Saturday 16 August 2014

The Liar (2014)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Eric Almassy, Amber Michelle and Michael Hanelin
I missed two and a half of the 52 Films in 52 Weeks when Running Wild presented them as a complete set over a February weekend, mostly because I was enjoying the venue too much. This remains the only film festival I've attended within a Mexican restaurant, the Mariscos Vuelve a la Vida in eastern Phoenix, and I enjoyed it enough to wish that all film festivals in the future might be held in Mexican restaurants too. I'm bringing this up because, revisiting The Liar six months later, I thought it was one of those I missed. I had no recollection of it whatsoever, even after reading Henry James's source story, a long, evocative 20,000 word piece from 1888. It only slowly worked its way back into my memory as I rewatched it, not a strong recommendation for a film I'd seen only half a year ago, even if it was amongst 48½ others. It does hold an importance, marking the first time actor Eric Almassy worked with Running Wild Films, but it feels like it's more relevant as a challenge: to condense twenty thousand words into twelve minutes.

In fact, its moments of note seem to be tied more to that challenge than to the quality of the piece itself, hardly a surprising conclusion for anyone who believes that writer/director Travis Mills defines himself at least as much by challenges overcome than by the end results of his work. It's why he shoots so many films, why he takes active part in every film challenge going (even when he has a bigger one eating up his attention, like the 52 Films in 52 Weeks project) and why he drives all the people he works with to do likewise. It wouldn't surprise me if he deliberately selected a few longer stories to adapt just to see how well he could condense them down to their essence, especially The Return and The Liar, the two longest of the entire project, which are both conspicuously attempted early on. Only three later entries are more than half as long as either of these two and one of those is The Dead, the James Joyce story that wrapped up the entire project with an epic sprawl. This surely isn't coincidence, this is Mills challenging himself.

Unfortunately for this film, I feel he was more successful with The Return, which would have been better still had it played out with the running time of The Liar. It only had seven minutes, which felt jam packed with material, and it needed more time to play out and find an ending to the adaptation Mills gave it. By comparison, The Liar runs over twelve but feels a lot emptier, even before going back to the story to see what Mills cut out. Other than that, there are strong similarities. Both feature three main characters, one couple and one third wheel; both feature Michael Hanelin, the casting director for this project; and both are films where the driving force of the story doesn't tie to the lead character. Most of all, of course, both are long stories all about character which Mills had to massively condense to fit within a short film. This one does have more action and dialogue, always easier to adapt to the screen, even though, ironically, most of that was cut out of this version, but it's still about emotion mostly held in check.
Here, the lead is Geoff, an artist played by Eric Almassy, fitting into the Running Wild family immediately and feeling like he'd been there all along. He's found himself in an odd situation, contacted by Mary, who is clearly an important person from his past, though the importance is far more apparent in his mind than in hers. She's Amber Michelle, Mills's girlfriend at the time, and she's good at distracting us from the real emotion, which is in Geoff rather than in the more overtly emotional Mary. She's back in town to broker a business deal and she's brought her husband in tow, whose name we never learn, in the form of Michael Hanelin. It's an awkward experience for Geoff, only rendered more so when he mentions that he painted Mary once before and her husband suggests he should do it again. This awkwardness is exacerbated still further when Mary doesn't show for her sitting and her husband takes her place. With no time to provide background as to why he's the liar of the story, he explains to Geoff what he's hiding from his wife.

If Mills was successful in condensing down the liar's part and adding some neat awkward moments in the process, he's less successful in providing the motivations in play for this adaptation in miniature. In Henry James's story, the motivations of two of the three characters are made very clear while that of the third is the point of the story. Oliver Lyon, the artist, meets his former flame at a social event and we realise that he's still in love with her. However, she's now married, to Colonel Capadoce, who Lyon quickly discovers is what we might call a teller of tall tales, a sort of Baron M√ľnchhausen, similarly without any apparent malice; he simply appears unable to tell the truth under any circumstances. The drive of the story, made possible through the device of Lyon painting members of the Capadoce family over many months, is that he simply cannot believe that the woman he idolises can be a party to her husband's lies. He decides to prove it by painting the Colonel so well that everyone, even her, would see his true nature.
Clearly that's a lot to cram into twelve minutes, but Mills condenses things too far and those motivations are confused. Geoff knew Mary and painted her in the past, as with Lyon and Mrs Capadoce in the source story. He still has feelings for her, though the depth of them is left unclear. In the story, he had proposed to her and been rebuffed; in Mills's adaptation, they may or may not ever have been anything more than friends, though Geoff may have wished otherwise. So far, so good, but why would Mary be horrified when her husband asks Geoff to paint her? There are no horrifying pictures in their past, so it seems strange to presage the eventual painting so quickly. Why Geoff would paint such a thing is inevitably skimmed over because of the running time; he turns out in an hour a portrait based on a minute's monologue, which is too soon for him to feel that he should do so. What's more what we see in his gallery isn't even portraits; they're abstracts that would be difficult to interpret. Maybe he's the liar in this take. Maybe they all are.

While this is generally a weaker entry into the series, if mostly because the size of the challenge was too large to overcome, there are some positive aspects. Not all the compression failed, as Hanelin's liar does make internal sense even after being chopped down into a mere fragment of his original self. This version also gifts him with an opportunity to appear polite and courteous, only to then reveal a much darker man underneath, a skill that he's particularly good at. It's Eric Almassy who shines here though, because he's great at appearing real, whatever the context. He would do better work in later films but he's strong here in his first for Running Wild, more grounded than Michelle or Hanelin, making Geoff appear very natural, even when faced with situations that are very awkward. I didn't believe his studio, his motivation or the closure he finds at the film's end, but I believed him. Yet, as the end credits rolled silently, emphasising the shock of the last scene, they also allowed me to focus on the next film, this one already forgotten.

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