In an anonymous Chicago suburb we meet Ben Skora, an amateur inventor and sometime spiritualist who lives amid a plethora of dated electric gizmos (revolving floors, automated easy chairs, retractable appliances) and who believes he'll continue speaking with planet Earth long after he's gone via the yellow robot he keeps in the garage. On a cozy houseboat in the sultry Louisiana bayou country we find Wild Bill Tregle, a philosophical Cajun who relishes his solitude and knows a lot more than most people want to know about alligators ("You gonna get bit"). Bob Walker and Frances Mooney have ceded their house (and their lives) to the 11 cats who rule their roost: The garrulous couple's $10,000 worth of cat-friendly home improvements have likely reduced the market value of the place, but a 25-pound tabby named Bernard obviously adores his surroundings. Psychologist (and former Japanese sitcom star) Linda Beech lives in a Hawaiian tree house where the microwave is powered by a nearby waterfall. Best of all, a pair of blissed-out New Agers, Ed and Diana Peden, live underground near Topeka in a converted Air Force missile silo that's encased in 18 inches of concrete. "This completely redefines the meaning of shelter," Ed informs us, preparatory to driving the old war spirits out of his living room by tooting a wooden flute.
Unless you're on a respirator, you'll find these folks fascinating and come to the inescapable conclusion that dwellings are not only necessity but autobiography. Contemplating the Cold War origins of his home and the nuclear apocalypse that might have started in his kitchen, Ed Peden shakes his ponytail, gives us the old 5,000-yard stare and declares: "The energy in this room was quite intense."
The energy in Smith's film can be equally intense, but his greatest gift is more laid-back: He transmits his affection for the quirks--no matter how delusional--of people who live in a state of dreamy purity and pay no attention to skeptics and scoffers. Witness his 1999 art-house and film-festival hit American Movie, an often hilarious but unfailingly generous documentary about a minimally talented young moviemaker who tries to launch his career as the next Steven Spielberg from the basement of his mother's little house in suburban Milwaukee. Like the Maysles brothers, camera-toting poets of the eccentric who in the 1960s revealed the worlds of itinerant Bible salesmen and fallen aristocrats living in happy squalor on Long Island, or the wonderfully observant Errol Morris, who finds equal fascination in lion tamers and deluded neofascists, Smith is a filmmaker with a sharp eye and an unbounded zest for life--all kinds of life. Like a good journalist, he is both patient and sympathetic to outsiders without falling prey to much foolishness. Give this guy 16 millimeters and he'd probably find a good story in bingo, leaf raking or car repair.
For the moment he's found a home in other people's homes and gotten them to speak freely--no mean feat. Before boiling up a mess of freshly caught blue crabs on his houseboat, Wild Bill Tregle contemplates one of his gator pals and muses: "Make a good belt, a good purse." Cat woman Frances Mooney lets us know that her first ambition was to be a Girl Scout, then a teen-ager, but now she's content just to stay home with her 11 "children." Isolated tree-dweller Linda Beech, who swims with dolphins and defines luxury as "abundant flowing water," reveals that her psychological specialties are grief and loss. Of that beguiling juxtaposition (and many others hidden away in these fascinating 60 minutes) one could fashion an epic.