Welcome to X-R-A-Y Specs, a film roundtable in which four of our radiological technicians converse about movies. This edition’s selection is The Catechism Cataclysm, an odd little film from 2011, which one of our techs chose as perverse pushback against the Christmas season. Our conversation follows.
Katharine Coldiron: Okay, I’m ready for Rebecca’s wildest theory about what happened at the campsite. Lay it on me.
Rebecca Gransden: This is such an undiscovered treat. The whole film does pivot around the campfire scene, which is a real head scratcher, especially on a first watch. The presence of a flaming pentagram in the opening sequence points to satanic shenanigans, but I’m leaning toward alien intervention. It’s a good place to start as so many of the film’s themes converge here.
Tex Gresham: I think the whole movie relies on the conceits of religion to deliver the message: stop being so fucking annoying all the time. Because Steve Little spends so much of the movie being one of the most obnoxiously grating characters I’ve ever seen on film (would seriously rather watch Harland Williams in Rocketman), and his constant annoyingness alienates and destroys everyone around him. So for me, the campfire is an amalgamation of annoying behaviors, so much so that Billy even starts to become frustrated by them. It’s not Billy committing the annoyance, but rather an outside force (either display or trying to entice him into an ultimate form of annoyance). Here’s what happens if you lean into it, Billy. And it ends with the destruction of the one person Billy cared about — the person who represented freedom that countered the devotion to civility and non-grating behaviors needed to be a priest. In the end, he’s left in a truck with Jim… err Tim (one of the movie’s successful jokes) — a reminder of what being annoying will do to your life. And we leave Billy acting like a normal person (except a quick sniff of poo Bible tells us this dude is always gonna be annoying).
Jillian Luft: Okay, holy shit. The campfire scene. My read of it was that bizarre WTF events just happen. I didn’t associate what took place with any supernatural phenomena. I mean Tom and Huck are definitely suspect but humans are in general. Tim/Jim’s presence certainly underscores that they’re capable of sinister deeds. Is he a paid guide, a captive? Whatever the case, we know it isn’t legit. If anything, I thought, huh, yep, this is what happens to spirituality dependent on advanced technology. And how easily we can be seduced by tools meant to better humanize us that are inherently anti-human.
I found Billy a bit endearing. What the hell does that say about me? Maybe it’s because I know what to expect from Steve Little because of his appearance in other Jody Hill/David Gorden Green ventures. He’s a damned fool. And in the context of this movie, perhaps, literally?
Also, I wonder if there’s anything underneath his grating behavior. What does it stem from or what is it supposed to represent? Hapless conformity? Morbid naivete? Playacting at civility and piousness? Pretending to wear rose-colored glasses and, thus, blinding yourself to the point of dooming yourself and others?
RG: I love your reading of the campfire scene, Tex. Billy is one of the most excruciatingly irritating characters ever put on film. I’ve never seen a more accurate depiction of Little Brother Syndrome. I’m convinced Billy wants Robbie dead from the start, but it’s an unconscious impulse. Everything is set up for this. The appearance of Tom and Huck on the river occurs just after Billy has Robbie confirm that he never even loved Billy’s sister. Slowly, all the investment he has in Robbie, and the idea of him he’s constructed over years, is eroded away. This piece of information is the final nail in Robbie’s coffin, and Tom and Huck come sailing down the river, bringing forth Robbie’s doom.
My first impression was that the women, Tom and Huck, possessed a form of demon or angel energy, which would make sense considering Billy’s vocation, but their appearance is more in line with the uncanny type of visitation associated with alien encounters. Their introduction in the town plays on that, and the way Jim/Tim observes Billy and Robbie has the unnerving quality of alien eyes directed at humankind.
This really comes to a head (I know) in the campfire scene. To me, Tom and Huck feel like aliens acting at a higher level of consciousness, intervening perhaps as a result of Billy’s unconscious desires. Von Däniken’s ancient astronaut hypothesis can be applied here, where the religious converges with the alien. It would make sense to me that any alien beings would assimilate with the most technologically sophisticated culture our planet has to offer, which is that of Japan. The Lord isn’t above utilizing cultural stereotypes in this scenario I admit. Tom and Huck use technology to bring about the miraculous event, if indeed that is what it is. Billy and Robbie are plugged in. As a side point, this whole sequence is an amazing visual presentation of the trajectory of the internet, both at a personal and societal level: slow enchantment and seduction, leading to increased noise, then saturation and BAM! Tom and Huck are especially evasive when asked where they are from. Highly suspicious (because they come from space).
Tom and Huck are also wearing matching giant panda headgear. I’m not sure if this means anything. Squint and they look like large-eyed aliens? Apart from some general symbolism to do with strength and bravery, and the black and white of the panda being a representation of yin and yang, I can’t find anything that is relevant to what is going on. Although I’m mostly clueless, so who knows. It’s also quite possible the whole campfire scene is an elaborate way to say ‘shit happens.’
JL: I’m digging this alien interpretation.
RG: I find Jim/Tim the most intriguing character. His demeanor has something of the Yoda about it, and I’m convinced he is the most spiritually advanced person in the film. His introduction has him presented as a subservient figure, but I think this is a ruse, similar to Yoda’s introduction in the original Star Wars trilogy. I need an American to school me on Twain’s character of Jim, as this is obviously a key point and a blindspot for me. I feel Jim/Tim’s reappearance later on is crucial as well, where he is dressed in orange, suggesting a person of enlightenment, and he is present when Billy has a ‘moment’ on the truck.
KC: Jim looms large in American literature. Huck is helping him escape from enslavement, which puts them both in tremendous danger. Their journey offers occasions for Huck to think about personhood and property, about the inherent inhumanity of enslaving people, and so on. Initially, Huck believes that he and Jim are on basically the same journey, as Huck thinks of the Widow Douglas’s attempt to civilize him (send him to school, put him in decent clothes) as the same kind of bondage as Jim’s. Of course this is not true, and Twain and his readers know it isn’t, but Huck’s gradually disappearing naivete is narratively useful. Huck is a boy and Jim is a grown man, but Huck has more rights (and more ego) than Jim, which is a complicated set of power structures to give to two people on a raft floating down the Mississippi River.
The ways these ideas and characters are adapted in the movie are all pretty open to interpretation. In my opinion, it doesn’t have a fixed meaning so much as a bunch of possible meanings. The names Tom and Huck give you the sense that these people are on a benign adventure (i.e. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which didn’t have anything like the subtext and social commentary of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), but adding Jim gives that adventure a darker and more complex tone. It’s almost as if these women are enslaving this man, rather than helping him escape to freedom as in the book. The fact that Jim is not Black, but some other ethnicity, is also interesting, especially given that Tom and Huck are Asian. That Billy encounters him alone later is odd. I’m trying to introduce these ideas without settling on what they mean, because I’m not sure what they mean, but that’s part of why I really like this movie—it’s full of multiply interpretable stuff.
Jim is silent, then begs for absolution, then appears complicit or worse in what Tom and Huck are perpetrating, and then is either abandoned or freed. I can’t come down on what it all means.
Tex and Rebecca, your readings are so different from mine! I’m not sure of this now, but when I first saw this movie, I thought Robbie’s sins were what killed him. Billy was sinless (naive and irritating, yeah, but not a deadbeat dad or a cruel loser), so the machine let him live, but Robbie was found wanting. Kaboom.
That experience was Billy’s first real test, and that’s why he has such peace and confidence in the scene that follows, even if he’s still, like, not the best priest in the world. There’s something deeply Biblical about this: the journey into darkness and then through it, and on the other side is the mature self. Still, yeah, he’s gonna sniff the Bible.
I was amazed at how invigorating the storytelling scenes were, how I sat up and paid attention every time the visuals shifted to something other than the canoe trip. The basic road movie/buddy comedy formula doesn’t tend to do much for me, so even though that’s the dominant form of the movie, I think Cataclysm’s real pleasures are in the stories Robbie tells that the film brings to life.
Also I love your alien ideas, Rebecca. “The religious converges with the alien”—that’s an excellent theory of the film.
JL: My read of the film is similar to yours, Katharine. During our introduction to Robbie, I thought, “Oh I’m into this cynical, downtrodden dirtbag character,” so I predicted he’d eat it at some point or reveal himself as some demonic figure our hopelessly simple Billy would think he could save. And that is what happens to a certain extent (maybe?).
When Robbie’s explosive moment arrived, I chuckled. Part of Cataclysm’s genius resides in its subversion of expectations by meeting them—if that makes any sense. It’s such a perplexing and odd retelling of the buddy comedy that we expect the unexpected, but in a lot of ways, it delivers what’s expected: Two men go into the wilderness to reckon with their hopes, dreams, secrets and regrets. The naif emerges disillusioned but more mature once his world(view) is blown apart. The heavy metal scumbag pays for his sins. Biblical. Foretold.
It makes me think about the part of the campfire scene when Robbie is coaxed by Billy to tell one of his stories. Tom and Huck pooh-pooh it: “Bad.Very bad ending.” They don’t explain why the ending sucks, but maybe it’s because it follows a certain narrative blueprint. We know what to expect (the man will have to shoot himself) but it’s not necessarily a satisfying ending. Maybe this is meta-commentary on the movie’s denouement. Due to the overt biblical themes of the movie, we know what to expect and, yet, most of are wishing for Billy’s comeuppance–not because he deserves it, but because he’s such an irksome dolt. And yet, that’s a human form of justice, not a theological one. I dunno, maybe?
RG: Thanks for filling me in on the Twain allusions, Katharine. It’s obvious this significantly unlocks major aspects of the film, and I’d definitely benefit from rewatching it with an expanded understanding of Jim in mind.
The largest question I had regarding the campfire scene was not why Robbie’s head exploded, but why Billy’s head failed to. Some of the comments above propose some convincing explanations as to why this might be. I still feel there’s an element of predestination at play. Robbie’s seemingly spiteful comparison of Billy to Lenny from Of Mice and Men might be handing us a clue. Lenny, being an uncomplicated person, is incapable of foreseeing the consequences of his actions, but his personality lends an inevitability to the ultimate tragedy that unfolds.
My impression of Billy is that he is led by deep impulses he is not fully aware of, and there is a need in him to progress in some way. At one point nearer the beginning of the film he drops the doofus mask for a second and confesses that he’s never been happy. It’s interesting this scene is set up so that Billy and Robbie are side by side in separate bathroom stalls, but it mirrors confessional booths. For Billy, Robbie has been a figure he has invested belief in, even if the image of him he has is largely an imaginary one. It’s also notable that Billy chooses a rock as a replacement for Robbie’s head. Apart from rocks being representative of foundations (Billy obviously views Robbie this way), there are many references to rocks of different types in a Biblical context. Robbie seems to be resurrected, if only temporarily, and is finally at rest when he falls and the rock that is his head cracks. The cracking of rocks is associated with the ascension of Jesus, and Aslan’s resurrection in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is accompanied by the splitting of a stone table. Is this suggesting Robbie is a sacrifice of some kind? I’m not sure.
TG: I can’t really say anything about Twain because I’ve never read Twain. But I will say the whole movie hinges on the idea of sacrifice – and not in the ways in which the traditional religious narrative of sacrifice injects the rewards of said sacrifice into our brains. And I think this idea is clarified by the stories Robbie tells – the same stories that Billy adopts as his own in the end.
The first story, the one about the man in the freeway pylon, is about the idea of the body sacrificed for the sake of love. It is the removal of the idea of physical sexuality and instead focuses on pursuing a more pure, almost-biblical idea of love. The two cannot touch, but can only feed and confess. The act of a priest to those who defile themselves for the religion in pursuit of a higher understanding of the unobtainable. We look at the first story Robbie tells and feel an absurdity in the details – but refuse to turn that same absurd lens on the confessions in Catholicism and how the similarities between the two are uncomfortably close. Do you love enough to have a barrier that keeps you from the physicalities of that love? Don’t you want someone to embrace you after you have embraced your sins? This is the sacrifice made in the Catholic system of confession. The refusal of comfort in the face of punishment.
Which leads to the second story Robbie tells. And all I can really say about that is that the man who shoots sacrifices his identity to be the one who stands as a figure of must stand behind his actions. He is unable to escape who he is through his suicidal actions and instead must face the path in which he has made for himself – whether he wants to accept it or not. The story mirrors the idea that Billy must face within himself – that he MUST sacrifice his identity in order to follow the path he has created for himself. He needs to do the hard work and be there as the figure for a religion that he may or may not believe in – but has set himself up as the face/figure of that religion in the face of others.
This is probably a shitload of nonsense.
JL: I don’t think it’s nonsense, Tex. And I’m on board with the idea of Robbie as sacrifice, Rebecca. A lesson for Billy to learn. His faith misplaced in some scumbag to be restored in his life’s purpose, or as Tex notes, to get him back on the path he’s chosen. Happy or not, it’s who he must be. But what to make of the fact that his telling of Robbie’s stories is responsible for the parish warming up to him? Is this a way of Billy paying tribute or is it just him co-opting the best parts of Robbie for his own gain? Has he truly realized Robbie as a false idol or is he still clinging to a romanticization of him through these stories? And what does it mean that the imagination and worldview of Robbie speaks so deeply to the believers?
I realize my response to this film has just been a succession of questions and parenthetical doubt. But I can’t help but think it’s what the film intends. To leave us seeking answers to the many questions the film offers through it’s melding of standard cinematic tropes and bewildering tangents (the stories, the campfire scene, the overt allusions to Twain, etc.) And isn’t a catechism a religious text that takes the form of questions and answers? Is our conversation a catechism? Or just a cataclysm? Ha.