Sunday 3 November 2013

Boykin (2013)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Travis Mills and Bandit

We're into November, which means that Hallowe'en is over and I can happily apologise to anyone that I may have inadvertently traumatised with my Running Wild review for October. That was an infamous local picture, Detective Shaves, starring Travis Mills's razor-nicked testicles, so let's calm things down this month with a nice, happy, family friendly picture about, I dunno, how about puppies? That sound like a plan? Well, for all that Mills has an abiding passion for dark, edgy and experimental pieces, like The Blind Man, The French Spy or his latest feature, The Men Who Robbed the Bank, this plays better than each of those despite not being dark, edgy or experimental. In fact it's less of a movie and more of a personal video diary and, at fifteen minutes, it's also by far the longest Running Wild short that I've seen thus far. Making Detective Shaves may have been an important step for Mills, but I'm pretty sure that, in its own very different way, Boykin is too.

It's a documentary piece named for a breed of spaniel but, while boykins feature prominently, it really isn't about them. This isn't the sort of informative film that will explain that the boykin spaniel is the state dog of South Carolina, where they were bred to hunt wildfowl; it's more of a personal film about Travis himself, made at a point in his life which he clearly felt deserved to be marked firmly in time. As we soon discover, boykins enter his life in Mississippi, on a trip to spend time with family. It's hardly a holiday, as his uncle Pat had been hospitalised after suffering a heart attack and died soon afterwards. Pat kept boykins, one of whom, Angus, followed him to the grave, after being hit by a car. It's not hard to see how Mills could attach to the dogs at such an emotional time, especially as they're a particularly friendly breed. Whatever the psychological reasons behind the decision, he felt that he should adopt a boykin spaniel of his own and the majority of the film charts the progress of that task.
Some of the early scenes feel scripted, as if Mills had to pour out his thoughts in a very deliberate and careful manner, with the appropriate serious tone and level of sadness for the moment, but there are others where that intent is clearly broken. A smile threatens to erupt and his words become looser as he remembers the times of joy he spent with these dogs. 'They speak with their paws,' he says and promptly remembers them in a way he wouldn't have scripted. And so we follow him as he follows the process of officially adopting a boykin spaniel through the Boykin Rescue Society. As depicted here, it isn't the easy task we might expect; Mills couldn't just click a button and be done. Instead it plays out far more like a job application with all the familiar paperwork, references and worrying by the phone about whether it'll even happen, especially as the dogs he tells us about are all in distant states, from Georgia to Oregon. It's underlined how this isn't an impulse purchase, it's a life choice.

At its worst, this is catharsis masquerading as a film. A death, especially a death in the family, always serves as a reminder of mortality and a prompt for self-reevaluation. More than any other picture he's made thus far, including the brave and risky Detective Shaves, I wonder what Travis will think of this one when he sees it again a couple of decades from now. I have a feeling that he may find that it says far more about him than he realises or that perhaps he even knows about himself. I don't think there's much doubt that he's the key audience; it plays out very much like an open diary. I also wonder how far he identifies with the characteristics of the boykin spaniel, given that his film is named for the dog but is really about him. It may not have been deliberate that the final shot is phrased in a way that conflates the two. Filmmakers always put something of themselves into their work, even into fictional movies, but the Travis Mills in this film runs so deeply that only a long term therapist could tell how.
However, at its best, this is catharsis masquerading as a film... because that's where the heart comes from and this is a heartfelt piece. There's a clear progression from sadness to joy, probably one of the subconscious reasons for Mills to adopt a boykin and document the process of so doing. It's a spiritual rebirth, and the more vehement lines that he had to get in fail to hide that he doesn't really know how he's coming out of that process. Perhaps he doesn't yet and that's what makes the film a journey that we feel comfortable following. This piece could easily have played out like an intrusion on his grief but instead it becomes a sharing of his joy, as much for small, meaningless moments as for the larger, more obvious ones. I was sold when Mills reads about 'foster mummy and daddy' and 'forever family' without cringing. I also loved the irony that after such a tortuous approval process, he sets out on the road in a 55 Deadly Screaming Lunatics shirt, but I was smiling long before that.

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