Not even her undying love for David Duchovny makes his directorial outing House of D any less of a bland, sappy, disappointing experience for re-viewer Stevi Costa.
My love of David Duchovny is deep and eternal. It’s so deep and so eternal that I rewatched the 2005 film that he wrote and directed, House of D.
House of D is not good, you guys. But I watched it once. Now I’ve watched it twice.
House of D isn’t exactly bad, either. It’s a film that deserves a solid C grade. It’s the cinematic equivalent of reading an essay that is neither particularly thoughtful, not egregiously unthoughtful. It’s capably written and directed, but nothing about the narrative of the filmmaking is particularly remarkable. It just sort of is. And that actually makes me hate it a little bit. I watch a lot of movies and see a lot of theatre, and I think that truly the worst experiences I have as an audience member are when I walk out of a performance/film and say, “Meh. That was okay.” I neither want to spend my time or money on things that are just okay. That’s not the point of making art, and it’s not the point of experiencing it. House of D is, in no way, an experience, and that’s why I can’t abide its utter blandness as a piece of cinema.
Its blandness is also disappointing given it’s essentially a Duchovny-as-Auteur project. It’s disappointing, but not unsurprising. Given that Duchovny’s career was made playing a deadpan dreamboat conspiracy theorist on The X-Files, the blandness of House of D makes sense. Viewers familiar with Duchovny’s acting career know that range isn’t why you hire David Dawhowhatwhat. (Let’s all take a moment to think about the scene where he ugly cries in Return to Me. He cries real ugly, friends. It’s not good.) But part of my infatuation with Duchovny is that I know he’s an intelligent person and, moreover, a good writer. Back when I was a rabid X-Files fan, I was a member of a number of X-Files fan sites, specifically many David Duchovny fan sites. Through these fan sites, Duchovny’s prior life as a Yale graduate student in English was known to me. Some of us even had copies of poems he published in undergrad journals at Princeton, and in grad creative writing journals at Yale. Duchovny gave up grad school to become an actor. And had I only given up grad school to become an actor, too, I might have gotten to bang him on Californication. But we all make choices. I’m still in grad school. And David Duchovny, despite being a person who is actually quite a good writer, and quite a keen literary scholar, made fucking House of D.
And so, as a grad student in literature, I am offended by its narrative because it’s so utterly conventional, and I expect way more from an artist who has a similar background and set of interests to mine. I expect House of D to live up to Duchovny’s Ivy League pedigree, and it doesn’t.*
House of D is about Tom Warshaw, an American artist living in Paris. The film opens with Duchovny, who plays adult Tom, uttering those exact words in voiceover, which are also the exact words used in the Amazon description of the film. Tom bikes through the streets of Paris at night and tell us that he is going to tell his wife and son a story for his son’s 13th birthday. There’s some convoluted metaphor about picking locks and hearing the tumblers or something that Tom connects to his own adolescence. He arrives home very late, is scolded by his French wife, and launches into the story.
Most of the film, then, is “the story,” which is set in flashback to New York City 1973. I put “the story” in quotes because the narrative yarn that Tom spins isn’t actually much of one. He’s 13, and is now played by Anton Yelchin, who is the one thing about this film that I can say is truly remarkable. Yelchin’s performance is charming and real, and the young actor does a really great job of bringing some Andy Kaufman-esque weirdness to his playful scenes, as well as an amount of weight to his dramatic scenes that I rarely see young actors achieve. Tommy’s situation is this: he isn’t well-to-do because his father died of cancer, and his mother is trying to make ends meet but is also addicted to sedatives. Tommy attends Catholic school on scholarship and apparently doesn’t have any friends, except for the school’s janitor, Pappas, a mentally challenged man played by Robin Williams. Tommy and Pappas also work as delivery humans for a butcher shop. Tommy wants to impress a young lady, so he steals a bike that he and Pappas were saving their meat delivery tips to buy. Pappas, however, takes the fall for the crime in an effort to protect his friend, and is then fired and threatened with institutionalization. Tommy fesses up, though, because he’s ultimately a good person and doesn’t want bad things to happen to Pappas. So he gets expelled from his Catholic school and then his mother overdoses on sedatives, leaving her in a persistent vegetative state. Clearly, thirteen year-old Tommy blames is upset by this, so he goes to try and blame the person whose advice he followed that lead him to this situation: an incarcerated black woman he knows only by the name of “Lady.” Somewhere in the narrative, Tommy rode his bike past a penitentiary and overheard a pimp and an inmate talking through a window, so he naturally, as a young white boy, got involved in this conversation, befriending the pair and telling them about the girl he wished to impress. Lady’s advice did not involve theft, but Tommy’s interpretation and execution of said advice lead him to his woeful circumstances. So Lady frightens him to make him run away, which to Tommy means: take your mother off life support and enlist Pappas to help you buy a one-way ticket to France and never return to New York City.
Upon hearing the story, Tom’s wife encourages him to go back to New York and find Lady and Pappas, because they helped him create his new life in France. So they do. The family of three goes to New York, finds an aged Pappas and seemingly incorporate him into the fabric of their family, and Tom reunites with Lady and thanks her, telling her he named his son Odell after her: Bernadette Odelle.
It’s all pretty banal and sappy, and ultimately uninteresting for long stretches of time. It’s a white man’s woe-is-me version of tragedy, in which the viewer is asked to care more that a middle class white boy is an orphan than the fact that a black woman is incarcerated or that a disabled person is routinely verbally abused during the film and threatened with institutionalization. Anton Yelchin is truly the only reason a viewer might care at all what happens to Tommy. I am not so heartless to deny the character empathy upon the loss of his mother, or that he might feel intense guilt and shame over his decision to take her off life support essentially so that he could run away. But the rest of the film is just so mired in the politics of neoliberal white masculinity that I can’t even.
How do viewers know Tommy is a good person, and thus we are able to empathize with his decision to take his mother off life support? He hangs out with a person with a disability, and his closest confidant is a black woman. Tommy’s coming of age is facilitated by his advisors, who on the surface provide the film with the only diversity in its very white narrative. However, this is problematic because both Lady and Pappas are used solely as narrative crutches for Tommy. They are not so much characters as props that help Tommy build his neoliberal selfhood. Look how good he is that he sees Pappas as a friend and treats him kindly, in spite of Pappas’s father’s own cruelty and the film’s repeated use of the word “retard” in other characters’ descriptions of Pappas. Look how good Tommy is to talk to an incarcerated black woman, and to listen to her when, clearly, the justice system won’t. His “goodness” is predicated on his interactions with these other characters, who do not have stories of their own. (Why is this narrative so boring for long periods of time? There are no subplots, and no perspectives from other characters. Tommy’s all we get, and his only quest is to get the girl.) So when Tommy chooses to take off his mother’s ventilator AND turn off the button on the machine AND unplug it from the wall, we understand that he’s making this decision because of his selflessness and care for others. He cares for Pappas and cares about Lady and cares about his mother, so his decision to end her life is read as kindness.
But, guys, I really don’t know what’s kind about removing the ventilator mask AND turning off the button on the machine AND unplugging the machine from the wall. The film wants us to believe this is compassion, and the subsequent shot of Anton Yelchin hiding under his mother’s hospital bed crying suggests that it is, but I think that finding three ways to take a person off life support reads a little more like murder. Really, Tommy is ending a life either way, but the repetition of the action reads to me more like he’s ensuring her death, rather than compassionately ending her suffering. It’s overkill, if you’ll pardon the pun, but again I think the repetition of ways to end her life is meant to show us Tommy’s good neoliberal selfhood somehow, though I am not convinced that it does.
I take issue, too, with Lady’s fulfillment of the “magical negro” trope, dispensing advice from her jail cell to help our young protagonist “get the girl.” That’s hackneyed storytelling at its finest, and problematic representation at its worst. Not only is Lady a black criminal, but we never see her full body. We only see lady framed by either the window of her jail cell, or reflected in the mirror she uses to look down to the street. Even in the film’s redemptive third act when we see Lady outside of her jail cell, it is still only through the frame of her window. When she isn’t incarcerated by the state, she’s locked inside her own home. While I can assume that what Duchovny was going for was a rhetorical symmetry here, that rhetorical move only serves to further reduce Lady from a person to a trope. Just as Tom’s choice to keep referring to her as “Lady” does even after he has learned that her name is Bernadette Odelle.
And then there’s Pappas, a character who continues to represent persons with intellectual disabilities as children. While I am glad to see that Pappas has a job as a janitor, which shows not only that he is an adult and capable but also a productive citizen (a status traditionally denied to those with intellectual disabilities), this is undercut by the fact that his best friend is literally a child. Pappas and Tommy spend all of their time making jokes about sex, which manages to further infantilize Pappas because the way in which they talk about sex is expectedly juvenile. While I appreciate the acknowledgement of Pappas’s sexuality, his knowledge is presented as on par with Tommy’s, and is also clearly used by the film as the butt of an ableist joke: Pappas talking about sex is funny because it is unexpected. Because no one expects the intellectually disabled to have sex because they are children, a perception the film reinforces.
I expected more from someone who ostensibly knows these things about narrative. I expected better storytelling from a person who studied storytelling at a prestigious institution, and I certainly expected less problematic representations of race and disability. But, really, why should I? Why should I expect that of a vanity project from a middle aged white dude who went to Princeton AND Yale? Duchovny’s own neoliberal white masculinity really seems to be the problem here, and it’s produced an utterly mediocre piece of art that justifies itself own merits through problematic representations of people who are not white dudes.*** Think for a moment about the title, House of D. The title ostensibly refers to the House of Detention, where Lady is incarcerated. But it also seems to refer to Duchovny’s vanity at making this fucking thing. This film is the House of Duchovny, for whatever that’s worth. And it’s apparently worth aligning his character’s suffering of an incarcerated black woman, which is a pretty outlandish false equivalence.
So that’s House of D. I’ve seen it twice, so you don’t have to bother even seeing it once. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll be over here reading some of Duchovny’s old poetry and wondering where the fuck he went wrong.
*Incidentally, David Duchovny is the voice of Pedigree dog food. I bring this up not simply to highlight both my own cleverness and fandom simultaneously, but also to think once again about Duchovny’s ugly crying in Return to Me, where his only solace is from the family dog, who comes to lick his hands as Duchovny slides down the doorframe and collapses near the dog bowl. Duchovny loves dogs. And I love dogs. I buy his ugly crying in Return to Me because his doggie scene partner totally buys it. That dog is a great actor.
**Did you know David Duchovny adopted his dog, Blue, from the litter birthed by the dog who appeared in The X-Files episode “Ice”? I’m pretty sure Blue is dead now, because she was born in 1993, but I’ve always liked this fact. I had a picture of David Duchovny and Blue in my bedroom as a teenager. Truly, my love is a sickness.
***Although Californication stars Duchovny as problematic white dude who constructs his neoliberal selfhood at the expense of women, I actually like watching that show. For however problematic Hank Moody may be, and it’s pretty problematic at times, he’s at least an interesting character who goes through peaks and valleys of seeming redemption and then utter fuck-ups. There’s some actual storytelling there, which makes the show not insufferable. And, really, it uses Duchovny’s smarmy charm to his advantage.