found out that Chris Smith (director of the hilarious American Movie (1999)) had followed up his success with a documentary called Home Movie (2001). It's subject matter was originally intended solely to be made into a series of commercials for, but Smith seized the chance to shoot extra footage to expand into a feature. The film focuses on five unique homespaces inhabited by idiosyncratic characters who are odd enough to be reflections of their homes, or vice versa. One couple has transformed their suburban tract home into a paradise for their cats. A sci-fi obsessed engineer-type has created a Jetsons-like residence, with multiple moving parts. Another couple has domesticized an abandoned missile silo in the midwest. An alligator hunter lives on a house-raft in the swamps of New Orleans. And finally, an old lady has retired to her treehouse in the wilds of Hawaii.

Home Movie is particularly fascinating for its concentration on the personalities of its subjects. These houses are projections (mostly conscious) of their owners' philosophies, personalities, and deepest needs. They, in each case, seem almost perfectly suited to the individuals who live within them. There is very little evidence of compromise with society's conventions, or its depiction of what homes are "supposed" to look like. My only real beef with this DVD is that it runs short at a mere 66 minutes.

So I was quite pleased to learn that there was a book that examined several iconoclasts who absolutely refused to move from the harsh environments where they happen to live. Jake Halpern was a novice reporter at the New Republic when he learned about a couple living in Centralia, PA. This town was situated atop a mine that caught fire in 1961. Gradually conditions worsened until almost all of its inhabitants had left. Halpern interviewed the recalcitrant couple, and was further inspired to search out similar folks who were drawn to live among extremes. After awhile his hobby developed into a book entitled "Braving Home" (2003). Halpern believed that by visiting these people and living with them for a short time, that he could get a new understanding of the concept of "home". Why would a man continue to live in a Hawaiian tract development that was surrounded by lava flows from an active volcano? What is there to say about an elderly gentleman clinging to the idea of finishing out his life in a flooded-out town (the first incorporated black municipality in the nation), protected by an insufficient dike?

Particularly fascinating to me is the town of Whittier, Alaska. Originally conceived and operated as a military base protecting a strategic seaport- the entire place consists of a 14-story high-rise surrounded by a few outbuildings. Its couple hundred inhabitants are largely self-sufficent. Whittier has a video store, post office, tanning bed, church, B & B, and police station- all located within the large building. There's a restaurant, bar, and school as well. It is only accessible through the port, or via a 2 1/2 mil- long railroad tunnel cut through a mountain. For months at a time, harsh weather makes Whittier virtually unreachable. It receives no direct sunlight for an entire season. And 60 mph winds consistently whip through the valley where the "town" is situated. Not surprisingly many of Whittier's long-term residents found their way to the town as an escape from something else. This fact, along with the stifling close proximity, places privacy at a premium. Few extend their stay past three full winters.

Halpern and Smith have created documents that display the essential influence of setting. If "sense of place" is important, then these two works are essential primers. No doubt our living arrangements are more prosaic, but I believe that an examination of these quirky folks can lend insight to our understanding of the places we choose to reside.


Blogger Dagrims said...

I could use a few weeks in Whittier.

Your post reminded me of that home in or around Emmaus on the side of a hill that was built in the shape of an ark. Did you ever get the tour through the house and the grounds? It was fascinating.

9:06 PM  

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