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Monday, 11 August 2014

An Encounter (2013)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Max Mendoza, Trevor Robins, Ryan Horacek and Bill Wetherill
While Travis Mills selected short stories from a variety of authors and times to adapt for his 52 Films in 52 Weeks project, his choices were clearly centred on James Joyce. He started with a Joyce story, The Sisters, and he ended with a Joyce story, The Dead; in between, he adapted every other story in Joyce's Dubliners collection, first published in 1914. I'm not a huge fan of Joyce, if only because of personal bias: in telling quintessentially Irish stories at a time of nationalistic fervour, everything becomes inherently drenched in religion and all delineations are defined through prejudice. However, I can appreciate how good he was at capturing moments with his short stories, something that surely appeals to Mills, who does the same with his short films. Joyce often appears to ramble around a lot, only for us to realise that he merely paints his backgrounds first then gradually focuses in on an abstract moment that often proves universal. This one is no exception, as he sets up a single incident to emphasise the coming of age of his lead character.

In fact, An Encounter is so universal that it must have been one of the easiest of the 52 source stories to bring into the modern day. In the web series episode, Mills mentions how it reminded him of Stand by Me, one of his favourite movies. While both are quintessential coming of age stories, they're very different in their accessibility. Stand by Me is grounded in the little rituals that American kids go through, which often appear inexplicable to foreign eyes, a sort of junior version of John Ford's films, merely replacing square dances and social obligations with wedgies and mailbox destruction. An Encounter, on the other hand, is far more universal, its rituals as accessible as peer pressure and ditching school. Mills adds another here, that of stealing money from family members, but keeps his film as easy to approach as the story. All that he had to update were some minor details: a tanner becomes five bucks; the river Liffey, the lifeblood of Dublin, becomes a Salt River Project irrigation canal, the lifeblood of Phoenix.

Joyce's story follows three boys, young ones who are just reaching the age where rebellion is a draw, who decide to ditch school and travel to the Pigeon House, a famous Dublin landmark that was at this point in time a tuberculosis sanatorium built on reclaimed land in Dublin bay. Of course, nothing goes remotely as they expect. One of the three doesn't even show up and the other two don't make it to the Pigeon House, instead wandering around the docks and failing to find a dairy to buy milk. Eventually they settle down in a field by the banks of the Dodder, one of the Liffey's tributaries, where the encounter of the title occurs. A shabbily dressed man with a stick and an ashen-grey moustache walks past them, then returns to sit and chat with the boys about books and girls, how many of the former they've read and how many of the latter they have as sweethearts. He wanders off to relieve himself but comes back again, changed in his demeanour and ranting about whipping rough boys who talk to girls, a shocking end to their adventure.
Mills's film mirrors this relatively well. He sets three similar boys on a similar journey, though he adds one agreeable little detail in that the boy who doesn't show is the one who had pushed their adventure most emphatically. By comparison, Joyce's no-show is the one who he describes as 'fat' and an 'idler'. This little change heaps pressure on the two who go because they're the ones who are least confident, most out of their element. With no obvious equivalent in Arizona to the Dublin docks, Mills has these boys wander up a canal just to see where it goes, which is where they meet the unnamed bum played by Bill Wetherill. A regular face in Arizona film, Wetherill is a gimme for this role, looking drab but characterful in his beanie and eyepatch, shambling along with a limp. Like the man in Joyce's tale, he's initially friendly, sitting with the boys on the canal bank and telling them tall tales. After he drains his bladder onto a bush, though, he changes, mumbling and beating the ground with a long stick. It's a neatly scary moment.

Of course, the whole point is that these kids believe themselves grown up, ready to be part of the world, but this encounter strongly disavows them of that notion. It's not a deep story, which is probably why this adaptation runs a short four and a half minutes, but it carries a resonance that remains long after it ends; the inherently memorable nature of the encounter makes An Encounter one of the most memorable of the 52 Films in 52 Weeks. The kids are believable, Max Mendoza in particular able to conjure up a strong reaction at the end, but it's Wetherill's show. He's reliable at not looking entirely there and he believably vanishes inside himself to rage at unknown targets, perhaps his own character, while the boys react as if they're in danger. His presence is aided by the fact that the film mostly plays with music and a narration by Mills himself rather than dialogue, so this last sound scene is emphasised. A shift to handheld close ups, rather than the longer shots thus far, also builds this finalé. It's a memorable encounter indeed!

2 comments:

Bill Wetherill said...

Thanks for the review Hal!

John 2.0, that's right baby! said...

This sounds like a short film I would enjoy.

John