Avant-Garde Visual Artist Defies 'Gravity' Onscreen in Darkly Comic Debut Feature

Photo: Brent Green's debut feature-length film,
Brent Green/Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York/Courtesy
Brent Green's debut feature-length film, "Gravity Was Everywhere Back Then," explores Leonard Wood's eccentric dream house for his wife, Mary.

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Tim Burton wasn't the first guy to discover the appeal of constructing fantastic sets. In the 1970s, an eccentric named Leonard Wood responded to his wife Mary's illness by building a bizarre house. As envisioned by the avant-garde artist Brent Green, in his first feature-length film, "Gravity Was Everywhere Back Then," the house is something straight out of a Burton film. Sharp angles, rooms that don't make sense and painted windows abound. It's the perfect abode for a German Expressionism enthusiast, or for a wife like Mary who casually asks Wood: "Do you want to go to a funeral?"

For this film, Green rebuilt Wood's house on his own property, in a rural part of Pennsylvania. (Wood's original structure has long since been demolished.) He even cast a pair of actors to play Leonard and Mary. But this is no Hollywood feature; this is an artist's meditation in filmic form. Green leaves his mark from the start. Speaking in an excited, quivering voiceover, Green reveals his passion for Leonard's story. Why, he asks, did Leonard have to build a 23-foot-high tower for a laundry room?

The house wasn't built for practical purposes at least in the traditional sense. The construction may have simply given Wood something to fill the time, but Green speculates that Leonard had higher aims: Perhaps he was trying to form a connection to God by building that tower to the sky. Green also connects with Wood's rebuke of practicality for the sake of artistic expression. Leonard spent so much time and money on his house that by the time he died, he had only 17 cents in the bank. Green, too, claims that he nearly went broke in making his film.

Fortunately for viewers, Green persevered, and the resulting feature is nothing less than astounding. "Gravity Was Everywhere Back Then" impressively melds a witty, tongue-in-cheek tone with the rigor and precision of a structuralist film. Green undercranks his shots, creating a unique, stuttering aesthetic that makes the actors move and speak like puppets. This humorous technique also highlights the fact that the movie is a reconstruction of past events. There is one particularly amusing sequence, in which Leonard and Mary first meet each other, during a car crash relayed in stop motion. Leonard's car collides with Mary, and he flies through Mary's window and lands in the seat next to her, intact. Never mind the dead body in one of the cars; this is love at first sight.

Despite the humor, there is a dark undercurrent that runs throughout the film that becomes increasingly prominent by the conclusion. In the end, Leonard's fantastic house didn't prevent Mary from dying, and it didn't bring her back to life. The project probably caused Wood's demise, when one day, he fell from the roof and landed himself in a nursing home. Green appears to be disenchanted with these limitations of artistic power. "If there is a God, he is indifferent to us," Green nearly screams during a fit of nihilistic rage.

This kind of fervid ranting distracts from the tragedy of Wood's project. Simply by looking at the reconstructed house, we get a sense of the madness that once pulsed through Wood's veins. Green's angry voiceover smacks of a filmmaker pushing too hard, and it's a rare false note in an otherwise extremely moving film. "Gravity Was Everywhere Back Then" is really about artistic despair, and it leaves the filmmaker, like his subject, shaken up. Sometimes, maintaining a bit of distance is the best medicine for the troubled artist.

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