Sunday 27 July 2014

Catastrophe (2013)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: David Chan, Ron Bowen, Jim Robertson and John Miller
The fourth picture in the 52 Films in 52 Weeks project continued Running Wild's initial backward journey into time. They started in 1904 with The Sisters and proceeded slowly back through 1896 to 1890, then took a particularly ambitious leap all the way back to 1834 for a Nathaniel Hawthorne story which was originally titled Mr Higginbotham's Catastrophe. It's a particularly interesting entry into the project for a few reasons, the most obvious being that the title proved prophetic. The first of two days allocated for shooting were hammered by rain, not as unusual as you might expect for Arizona, given that late July is monsoon season, but enough to prompt writer/director Travis Mills to improvise some way to salvage his film. Under usual circumstances, he could have merely delayed the shoot but that simply isn't possible when locked into such an ambitious shooting schedule as he'd set up for Running Wild Films in 2013, so he was forced to make the most of it. He ended up turning Catastrophe into a silent movie.

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 most obvious theme of that story is the way that such rumours spread, something that remains very familiar to us today. Sure, in 1834 they would have propagated through people like Dominicus Pike, that tobacco-pedler who trusts what he's told and carries it with him on his journeys. In 2014, they would find new ears far quicker, travelling not by foot but by text and tweet or at least by Facebook post. Hawthorne would probably be horrified to know that, a century and a half after he wrote this, we've finally invented a word to describe this sort of escalation; today we'd call it viral. Mills eschews the technological angle, but I'd be fascinated to see this story retold again but centered around teenage girls and the communication media du jour. Merely updating travelling salesmen and wanderers to homeless people is a simpler, more direct translation and it works well, but what's most interesting to me is that Mills directed more attention to the second of Hawthorne's themes, that of prejudice.

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.
Had Mills not found himself painted into a corner by surprising Arizona weather, I feel that he would have done more still with each of these angles. They warranted more running time to be fully explored and I'm sure that at least some of that restriction was due to the rain. I wonder if he ignored the third and last of Hawthorne's themes deliberately or whether that was forced upon him too. It's a combination of karma, irony and a mild sense of the supernatural; it brings the source story to a memorable close but doesn't get the opportunity here because this adaptation is played straight. While I particularly appreciated the performance of David Chan as Barney, the 'wanderer' whose heart is in the right place but whose mouth does a lot more than he expects, I didn't like his final shot at all. Acting isn't a problem here; Ron Bowen is perfect as the source of the rumour, while Jim Robertson looks agreeably affected when Barney passes the news on to him. Chan excepted, the actors merely get very little to do.

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.

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