The worst trouble a man can be in is to have one hope left, and that a hope of something so inherently improbable that he knows deep in his heart it won’t happen. –A. J. Liebling, “People in Trouble”
I’ve referred to that great Liebling essay before, in a review of the Maysles’ heartbreaking documentary, Salesman. In “People in Trouble”, Liebling asked us to look upon those poor souls who have given themselves over to some talent, something they know is beautiful, is bigger than they are, yet small and getting smaller in this world of machines and money. Case in point: the Builder.
There are two stories to R. Alverson’s wonderful film, The Builder. The first is the subject of this review–the story of the titular Builder, a man who is at a crossroads, hoping to make something literally and figuratively larger than himself, specifically a house.
The second is the story of The Builder, the movie, now playing in bars and taverns around the country. The men and women behind this production are struggling, just as their character did in the film, to make something wonderful despite the yawning indifference of the world.
Colm O’Leary plays the Builder, a man without a name, defined by the profession that has abandoned him. This abandonment has already occurred, for as the film opens we see a man attempting to leave the penumbra of despondency. The Builder sits in a tub, pondering, and we know that an idea is tumbling about in his head. He emerges from the water, steps to the mirror, and begins to cut his hair, even sharpening his scissors first. It is time for a new beginning.
Working around a kitchen crammed with dirty dishes, he makes himself a breakfast, and I’d bet a genuine silver dollar it’s the first decent breakfast he’s had in some time. Not that he’s starving or deprived, but here is a man who can make a beautiful boiled egg and a perfect cup of coffee but hasn’t had the energy or the self worth to accomplish even those small feats.
The Builder has a plan: he is going to buy a piece of property in upstate New York that he’s had his eye on, and build on that land an old-style American Cape house. Right away we know that this is a fool’s errand, and that building this house will not test his abilities, but far exceed them.
The Builder is not a man of great resource. We sense that he’s talented, and good with his hands. But it takes cash to finance a house, or credit, and we know he does not have the former and a certain he cannot rely on the latter. From his mother he borrows money. From his friends and lover he borrows confidence, talking to them in rather vague generalities about this project, hoping they won’t ask too many tough questions, but cheer him on. Both break our heart, for we know, as Liebling says, that this is an improbable hope.
For the Builder has been left behind in this modern world, and he doesn’t possess the skills to adapt. “People don’t even know if my work’s good or bad,” he complains to his nephew, as they whack golf balls in what looks like an abandoned lot. This is a man lost to time, lost to himself.
When the Builder gets his property, we begin to see, slowly, that this dream of his is already coming to an end. Holed up in a little trailer left on the lot, he fiddles around the land, moving stone, staring at the sky, even learning to play banjo, instead of working on the house. And who among us has not obsessed over a small hobby in the interest of hiding our larger failures? The summer comes, the summer goes, all the while he’s telling his girlfriend and his nephew that he’s working every day, that the house is almost finished.
In fact, when he finally does buy wood and begins work (and finally we see some confidence, see this man at ease with his tools and material), it is early winter, and soon it will be too cold to do the necessary work, the digging, the raising. Finally, the few raw materials he’s finally purchased are hidden in a blue tarp like a soldier in a body bag, and left to the snow.
Soon, he’s left his frozen property to hole up in the home of a friend and his wife. Of course, being good friends, they’re curious about his work. Nodding quietly over his dinner, the Builder mumbles, “Yeah, she stands.” When ask to see photos, he shrugs–of course he hasn’t any. After dinner, our hero gets drunk, no doubt ashamed at his lies, and argues a minor point to death, trying desperately to impress someone with just one thing. He can’t show his imaginary house off, but he can be right about a nothing he read in the papers, in this case the guy who threw his shoe at George W. Bush.
Thankfully, the Builder slowly crawls out of his hole and finds a sort of rusty grace. Broke, living with those friends (and almost having an affair with the woman of the house), he eventually finds work as a dishwasher, and the film has come full circle from the opening scenes of dirty plates overflowing the sink. Again, we see our man in the tub, cleansing his body and his soul. Life is simple: he repairs a bicycle, begins to talk to the young men who work at the greasy spoon, and the scenes of him riding that bike, the sun shining on this beaten man, the subtlest smile on his face as the wind toys with his jacket, is truly as thrilling as anything you might have seen in any summer blockbuster. It filled me with a great happiness after so much quiet despair.
The Builder is the story of anyone who has chased a dream. Without these dreams, life is meaningless. Though perhaps we haven’t been in the Builder’s situation in the very literal sense, many of us have faced similar crises. This is the sad story of the artist, the salesman, the craftsman–the person unwilling or unable to conform to those corporate jobs, who has to strike out on his or her own, often meeting only failure.
Alverson and O’Leary (together they wrote the script) are obsessed with the quotidian details of this man’s life, and the slow observation of the Builder’s life reveal his story. Making coffee, boiling an egg, conversations over dinner, making a fire, peeling a label from a beer–these speak volumes about the Builder’s life. Careful attention must be paid to this life, just as it must to any life.
In some sense, I see myself, the struggling writer, and my father, who struggled to make his magic work for him in this character. I recall finding a copy of some crappy book on How to Sell Yourself! among Dad’s beautiful magic books and pamphlets. It was as if someone tossed a bag of McDonald’s fries in among a basket of freshly picked apples. My Dad, like the Builder, was no businessman. He had a skill, an incredible skill, and yet it took more than that, it took some acumen that he simply didn’t have. He honed that magic to an art, and he was brilliant, but he never made a living from that brilliance. He simply couldn’t.
For most of us, that is a path of relative or outright failure, and as we grow older and see the dream tarnish, rust, and collapse, that dismal moment sets in as we stare in the mirror and realize “I’m too old to do anything new.” For my Dad, he fell back on a great career as a teacher. For me, I fall back on a loving wife who supports this silly habit of mine. The Builder has only that Zen-like ability to find meaning in a bike ride, a clean dish, a cup of coffee. That’s the story of the Builder–the challenge to find peace in what we can do… perhaps the most difficult task of all.
One hopes that The Builder, the film, is not the American Cape House in the life of filmmakers R. Alverson and Colm O’Leary. According to a story in The New York Times, they’ve taken to screening the movie in bars around the U.S., in the hopes of finding a wider audience. The independent record label Jagjaguwar is distributing The Builder on DVD, and helping to get it shown in those bars. “It’s just great to see people with drinks and candles,” R. Alverson is quoted as saying. “It’s so much more personal than seeing it in a theater.”
I love this, even though I honestly can’t imagine a worse way of seeing The Builder. Having seen movies in bars, my experience tells me that a film as quiet and subtle as this would not benefit from the constant stream of people ordering drinks, coming into the bar for other reasons–like to drink and socialize. The distraction, in my mind, actually makes it seem less personal.
But I digress–we must applaud these two, must give them our attention. Alverson and O’Leary, have made, in my mind, the best movie of the year so far. A subtle, quiet movie. They are following a dream, following their talents. They are trying to tell a story that needs to be told. And we must hope that with The Builder, both men find success–and I don’t just mean money, though that will help. Attention, really, is what I’m talking about. Perhaps they’ve got it–already their next film, New Jerusalem, is garnering interest and that is good news.
For we hope that The Builder is not mere metaphor, and that the work of good men does not go unnoticed.