Falling Up

For all the wondrous devices Thomas Edison created, he wasn’t particularly good at predicting their uses. The kinetoscope, one of the world’s first motion picture viewers, was originally designed to provide pleasing images to go along with phonograph records. He never found a use for the Edison effect—the vacuum tube—though it would later prove essential to the development of electronics. Still, Edison barreled on, a one-man industrial revolution that overcame financial disaster, would-be patent infringers, and his own deteriorating sense of hearing. And it’s this Edison, the self-taught, trial-by-fire tinkerer who got it wrong more often than he got it right, that filmmaker Brent Green takes after in his first feature-length film, Gravity Was Everywhere Back Then.

Gravity, which is currently on tour with a live score performed by Califone, Brendan Canty of Fugazi, Green himself, and others, recounts the story of the real-life Leonard Wood, a hardware store clerk who lived outside of Louisville, Kentucky. When Leonard (Mike McGinley) learned that his wife Mary (Donna K) had cancer, he transformed his house into a “healing machine” in an attempt to save her life. Clearly, Green saw a bit of Edison in Leonard’s frenetic carpentry, and it’s not entirely surprising that Edison’s Black Maria film studio—a small, oddly-shaped building covered entirely in tar paper—looks something like the house Leonard built. In both cases, the structures’ slipshod appearances mask their far-fetched ingenuity. Edison mounted his studio atop a turntable so its retractable roof could capture the amount of sunlight needed to illuminate his sets; Leonard also built his house in order to receive something from the sky.

As Green explains in the film’s introduction, Leonard worked furiously on his house, but the miracle he hoped for never came. After Mary died, he continued building for fifteen years, until a fall off the roof landed him in a nursing home. Leonard had to sell the house to pay his bills. Before it was razed, though, Green was able to visit it and collect a few of Leonard’s abandoned belongings. Back on his land in Pennsylvania, Green reconstructed Leonard’s house from blueprints scribbled on cardboard, built a makeshift town around it  for good measure, and began crafting a film one stop-motion frame at a time. Like Leonard, he was “running down to zero to leave something wonderful behind”—only in this case it wasn’t a life he was trying to save, but a story.

Noah’s Ark is a recurring theme, and you can see why: Green also built a tall crescent moon made out of thin balsa wood, a delicately carved and functioning piano that has the words “Life is beautiful” painted across the front, and a 23-foot spire with exposed beams. He built like Leonard built, like the house was alive and growing, with each step of the narrow spiral stairs, numbered like animation cells, bringing him closer to something, even if he didn’t know what that would mean.

Stop-motion animation is particularly well-suited to the fantastic. By carefully controling every movement, either drawn or positioned, Green can depict angels sprouting from someone’s ear, or a gutter collecting an endless downpour of nails. He can move live actors around like puppets, their mouths opened and closed, and their bodies sometimes strung up on wires. In the spectacular car crash where Mary and Leonard meet, for instance, Leonard flies through the windshield of Mary’s car and lands in the passenger seat unscathed. Physics, in Green’s hands, is flexible. Yet while he brazenly defies gravity, we’re more often reminded of its weight. Here, animation leans against mortal laws even it can’t break.

Green, like Leonard, keeps pushing against them anyway. Mary dies, but she resurrects on stilts. We see her standing next to the roof, her elongated nightgown hanging over spindly, 20-foot wooden legs. Even after she’s gone, Leonard dedicates himself to the task of building all the more zealously, stretching the house taller, wider, and weirder, with new rooms stuffed inside and each distended window painted a different color.

Green takes the outline of Leonard and Mary’s story and, without losing its heavy, anguished heart, animates it with unexpected life. With a knotty, hand-wrought aesthetic that complements his warbly narration, he creates a kind of rural baroque. Household objects—a stove, a chair, a handful of bird eggs—loom both ordinary and otherworldly. Their entire world choreographed to an erratic flicker, Leonard and Mary move at the same tempo as the rain falling in their kitchen or the painted sounds emanating from the phonograph-horns attached to the piano. Though Green’s labor is evident, to be sure, the film’s imagery feels remarkably unfettered. In one of Gravity’s saddest, strangest scenes, Leonard fits a halo of light bulbs around his dead wife’s head, bathing her in a reverent, incandescent glow. Here invention becomes its own form of the miraculous simply because it hazards, with blistered palms and bleary eyes, to imagine it.

Though the film is ostensibly about Leonard and Mary, its gravitational pull comes from Green. As much as he aims to structure their story, his narration keeps unraveling it—at times plaintive, at times angry, and always charged with a feverish urgency. For him, Leonard’s spiritual dilemma remains insoluble, and at every turn he rails against his earnest appeals to a God who doesn’t exist enough to hear. Green seems to want to protect Leonard from his faith in false expectations, to burst the bubble, but he knows it’s that faith, and the house it made, that brought him to Leonard in the first place.

Did Leonard really believe that the healing machine could save his wife? In the film, matters of faith are beside the point. Instead, Gravity gives us devotion, that which one does with one’s hands and one’s heart. “You have to build your own world,” Green’s narration concludes. While it might have been easy to dismiss Leonard’s actions as eccentric, melancholic, or spiritually misguided, he surveys the remains of their Edisonian result with genuine awe. Leonard kept building for as long as he could, and he turned his home into not a machine but a monument. Rebuilt by Green, and captured in pixels, it continues to grow, transform, and survive in ways far beyond the intentions of its inventor’s mind.

Genevieve Yue is a critic based in Los Angeles, where she is also pursuing a PhD in film studies at the University of Southern California. Her writings have appeared in Reverse Shot, Film Comment, Moving Image Source, and Senses of Cinema.