Nearly 30 years ago, when I visited mainland China for the first time, I was traveling with a tightly controlled group of Americans. While our young, government-trained tour guide was telling us about China, two of the men in our group were determined to teach her about the freedom available in America. "You live in government housing," they said at one point. "But in America, we own our own homes. We have private property."
"No we don't," I contradicted. Then, seeing the look of outrage on their faces, I explained. "What would happen if you didn't pay your property taxes? The government would take your land away. So we don't really own our property. We just rent it from the government for the price of our property taxes."
I thought of that incident as I watched Still Mine, a moving little indie film based on the true story of a Canadian rancher, Craig Morrison (James Cromwell) who just wants to build a small house on his own property where his invalid wife Irene (Genevieve Bujold) can live comfortably and safely in a home without stairs. An experienced carpenter who learned the skill of building from his father, a master shipbuilder, Morrison plans and erects the house with his own hands and very little help. The scene of this spry 88-year-old man gently guiding the roof supports into place by himself with pulleys and ropes is simply beautiful, almost like watching Baryshnikov dance.
Enter the municipal building department. Morrison needs to apply for a permit. And submit a blueprint. "Why should I have to pay $400 for a permit to build a house on my own land that I pay taxes on?" he asks. When told that the county will have to inspect the house to make sure it is built to code, Morrison responds, "There are houses all over this town that were built 200 years ago, and not one of them was built to code!"
Nevertheless, he complies. He pays for a permit. He has a blueprint made. And he continues to build. When the inspector cites him for using lumber that isn't "stamped" and joists that aren't authorized, Morrison hires a lumber expert to testify that his two-year-old air-dried ash surpasses the quality of the government-sanctioned "stamped lumber." But to no avail. The building department threatens to bulldoze the cozy little house. When Morrison continues to build, he is threatened with jail. "These are not rules but standards," Morrison's attorney argues. "He has exceeded the standards." But all the bureaucrats care about are the rules and the violations. Their minds are already made up — no one is going to flaunt their rules and get away with it.
While this aspect of the film fills my libertarian soul with righteous indignation, the film is not really about building houses. It is about building relationships. The love between Craig and Irene, especially as she descends into the darkness of Alzheimer's, is palpable. A quick montage of early scenes establishes the closeness of their relationship: two aged hands touch on the back of a pew at church; two aged backs bend side by side as they weed their garden; two bodies intertwine under the quilt as they nestle together in sleep. Bujold is 71 now, but she is as beautiful today, silver haired and wrinkled, as she was in Obsession (1976 — my favorite of her films). And Cromwell, one of the finest character actors in Hollywood, fills the star's shoes with ease. It's about time he had the opportunity to carry a film. He does so with deeply controlled emotion, the stoicism in his face belying the tenderness his character feels. Like so many heroes who deal with a spouse's Alzheimer's, Craig just keeps moving forward. He is determined to maintain as much normalcy as possible for his wife, yet at times he can't help becoming annoyed by her forgetfulness. This tension between tenderness and frustration expresses the heartbreak that so many couples experience as they face this debilitating condition. Craig and Irene speak often about the past, because that is where she lives.
All the bureaucrats care about are the rules and the violations. Their minds are already made up — no one is going to flaunt their rules and get away with it.
In one scene, Craig talks about a dining room table he built many years before. "I put twelve coats of finish on that table," he recalls. Then he recalls the injuries to that table — the spilled ink, the dropped forks, the pencils pressed too hard as seven children did their homework over the years. As he speaks we see his hands gently caressing the gouges and scars on the table. He doesn't say it, but we know that he yelled at the kids when those scratches were made. Now he caresses the scars in the way he would caress the tops of the children's heads if they were still at home. "I should have used oak," he muses. "Pine holds a lot of memories." Craig wants to be as strong and stoic as an oak, but he's a softie inside and out. He has earned his scars — they are the scars that come from loving deeply. He reminds me a lot of my father.
Still Mine is a slow film, but it is a fine film, with beautiful scenery, excellent characterizations, a thoughtful story, and a wonderful cast. Never mind the big, splashy, forgettable blockbusters this summer. Find a good little theater specializing in small independent films, or watch for this one on Netflix. Your mind and your heart will be enriched.