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From “Doom House” to “Mood House”: How Simple Aesthetic Strategies Can Create Experimental Films, part 2

Part 1 of this little series saw us looking at two short films from 2003, “Doom House” and its follow-up, the much, much stranger “Mood House.” We analyzed the former film, noting the ways in which it plays with but ultimately obeys standard Hollywood genre conventions. Now, let’s re-watch the latter piece, keeping an eye out for how it both draws on and departs from its predecessor:

I don’t know what possessed Richard Kyanka and Kevin Bowen to make “Mood House”; my guess is that it was much the same impulse that probably led them to make “Doom House” (i.e., to goof around—which, for the record, I consider a perfectly fine goal). However, rather than make yet another farce that riffed on familiar genre conventions, they chose this time to riff on their first film—to rework it by subjecting it to a simple aesthetic strategy: reversal. (The title alone gives the trick away.) As we shall see, that single decision resulted in something rather unusual, even experimental.

Let’s begin with the scenic structure itself. “Mood House” largely proceeds by reversing the chronology of “Doom House.” (For more on reverse chronology, see this post, where I inventory examples of novels, films, plays, comics, and songs that make use of that principle.) Here’s a shot-by-shot breakdown of the first minute of the film (and I’m embedding the video again to aid comparison):

  1. 0:00–0:11: Establishing shot of the house (exterior) while the soundtrack features birds chirping, pleasant music.
  2. 0:11–0:24: A zoom-out from closed curtains reveals Kevin Bowen sitting on the couch. He turns his head, responding to noises on the soundtrack: “What’s inside my basement?” He stands, throwing off the blanket: “I’m out of my mind!”
  3. 0:25–0:31: The music shifts as Richard Kyanka scrabbles toward the camera, then looks up, grinning.
  4. 0:31–0:33: Medium-long shot of Bowen, now standing, tossing the blanket off-camera. “What in the world?”
  5. 0:33–0:37: Kyanka huddles on a stair landing: “I’m having a very good time!”
  6. 0:37–0:38: Close-up of Bowen’s face (mouth).
  7. 0:38–0:42: Reversed footage of Kyanka sliding backward up the stairs, accompanied on the soundtrack by a high-pitched tone shifting higher.
  8. 0:43–0:44: The music changes suddenly. Kyanka opens the basement door and throws something off-camera.
  9. 0:44–0:45: Match-cut of Bowen catching the thrown object. “What the–?”
  10. 0:46–0:46: Reverse shot of the basement door closing.
  11. 0:46–0:59: Medium shot of Bowen, scrutinizing the object: “Why did you throw this doll figurine at me, you rubberneck? Ohh…”

The inversion isn’t one-to-one (thank goodness), but what we see here is a general reversal of the last minute or so of “Doom House”:

  1. 13:59–14:06: Kyanka: “Playtime’s over. Take this doll-head, you towel-head!” He throws the figurine.
  2. 14:06–14:09: Bowen screams and, hit by the figurine, stumbles backward toward the stairs.
  3. 14:09–14:10: Close-up of Bowen tripping over a box.
  4. 14:10–14:10: Wider shot of him continuing to fall backward.
  5. 14:11–14:17: A shot of Bowen falling down the stairs.
  6. 14:17–14:18: A second shot of Bowen falling down the stairs.
  7. 14:18–14:21: A third shot of Bowen falling down the stairs.
  8. 14:22–14:23: A fourth shot of Bowen falling down the stairs.
  9. 14:23–14:28: A fifth shot of Bowen falling down the stairs.
  10. 14:29–14:44: A medium shot of Bowen huddled around a piece of wood at the bottom of the stairs: “I (h)ate wood. I’m—I’m—so—so bored!” He dies.
  11. 14:45–15:06: Kyanka, standing, wearing a black shawl, declaims: “Now you’re inside my basement—” he throws off the shawl “—and out of my mind.” He sits down in a chair, relaxing as the camera zooms in on him.

The reverse in scenic order is matched by reversals in actions within the scenes, too. “Doom House” ends with a zoom-in on Kyanka; “Mood House” begins with a zoom-out to reveal Bowen. After being hit with the figurine, Bowen falls down the stairs; Kyanka slides up them, then emerges from the basement to throw the figurine to Bowen. And so on.

This simple reversal of the general plot goes a long way toward making “Mood House” a very peculiar film. For one thing, it makes it nonnarrative, since scenes don’t progress in a causal fashion. (Rather appropriately, I saw “Mood House” well before I saw “Doom House.”)

Secondly, it omits the exposition that “Doom House” opens with: titles, voice-over narration, back-story. Except for the opening establishing shot of the house, we’re given no grounding for the characters and action. And while not an example of in media res, this sudden start feels much like one, because we’re thrust up against the climax of the previous film (which no longer makes any sense, due to the lack of context and the reversal).

That alone would make any film pretty disorienting; anyone familiar with reverse chronology knows it can result in fairly confusing narratives (witness how much digital ink has been spilled explicating Memento, a rather banal demonstration of the principle). But Kyanka and Bowen have reversed much more than their first film’s chronology. Another obvious example of their methodology at work: the two switched roles between the films, making Bowen the beleaguered homeowner, and Kyanka the intruder.

Some details of the production design have also been inverted. Kyanka throws off a black shawl; Bowen throws off a white blanket. Kyanka plays a video game (11:59–12:16, 13:26–13:30); Bowen plays Othello (2:18–2:26—well, he slaps the pieces around some). Finally, whereas “Doom House” was set mostly at night, “Mood House” is set in the daytime (more specifically, the time of day of the establishing shots has been reversed).

The dialogue has also been processed, transformed into an approximate antithesis of itself:

“Doom House” “Mood House”
Kyanka (while sitting down): “Now you’re inside my basement … and out of my mind.” Bowen (while standing up): “What’s inside my basement? … I’m out of my mind!”
Bowen (huddled at the bottom of the basement stairs): “I (h)ate wood. I’m—I’m—so—so—bored!” (Dies.) Kyanka (huddled on the stair landing): “I’m having a very good time!”
Kyanka (before throwing the figurine): “Playtime’s over. Take this doll-head, you towel-head!” Bowen (after catching the figurine): “Why did you throw this doll figurine at me, you rubberneck? Ohh…”

That “rubberneck” bit confused me for a long time, until I realized it was “towel-head,” treated. (Not reversed, admittedly, but still in keeping with the general proceedings.)

More examples:

“Doom House” “Mood House”
Bowen: “You stubborn mule! Now you know the secret. I am a terrorist, and this house was built over our terrorist burial camp.” Kyanka: “My pleasure for this country knows no bounds! … You lovely exciting man! Now you know what everybody’s known for a very, very, very long time! I am a peace-loving police officer! And this house is going to be built where there will be a mall!”
Kyanka: “But I just got a fixed-rate mortgage!” Bowen: “I lost my shirt when the bank hoodwinked me with this variable rate mortgage!”
Bowen: “Now I’m inside his basement…and inside his mind!” Kyanka: “Now! You’re inside his finished basement…and outside of his mind!”
Kyanka (playing video games): “This isn’t…part of the program!” Bowen: “Right on schedule!”
Bowen: “Hey! Reginald P. Linux! How ya’ doing! … Hey! Hey! Sally forth me if you’re wrong, but you haven’t moved out of this murder house—doom house. Yet.” Kyanka: “Why are you thinking of moving out of this perfectly lovely mood house!”
Bowen: “Well, my advice to you as a cop…is to move out of here. That’s the only path I can see you taking. This will eat you up…and you’ll die. … And then you will be in a graveyard. […] Hey! What are you still doing here? I told you to clear out of the doom house! Do you want to have…this horror? […] Yeah! Doom house. You know that creepy doll? It’s part of the doom house mystique, and you’ve got it in spades, so you get out. That’s my advice as an officer of the law. […] You seem like a man of many words, but let me tell you this, howabout? If you don’t move out of the doom…house, it could spell your doom.” Kyanka: “Why are you thinking of moving out of this perfectly wonderful mood house? […] Doll! I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself in this mood house…and I hope you have many pleasant experiences that will last you a lifetime with the doll! […] In the time of spring, when a young man’s fancy resorts to romance, you’ll find your wildest dreams in this house with the doll you love. […] This doll is very good for you, and very good for everybody, so I’m glad you’re enjoying it here in this beautiful mood house…and I wish you well!”
Kyanka (responding to the doorbell): “A knock at the door? Who could that be?” Bowen (responding to knocking): “The doorbell’s ringing! I bet I know who that is!”
Bowen: “Reginald P. Linux! I heard you needed a cop!” Kyanka: “Reginald P. Linux! I didn’t hear anything, and you don’t need a marriage counselor!”
Bowen: “The first thing they teach you in the academy is to look at the crime scene. That’s what we’re doing here. … I think you have a lot of problems here. I’m trained…as a cop. … Baggies! I’ve seen these before! Oh! This is evidence! Evidence of…a doom house!” Kyanka: “I am a marriage counselor, and I’ve never seen this box before! You’ll enjoy yourself!”
Kyanka: “Hello! Police! I’m being terrorized! I’m being terrorized by this…horrible…doll! Yes, I just moved in. Yes! Yes, very scared! You need to send over an officer now! I don’t know how much longer I can take this!” Bowen: “Hello? Marriage counselor? No! I’m happily married. No! Very happy! Very happy! I’ve lived here a long time! No, everything’s OK! Don’t send a marriage counselor ou—over! Hello!”
voice on phone: “Hello! You’re going to die! I’m going to cut your hair and put it in a bowl!” Bowen: “Hello, grandma! You’re going to live a very long time! I’m going to grow my hair, and never cut it off!”
Kyanka (spying the figurine on the mantel): “Wait a minute! How did that statuette get over there? I’m gonna get rid of you once and for all!” Bowen: “Wait a minute? Where’s that figurine I think I’m falling in love with?”
Kyanka: “Leave my happy house! Leave! Why? Why? Why? Why? WHY? WHY?” Bowen: “There you are, you lovely figurine! Oh, figurine, I love you! But I must leave this horrible house! Why? Why? Why?”
Kyanka: “Time to hit the old bed stack!” Bowen: “It’s time to leave the new floor pile!”
Kyanka (after putting the doll down the disposal): “Looks like I’ll never see you again!” Bowen: “That noise! The garbage disposal!” He weeps.  “It looks like I’ll be seeing you every day for the rest of my life!”

It’s this principle that resulted in my favorite line in “Mood House” (indeed, in both films):

“Doom House” “Mood House”
Kyanka: “You’re garbage, so I’m going to treat you like garbage…in a disposal!” Bowen: “You’re not garbage, and I don’t know why you were treated like garbage.” He casually flings the figurine away. “I know what that was!”

That bit of “Mood House” dialogue offers a potent example of how closely nonsense shadows reason—something I’ve spent a lot of time playing around with in my own fiction, as well as in this post:

My soup is too hot.

My soup is too hostile.

My soup is too hot to be soup.

My soupçon is too hot.

Language, if it is to communicate specific meanings, demands that very particular rules be followed. Some constructions allow more room for error than others, remaining intelligible even when conventions are violated. (In Information Theory terms, the greater the redundancy, the more noise a channel will permit.) But it usually isn’t all that hard to make even a simple line go out of whack.

The rest:

“Doom House” “Mood House”
Kyanka (throwing the figurine into the backyard): “Looks like I’m never going to be seeing you again. Goodbye!” Bowen (clutching the figurine to his chest) “Hello! It looks like I’ve seen you again!”
Kyanka (spying the figurine): “What is that? … What an odd-looking…figurine. Why is this figurine in my house?” Bowen (to the figurine): “I love you! You’re always welcome in my apartment! […] What a lovely figurine doll!”
Kyanka: “Moving in sure is hard work.” Bowen: “Moving out sure is easy.”
Kyanka: “This is great! The place is already decorated!” Bowen: “This place isn’t even decorated!”
Kyanka (arriving): “My new house!” Bowen (departing): “Goodbye old house I’ve lived in all my life!”
Kyanka (in voiceover while driving down the road): “My name is Reginald P. Linux, and ever since my wife died, I’ve been very depressed. This is why I’ve been searching for the house of my dreams. But as a philosopher once said, ‘Be careful what you wish for, because you just…might…get it!'” Bowen (in voiceover while strutting down the road): “Ever since I met that figurine, I’ve been fleeing the house of my nightmares. But as a baseball player said, ‘Wish for everything, ’cause you’ll never get it.’ I’m going to murder my wife and be happy forever.”

Of course, not everything in “Mood House” is the reverse of something in “Doom House.” For instance, except for the one example discussed above, the footage doesn’t run backward (Kyanka and Bowen didn’t take the principle to ultimate lengths). Kyanka wears the same clothes in both films (although Bowen has changed his). And some parallel actions are kept: Kyanka throwing off his shawl, Bowen throwing off his blanket.

There are other similarities between the films. Both take place in the same single setting. Both make much of their absurd dialogue—although the language in “Mood House,” as we can see, is even more bizarre. Many of the lines are now total non sequiturs, making sense only if we’ve already seen “Doom House”—and even then, they are recognizable mainly as absurd variations on that film’s script. (In other words, the language in “Doom House” is poetic prose, while the language in “Mood House” is pure poetry.)

More so is in fact the general order of business. “Doom House,” at least initially, pretends that it might be a straight film. Since “Mood House” never has that chance, it launches into absurdity from the get-go. So, even though we once again have physical humor and detached, stilted acting, the performances in “Mood House” are of a completely different order: they’re much shriller, much more amplified, much more affected (more Monty Python than deadpan). Along the same lines, the errors in continuity are more pronounced, as is the silly Mickey Mousing on the soundtrack (e.g., the creaking door at 1:57–2:00, 6:58–7:02, 7:20–7:24, and 8:04–8:07). Later on, the phone continues ringing even after Bowen answers it (4:25–4:31), and makes dialing noises while he calls his grandmother (4:52–4:54).

The overall result is that whereas “Doom House” is broad farce, akin to Jerry Lewis, Steve Martin, and Adam Sandler, “Mood House” is more of a hodgepodge, including flubbed takes, jump cuts, and repetition simply for the sake of having them. As such, it shares a closer affinity with Dadaist films like Hans Richter’s “Vormittagsspuk” (“Ghosts Before Breakfast”) (1928):

(They’re almost exactly the same length, too!)

“Mood House” is also, I would like to argue, a more affecting film than “Doom House.” There’s something far creepier about Bowen’s situation in this one, specifically in his relationship with the doll. Rather than being terrorized by a silly demonic trinket, he’s now married to it, making the film’s love-hate relationship all the more disturbing. Viewed from this angle (which is heightened by Kyanka’s role as a marriage counselor), “Mood House” becomes a film focused around the anxieties that young men often have about marriage:

“It looks like I’ll be seeing you every day for the rest of my life!”

“You’re not garbage, and I don’t know why you were treated like garbage!” He casually flings the figurine away. “I know what that means!”

In this reading, the short film’s final line, far from being a total non sequitur, resonates strongly: “I’m going to murder my wife and be happy forever!” Indeed, it might even be the most meaningful line in either film. (Language generated through aesthetic processes has just as much chance of telling the truth as straightforward descriptive language. It might have even more.) Six years after I first saw it, I still find “Mood House” pretty impressive. It’s to Kyanka and Bowen’s credit that, even after one can see the processes they used to generate the project, the result remains charming and surprising. (It helps that they seem to have had a blast while making the thing.)

In the third and final installment in this series, we’ll step back a bit and examine the observations that we’ve made, trying to make some broader claims about experimental filmmaking, if not all experimental art. Until then, mind your figurines—and don’t kill anyone! [Update 12 August: I swear I’ll get around to writing that third part someday…]

  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

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