04 August 2007
uber-indie: 42 Story House
starring: Todd W. Langen and various things in his house
cinematography by: Todd W. Langen
written and directed by: Todd W. Langen
90 min/Los Angeles, CA
A few weeks ago I was downtown for a production of James Thurber's A Thurber Carnival. The opening number, if you haven't seen it, is a sort of dance number filled with puns and witticisms and other such observations, which is all well and good, but if you're like me, your tolerance for puns is only so high. You concur with Samuel Johnson, who famously called puns "the lowest form of humour." After seven or eight, I was ready to bolt (but couldn't, for I knew too many people in the cast). Of course, it's all a matter of taste. Some people love puns. I tend to hate them. I don't find them funny at all. Keep that in mind as you read the review for Todd W. Langen's 42 Story House, which is best described as, you guessed it, 42 cinematic puns and witticisms and whatnot.
But first, let's back up a little. Langen is, by trade, a professional screenwriter. He has an Emmy nomination for his work on the first two seasons of The Wonder Years. He wrote Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), which just happens to be one of my first memories of seeing a film in a theatre, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (1991), which despite what anyone says is awesome simply because it gave the world Vanilla Ice's "Ninja Rap" (also co-written by Langen). Throw in a couple of years of traveling and some un-produced spec scripts and Langen, as he puts it, "...decided to take a year, buy a (not great but decent) camera, learn a (surprisingly powerful) consumer editing program, and see what I could put together." He gave himself two rules: only one location and everything done by one person. So, complicated dolly shots with a large cast were out. Instead, we get lots of cameras on tripods and a surprising amount of acting performances from common household objects like balloons, chairs, eggs, and a lawnmower.
The simple fact that 42 Story House doesn't collapse under its own weight is reason enough to commend Langen. Few would have the patience, imagination, and determination to do what he did. After the first ten, I was pretty sure he wouldn't be able to sustain his pace all the way to 42, but he did and along the way managed to pull off some nifty camera work and special effects, especially considering the size of the crew. Kudos.
As a rule, I never read any of the promotional materials or other such additional information before viewing a film, preferring to come at each one as fresh as possible, letting it live or die on merit alone. So while I greatly admire Langen for his accomplishment, I flat-out hated the film. Part of that is my previously stated distaste for that form of humor, but beyond that it felt repetitive and therefore quickly became dull. There's only so much of one guy in his house you can watch before you start wondering if maybe he has too much time on his hands, if perhaps he should get out more. To me, it felt like a bunch of half-assed ideas strung together by a writer desperate for a reason to procrastinate. And on some level the film seems to sympathize with me. Beyond even a cursory self-deprecating sense of humor, the film takes great pains to point out that the jokes are juvenile, the actor not interesting, etc. The answering machine is harsher on the film than I expect most audience members will ever be. Whether that's self-awareness or a defense mechanism I leave up to your speculation.
Also, I'm not sure why there are 42 stories (Mere chance? A nod to Douglas Adams?), but I'd be willing to bet it'd be a stronger overall film if Langen opted for fewer stories and fleshed them out beyond the easy jokes many of them settled for. A little more depth, a little more nuance, perhaps something of a story arc. Because while some people will find themselves laughing over and over at each little vignette, there's an equal number of people like me who will grow tired of them quickly. As it stands now, much of 42 Story House feels like random YouTube videos, and how many of them can you really watch before you start looking for live performances of your favorite songs?
Again, some of that is a matter of taste, but I believe that same matter of taste that prevents me from enjoying 42 Story House is going to be a hurdle for others as well, so I can't recommend it purely as a film worth seeing, but the process behind the film makes it well worth your attention. Such is the duality of the uber-indie project.
You can check out 42 Story House at the Official Webpage, where there's all sorts of stuff for you to explore and a DVD to buy. You can also visit check out Todd W. Langen on IMDB. You can watch the trailer here.
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