Thursday 11 September 2014

The Bum (2014)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Eric Almassy, Travis Mills, Tenley Dene, David Wellnitz, Rohan Shetty and Steve Wilson
I saw most of the 52 Films in 52 Weeks at the three day festival that debuted them to the public, and not one of them stood out as more immediately and obviously meaningful than The Bum, a 1929 story by W Somerset Maugham originally titled The Derelict. Even before it finished, I was intrigued as to how much of what's on screen is what Maugham wrote and how much what Mills brought to his adaptation of it, as it's impossible not to read it as the Running Wild Films manifesto. That interpretation is aided by real life observations. This was the first of these 52 films to feature Mills himself as a prominent character, not as the lead but as the most important character in the film. The first day of shooting, which took care of the present day scenes, is why he cultivated a memorably bushy beard over a number of months, one which got ever bushier with each succeeding episode of the webseries they shot during 2013. Once done, that beard was promptly shaved so he could shoot scenes the next day set years earlier.

Mills plays the bum of the title, in which form he never speaks. He just wanders around, looking unkempt and notably intense. In another story, we might believe he was dealt tough cards or abused a substance or three, but not this one. Here, he's the architect of his own destiny, through sheer stubbornness. To find out how and why, we have to meet him through the eyes of the real lead character, Barry Connor, played by Eric Almassy, who's really good at being the visualisation of a narrator, the person who experiences a story on screen along with those of us watching at home, without necessarily playing a part in it. Here he wants to be a writer, but he doesn't seem to have the drive to make it happen. Perhaps he's more in love with the idea of having written than actually going through the process of writing. As we meet him, in the present day, he's taking a couple of weeks off to write, which may just mean reminiscing through the box of old stories he keeps out of sight because his wife wants to throw them away.
The connection between the two almost happens when Barry is sitting at an outdoor table thinking while his wife shops. Enter the bum to look for scraps on tables, bundled up in a hoodie but with those piercing eyes and bushy beard. He looks potentially dangerous. He moves on, but Barry has recognised him. He's the centre of attention in the flashback scenes that we watch in colour, as if everything was more vibrant back when Barry and Tom were in college. Tom, sans beard but with just as intense an air, holds court in an auditorium, three other students hanging on his words. Somehow he's relaxed but angry, denigrating the validity of the professor who's been giving them advice because he's never been published, at least not really. Barry and the others are unnerved, as if they know they should agree with Tom but don't have the courage to dive down that rabbit hole. Further conversation backs that up and it all feels exactly like Mills's views on film schools and professors who only teach, never do.

Barry says he wants to be a writer, but his writing revolves around classwork. He's inquisitive enough to ask Tom for feedback on The Desert Stranger, the story he pulls out first in the present day which sends him back to these flashbacks, but Tom doesn't give him the critique he expects. He asks why he wrote it, whether he'd have written it outside of class. Barry doesn't have answers to questions like, 'Where did it come from?' Tom believes that writers write because it's who they are, not because it's who they want to be. 'It should be coming out of you,' he enforces. 'It should be coming from your gut.' This dialogue is all the more magnetic because while we're hearing from Tom, we're clearly also hearing from Travis. There are scenes in the 52 Films in 52 Weeks webseries where Mills sounds just like Tom, driving and analysing because the best education is doing. That's what this project is all about, releasing the films that burn to come out of him and, in the process, making him a better filmmaker. It's learning by doing.

Barry Connor doesn't understand and Eric Almassy captures that well. He's a little too loose in the earlier scenes but in the flashbacks he reacts just right. Half of him wants to reject Tom's arrogance, but half of him wants to adopt him as his guru. None of him realises that his dreams aren't going to lead him where he wants to go because he doesn't have the passion. Instead he turns on Tom when he says that, 'I don't have any answers' and tells him that he's going to end up a bum, which of course he does. This is the old paradox of integrity: if you compromise, you might just succeed and be able to create professionally as a living; if you don't, you might never get anywhere but you'll still be true to your artistic vision. Many may see the last scene as a suggestion that you have to compromise that vision or you'll burn yourself out. I see it differently, that Barry's compromise inevitably led him nowhere while Tom's still true to himself, as a bum writing in puddles in the park. Each sees the other as worse off than them. Who's right?
Maugham's story leaves that question as open as Mills does, but cloaks the idea subtly in religious garb as if the bum his narrator meets in Vera Cruz, Mexico and who he eventually recognises as the confident and arrogant writer he knew decades earlier in Rome, has Christ-like attributes. The narrator realises that 'he had sacrificed everything to be a writer,' but for whom? Is he merely suffering for his art or for that of others, like the man who tries to help him but is rebuffed. Perhaps this act of charity, after the symbolic three days, is what will save the narrator instead, who began by lamenting 'that I had not half the time I needed to do half the things I wanted.' Perhaps he'll now make the time, if only out of shock. Barry might do the same, because Tom has at least lived and experienced. Maybe Barry might have achieved without the distractions of an easy life with a job and a wife who thinks old stories should be thrown away. Maybe he should reevaluate his dedication. Maybe he can write the sequel to The Bum.

I have no idea how much Mills has sacrificed for his art, but I know that making 52 films in 52 weeks isn't an easy task and it surely involved a great deal of sacrifice. This challenge was about creating new films, however easy or hard the task at the time. Sure, some films might just flow easily, especially to someone who had already made fifty or so, some of them features, but others wouldn't. We've already seen that in Catastrophe, The Return and Araby, but there were challenges here as well; this time the crew were able to use the rain to their advantage. Mills chose to shoot the present day scenes in black and white but the flashback scenes in colour. Clearly one reason is just to delineate between them, but I doubt that's it. Are we merely enforcing that Barry's ambition has faded over time or are we highlighting how his options are more polarised and obvious? Perhaps if he makes the right choice, to let his passion loose and write what he perhaps aches to write, everything will shift back into colour. Maybe Tom saw it that way all along.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good review.