Decidedly unsensational and appealingly grown-up, Chuck Workman’s autumnal character study may be the most sagacious cinematic dancing ever done about architecture. Not that there’s much competition aside from King Vidor’s bizarro movie version of The Fountainhead, which is explicitly cross-sectioned by Workman as ironic punctuation. The inestimable Philip Baker Hall stars as Harry Mayfield, a weathered, crotchety, modernist architectural artiste fallen on teaching and bitterness after a tempestuous life and half-realized career. Talking to himself, barely able to tie his temper into knots, and yet eminently reasonable about practical matters, Mayfield is drawn into the game once more by a monstrously self-absorbed millionairess (Rebecca Staab), who even asks a filmmaker friend (Laura San Giacomo) to document Mayfield’s new assignment: finishing his magnum opus, years after his first attempt burned to the ground.
A longtime montage journeyman and documentarian, Workman treats his characters with dignity, allowing their actions and work to speak for themselves. And it’s a movie full of work; serious time is spent watching Hall wrestle with his design, construct models, and eventually micromanage construction, and the fallout is a lovely sense of how building houses can be a kind of immortality. Thus, at its heart, A House on a Hill is about time’s arrow. It’s lamentable that Workman did not trust his material and cast (including a heartbreaking Shirley Knight as Mayfield’s ex-wife) enough to resist clabbering up the film with relentless, Hulk-like post-production boxes, moving frames, and ratio rejiggering—was he afraid we’d be bored? Squint through the humbug, and there’s some genuine life going on.