Sunday 1 June 2014

Derby (2013)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Corey Busboom and Travis Mills
In 2013, Travis Mills and Running Wild Films set themselves a serious challenge: to produce 52 films in 52 weeks, all contemporary adaptations from stories in the public domain. They met the challenge and in so doing highlighted to the Arizona film community that pretty much anything is possible. What shocked me at the three day festival in February when they screened all these films to the public was that, even given such outrageous restrictions in timeframe, none of these films sucked. Of course, some were clearly a lot better than others, but the quality range ran from excellent down to blah rather than excellent all the way down to sucky. So, because Mills proved two important points with his project and because this highlights how with one review to kick off each month, I'm never going to catch up with his prolific output, I'm going to launch a project of my own: 52 Films/52 Weeks/52 Reviews. Starting in July, I'll be reviewing one of the 52 Films/52 Weeks pictures each week for a year. I still won't catch up, but at least I'll have another book.

When I firmed up the project, I realised that there would be two new months before my chosen start date. Given that I've been embarrassing Mills lately with older movies that he'd forgotten he'd even made, I felt I should ask him which Running Wild titles that I hadn't yet reviewed would be his choice for me to cover. He suggested Foster, You're Dead, which I reviewed last month, and Derby, which I'm reviewing now. Both are certainly interesting short films, but I don't find myself particularly enthusiastic about either of them. Foster, You're Dead was exactly the sort of film that an ambitious local production company like Running Wild should make: a public domain science fiction story by a major author which is just as timely in 2013 as when it was written in 1955 and which has no need for a special effects budget. I found it well written but less well put together, surprisingly lacking on the passion front. Derby is far more passionate, but it's an odd documentary because it doesn't document quite what we think it should.

Rather than documenting the wild and wacky, yet quintessentially American, world of demolition derby, it focuses far more on a brief journey into this world by the Running Wild team as a publicity stunt, as Mills drives his #52 wreck onto the Buckeye dirt track with a camera mounted inside the vehicle and 'Running Wild' prominently painted on the side. That this is less about the demolition derby itself and more about the moment in time when Mills ventured into one is obvious from a quick breakdown of the running time. The film runs fourteen minutes but, while the halfway mark does find the car at the track, it's still firmly daytime. Night doesn't fall until the eight minute mark, while the guys are still fitting the in-car camera. We don't see the car move until well over two thirds of the way through and the chaos kicks in after ten minutes. Even then, we're not going to gain any real insight into how a demolition derby works and how drivers might strategise. Then again, the rules do seem outstandingly simple.
Having only experienced demolition derby through old computer games like Carmageddon, I did learn a lot here, though not all of it actually had to do with the action. Most obviously, you clearly don't have to know anything about demolition derby to drive demolition derby; just do what everyone else is doing. If you can't move, kill the engine, and always pad the driver's door, just in case. Rules say that nobody is allowed to hit that and it's painted a different colour to be completely obvious, but hey, it's a dangerous pastime. Don't drive like a puss, as Corey Busboom, the driving force behind this picture, points out. 'Be aggressive!' Mostly it's quirky lessons that leapt out though. Sledgehammers are useful detailing tools. Leaning into a running engine when you have long dreadlocks is completely safe. Men can mangle The Star Spangled Banner just as outrageously as women. Travis Mills clearly can't spell 'demolition' to save his life. And, ultimately, nobody really cares who wins at a demolition derby; just destroy things.

I also learned how down and dirty derby really is. If I'm understanding the structure of the film, the initial preparation of the #52 began on the morning of the event. That means that Busboom and his associates, Willy, Jason and Dirty Steve, got this thing up and running, welded, painted, made as safe as possible, in about half a day. That's pretty impressive work, perhaps a mechanic equivalent of the 52 Films/52 Weeks project. There isn't enough running time to give us too much of an impression of these characters, but it's a sure bet that they're all characters. Busboom is the most obvious, far more than Mills himself who gets to drive around with the in-car camera on him, generating glorious colours and reflections. Busboom is overdue for his own documentary, being not only a regular demolition derby driver but an avant-garde artist too, the creator of bizarre musical instruments (Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo is a particularly notable fan) and a devotee of body suspension who matches hooks to years for birthday celebrations.

We see a lot less of Mills, or indeed anyone else, including the #52 car, which we might expect would be the lead character all on its own. I did particularly enjoy the 'How's my driving?' banner above where the windscreen would be, if such things weren't removed for demolition derby. I wonder if, had the film been less concerned with capturing a particular day and more with the sport itself, all these characters would have stood out more. Clearly they're worthy of attention, but mostly they just get a maybe unintentional nod with the inclusion of Friends in Low Places in the background at one point. A tighter focus on derby itself would have called for more actual footage of the event and longer, more expansive shots that give us an idea of what the drivers are doing. The action is shot very close here, more like a set of snapshots of what the #52 did on its holiday. Of course, there's the expected strong editing and music, this time by Less Pain Forever, so it's a capable piece but I found that I wanted a different documentary.

Derby can be watched for free on Vimeo.

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