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By David Finkelstein | December 21, 2003

“Housesitting” is a cinematic portrait of a two week period the filmmaker spent housesitting for friends in the rural Southwest, while at the same time pursuing an elaborate regimen to try to heal a persistent case of colitis. You can see why the owners of the house needed a housesitter; their place is a menagerie, and Gault does useful duty taking care of a dog, cat, birds, and chickens.

Gault does not shy away from the personal. He films himself looking at his hosts’ pictures and snooping into their liquor cabinet. We see all of his medications, as well as a few shots of the toilet with his bloody stools. The soundtrack mixes atmospheric sounds of birds, storms, and recorded phone conversations in which Gault muses with a friend on questions of landscape and identity.

He visits the nearby site of a Hopi cliff-dwelling tribe, and one of his conversations centers on the notion that in Native American mythology, the stories are based on the local landscape. He watches a movie on TV, “Buffalo Bill,” and contemplates another way in which the West is mythologized and explained to Easterners.

I find that this kind of personal diary film often degenerates into a series of anecdotes, never delving into the inner meanings of events. But Gault has moved way beyond that, digging deeply into the issues of landscape, travel, personal history, and culture, to create a cinematic poem out of mutually resonating images, sounds, and ideas. Blue and red tinged shots of graveyards and storms, a blowup of stills from the “Buffalo Bill” film, and well-crafted montages are some of the techniques he employs, not only to give a rich portrait of the time he spent in this house, but also to express his own curious nature, his longing to peer inside his own experiences. How does he create his own healing? Is it through time spent alone? In the company of animals? It is as if, through illness, his body has become a kind of foreign territory that must be re-explored.

“Housesitting” is an evocative and powerful meditation on the ways that the landscape shapes us, even as we are reshaping it.

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