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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Silent House

SILENT HOUSE (Also Blu-ray) (Two Discs) (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Chris Kentis & Laura Lau, 2011 (Universal) 

Thrillers thrill us because they make us believe them — even if we probably shouldn’t. I didn’t really believe most of Silent House, even though there were reasons I wanted to.

It’s a contemporary variation on the “Old Dark House” lady-in-distress thriller, based on the Uruguayan suspense film La Casa Muda (by Gustavo Hernandez) and it stars the pretty and convincing Elizabeth Olsen of Martha Marcy May Marlene, as Sarah, a sensitive and troubled young lady whose somewhat obnoxious father John (Adam Trese) and somewhat enigmatic Uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens) have joined her at the family’s summer home, to clean it up and prepare it for sale. Also briefly present is a fox-eyed young woman Sophia (played by Julia Taylor Ross) who claims to be one of Sarah’s best friends, though Sarah can’t remember her.

It’s an old dark house all right, even though the movie starts out in the light of day. The doors are locked and the windows boarded up, and the electricity is off — which means, I would think, that they should put off cleaning to another day, or at least find more battery-powered lighting, But like many another hapless citizen of horror-land, these people just keep plunging into darkness and more darkness, and finally chaos and mayhem take over. The men appear and disappear, Sarah keeps screaming and hiding under furniture, and we’re pretty sure Sophia will show up somewhere, along with the mysterious young girl and older man who are also lurking on the premises.

It’s not in the least plausible, though it has some surprises — implausible surprises. And some flashy technique. Silent House has been publicized in some quarters as having been made in a single continuous shot, which made it seem much more interesting to me — though it isn’t true. According to co-director/writer Laura Lau, as quoted by Film Noir Blonde, the movie was shot on a Canon 5 D camera in 13 separate shots, and edited together to create the illusion of a single shot. It’s a pretty good illusion, although some of the cuts — the ones that take place, for instance, just after we’re suddenly plunged into darkness — seem pretty obvious. (Lau’s co-director, as he was in the deep sea shocker Open Water, is Chris Kentis, and the busy cinematographer is Igor Martinovic of Man on Wire.)

Now I’m actually a sucker for cinematic long takes and extended camera shots, especially in the hands of a genius like Orson Welles (the opening bomb ticking bomb traveling shot in Touch of Evil, or the Amberson’s last ball in The Magnificent Ambersons) or Max Ophuls (the opening of Le Plaisir, Anton Walbrook’s tracking shot monologue in La Ronde) or Alfred Hitchcock (all of Rope, which also has an illusory “one-shot”).

Or the great Alexander Sokurov, who actually did shoot one of his films in only one take: the formidable single tracking shot moving inexorably along with our chatty guide, though the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, past walls full of paintings, halls full of statuary, up and down staircases and finally through a glittering grand concert and ball, with throngs of people maving toward the exits and the movie‘s end — a shot executed by the steadicam genius Tilman Butner in Sokurov’s masterpiece Russian Ark.

The thirteen shots that make up the illusory one-take of Silent House, on the other hand, are much less of a tour de force. But they are an achievement, of sorts, and they do have their own hypnotics power. Shooting a scene in one take — whether it‘s the Ambersons ball  or the party scenes with the young killers Farley Granger and John Dall in Rope, or Robert Altman’s puckish opening one-take confabs in The Player — creates an almost physical tension.  How long can the movie keep those balls of emotion in the air, without dropping, or cutting? There’s tension in Silent House and it comes partly from the fact that we’re trspped in those shots, just as Sarah is trapped in the house.

On the other hand, why is she trapped? There’s an exlanation for Sarah’s bizarre predicament, but it doesn’t really kick in until the end, and even then it doesn’t really make much sense. Long unbroken shots in a film can have their own special beauty, but they suffer if the content of the shot, as here, is questionable or just plain uninteresting, If Silent House were actually a one-shot movie, I think I would have been impressed enough by the technical feat to grant it a little foolishness. But it kept me in the dark too long, and those thirteen shots didn’t add up to one great one.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon