Wednesday 3 September 2014

Araby (2014)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Kevin Ashton, Andrew Laguna, Henry Ibarra, Antonio Elzy, Dana Bohanske, Marissa del Prado and Michael Hanelin
Given that many of my comments on the last few 52 Films in 52 Weeks have tied to what Travis Mills did to the source stories he adapted to the screen, it seems odd that Araby is at once one of the truest to the original material and one of the strangest adaptations of them all. Part of this is because of the trouble he found putting this film together. The Araby of the title is a bazaar in Dublin, thus providing through name and purpose an exotic enticement to both the reader and the lead character, epitomising his new crush. Yet for all that Joyce conjured up such a place through his words, his story remains firmly about everyday Irish folk, with all the Catholic guilt that drives them, especially about sex. Mills aimed to cast the short with Middle Eastern actors, perhaps to play with the notion that what we see as exotic, others know as routine and vice versa. However, he was unable to find his cast (maybe Mina Mirkhah was in New York), so switched the whole thing around to be Hispanic instead, all with a mere week to go before the shoot.

Being forced to deal with this sort of roadblock is precisely the sort of challenge that the 52 Films in 52 Weeks project was supposed to hurl at Mills. Gus Edwards talks in the webisode shot alongside the film about how the project was always aimed at being a 'baptism of fire', enforcing that, 'The best thing is: it doesn't stop you.' It didn't stop Mills and he found his cast and made his film. His choice of words in the webisode is rather telling: 'The idea of having to recast and reimagine a short film in less than a week,' he suggests, 'was a little daunting.' Now, he can play it up as a greater challenge than the rain that fell during Catastrophe or the loss of a lead actress in The Return, but his own words betray him. Only nine weeks in, this challenge was merely 'a little daunting'. Obviously the project is already starting to work. An added challenge was that while he found his cast, their availability meant that he only had six hours to shoot the entire film. 'It was fast and fun,' he later said, 'like a Running Wild film should be.'

However, while it's an especially interesting film, it's no 'motion picture' because there's no motion. The whole thing is comprised of a set of still photographs, an approach surely taken because of the pressing time constraints rather than any influence from Chris Marker, though with Mills you never know. Marker was an overtly English pseudonym for a French filmmaker, after all. Whatever the reasons, this approach is an appropriate one because Joyce's Araby was all about capturing a moment, not merely of a boy at a bazaar but of a point in his life where he stopped thinking about playing in the street with his friends and started thinking of a girl, Mangan's sister. 'Her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood,' explains Joyce's anonymous narrator. 'Her image accompanied me even in places the most hostile to romance.' In this film, all we have is an image, because we never see Antonio's sister move. The biggest success here is the capturing of the moments Joyce aimed at, literally through still images.
Mills captures much more though, underlining how Araby is one of his most successful translations. The exotic undertones, which of course aren't merely suggesting unknown delights on foreign shores (neatly highlighted through changing The Memoirs of Vidocq into The Arabian Nights and having some dialogue delivered in subtitled Spanish) but also unknown delights under Antonio's sister's dress, are well caught here in these fleeting glimpses, even if the natural translation of a bazaar to modern Arizona is as banal as a mall. The self-loathing and bigotry of Joyce's characters, instilled through the religion which echoes through his work as much as the rain outside his windows, is written into good narration, softly delivered by Cisco Saavedra and Ixchel del Castillo. That book belongs to our young hero's father, a scholar who his uncle describes as 'a man with soft hands'. Those aren't Joyce's words, but they easily could have been, as that's precisely the sort of politely barbed putdown that can be discovered everywhere in his work.

Perhaps the best line that Mills adds in is one that appears overly simple but absolutely nails the point of the story. 'I never wanted to play again,' emphasises our young lovestruck hero, now that he's enchanted into what Joyce described as 'confused adoration'. Even the casting of this boy is spot on, because he's a number of years too young to do what he thinks he wants but, of course, he wouldn't believe that. Every boy has a crush at a time when they imagine they're old enough but really aren't any more than a boner on legs beginning to figure out what it's for. This short film ably shows both how unattainable Antonio's sister is and how the much too young boy beginning to think about the future has no comprehension of that truth. All he hears is his uncle's voice telling him, 'You are a real man now,' in another deceptively simple line that packs a lot more punch than it might initially seem. It also ably shows the magic of this moment in every boy's life, before he really understands what that is.

This is far from an ordinary film and I'm sure it's far from what Mills aimed it to be, but it still admirably, if unconventionally, succeeds in telling a story that's at once contemporary to us in Arizona and true to the original material written a hundred years ago on the other side of the pond. Because Mills managed to turn an apparent disaster into perhaps the best adaptation in this project so far, if perhaps not the best picture, he proved that Gus Edwards was more than onto something with his comments before shooting began. This would have been so easy to give up on, but perseverance took care of business. Perhaps the only easy decision Mills made here was the music he picked for the soundtrack, Kevin MacLeod surely the most recurring name in 52 Films in 52 Weeks credits after Mills, Alire and Hanelin (after the festival at which all these films were screened, I keep seeing Kevin MacLeod's name everywhere). In a film about magic, we're reminded that it's the magic of art that our hardest creations are also sometimes our best.

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