Stars: David Chan, Ron Bowen, Jim Robertson and John Miller
Another interesting angle is that Mr Higginbotham's Catastrophe is a deceptively complex short story, an easy one to adapt to the modern day but a tricky one to get right in all three of its themes. Mills captures a couple of them capably but decides to avoid the third entirely in this adaptation; I'd have liked to have seen it addressed, but do agree that it wasn't viable in a short film that runs just shy of ten minutes. Like Useless Beauty, there's a lot more story than he was able to cram into his running time but, unlike it, he focuses more on that story than the acting, even if we imagine that the rain never forced them to remain silent, so we can actually hear what they have to say. Only David Chan gets much screen time, the rest of the cast taking the roles of talking props far more than characters. Perhaps it's the rain that causes me to see these last two pictures differently. I'd have liked to have seen more to Useless Beauty, but I feel that Mills made the film he wanted to make; I'd like to see him remake this one at greater length.
Rewatching the 52 Films in 52 Weeks pictures immediately after reading the short stories from which they were adapted has been an eye-opener from a writing perspective. Mills's approach mostly seems to be to distil each story down to its theme and then build it back up again in modern day Arizona with characters and situations that feel like contemporary equivalents. So here, Mr Higginbotham, who owns one of those surnames that would prompt jokes in 21st century Arizona, becomes simply Mr Higgins, but what we hear about him stays rather similar. You see, this really isn't about him as he only shows up for the finalé; it's about a rumour that's spreading about him, heard and retold by the lead character. In Hawthorne's story, an ill-looking traveller informs a tobacco-pedler that Mr Higginbotham was murdered the night before. In Mills's adaptation, an agreeably wide-eyed and grizzled stranger tells a fellow itinerant that Mr Higgins was murdered the night before. In each take, the story promptly gains a life of its own.
The racial aspect of the source story might not be immediately obvious to anyone reading it today or, at least, not grasped fully. The traveller tells Pike that, 'Old Mr Higginbotham of Kimballton was murdered in his orchard at eight o'clock last night by an Irishman and a nigger.' We might concentrate on the political incorrectness of the latter but in the rural America of 1834, a century and a half before 'African American' was adopted, it was a common term, usually inferring inferiority more than signifying hate. What's more, Irishmen were seen in just as negative a light; Monika Elbert, editor of the Nathaniel Hawthorne Review, wrote about how the story 'played to anti-Irish sentiment.' The traveller had his reasons for what he said, which this film avoids, but it has to be said that casting his villains as 'an Irishman and a nigger' made it more readily believed. Mills updates the villains to be two Mexican punks, but Michael Hanelin's casting allows the theme to build: the lead is clearly Asian and the only legitimate authority is African American. The mob of extras is notably multi-ethnic, strikingly different from the usual lynching we see in westerns.
The technical side is more inconsistent; that the circumstances of production were surely behind some of the less successful aspects doesn't excuse them. Bizarrely channelling Yoda, Mills explained in the weekly webcast that accompanied this project that, 'It's a gamble, filmmaking is.' The rain's first victim was the sound, prompting this movie to become silent. It plays surprisingly well, though I wonder why Mills didn't go all the way and make it black and white too; he did for Useless Beauty. As a silent movie, there should have been less intertitles; they interrupt the flow of the visuals and, while some of the dialogue would be appropriate for a sound film, it should have been ditched for the silent version. The camerawork survived the rain, the handheld camera providing a little sense of urgency without ever descending into shakycam nonsense. It should have been longer, but survives without all the meat it should have had on its bones. Mills feared that Catastrophe would be a catastrophe; it isn't, it just isn't everything it could have been.