The Austin Chronicle

Styx and Stones

A priest has his canoe trip sunk by a spiritual crisis in 'The Catechism Cataclysm'

By Marc Savlov, March 18, 2011, Screens

Regarding the ongoing tiff between Heaven and Hades, man and manimal, and lost-but-faithful Sundance audiences who try to read to much into his new film, The Catechism Cataclysm, Todd Rohal says, "I remain neutral."

Which is wise, or possibly might lead to wisdom somewhere down the road. Either way, the peripatetic director – Brooklyn, Austin, Seattle, Los Angeles – is deep inside his own righteous groove. It's a cinescape unlike any other, though it's been unjustly tagged as mumblecore by association.

Rohal's road-movie-by-way-of-river is less clingy Cassavetes than absurdist Herzog: Aguirre, The Wrath of God meets two Kids in the Hall, in hell. It's all about Father William (Steve Little), a childlike priest on the verge of falling from grace (or worse). Forced into shore leave and looking to reconnect with Him, himself, and his metallurgic, equally disenchanted high school semifriend, Robbie (Robert Longstreet), the vicar takes to the river – in a canoe, with friend in tow – and rediscovers the meaning of Deliverance.

The less you know going in, the better. Like life, right?

"The whole thing was about life kicking you in the nuts when you're down," explains Rohal. "You think you're going somewhere fun, and then life happens. I really wanted to portray that accurately, so the violence that happens in the film was there from the beginning. That was one of the first scenes I wrote, and even that song was one of the first things I'd found that helped inform the movie."

That song is actually two songs: "My Main Man (Jesus Is)," written by Little, and "Notti's Dream" by Japanese noise-dub collective Little Tempo. The songs bisect the film, crashing together midway through, not long after Tom Sawyer (Koko Lanham), Huckleberry Finn (Miki Ann Maddox), and slave Jim (Rico) drift into frame. (Samuel Clemens would assuredly approve.)

"That [second] track was used on the soundtrack to a movie called Funky Forest: The First Contact," says Rohal. "That movie blew my mind. I had spent a month in Japan traveling around with my girlfriend, really cheaply, seeing all kinds of weird stuff. I saw that movie, and it stuck with me a good bit, definitely. I wanted to see more of that kind of stuff but I think [Funky Forest] even tanked in Japan.

"It got this horrible review in Time Out New York when it played here [in New York City]. But the way it was described was like, that's everything I want to see! That's exactly why I don't like film critics. It's like they hate everything I love."

Which leads directly to the utterly unexpected query: Have you seen Nobuhiko Obayashi's House?

"Yeah. That's something that's notorious! It's not like it's just a language difference. It's not even that it's a cultural difference. It's just ... foreign. I love the fact that there are still things that are so foreign to us, things we can't relate to at all."

Like an irreverent reverend, a midlife metalhead, and a strangely familiar trio straight out of Mark Twain, by way of Tokyo. Clearly, not your everyday, garden-variety funky-mumblings.

Rohal's Cataclysm has heart to burn, however. It may not come in the form of Cassavetes' Devil's Angels, but the Austin connection proved a major boon when the Seattle-shot film ran up against budgetary issues at the eleventh hour. Austin and, that is:

"We needed more money for the production towards the end to house people and pay for a few other things," explains Rohal, citing as a friend indeed. "I was really reluctant to do it because suddenly you're announcing that you're making a movie. And if that movie's terrible, they'll all be asking you about it forever. It's no longer a secret."

Not around here, anyway. With a thanks list that includes Zack Carlson, Bryan Poyser, Andrew Bujalski, and a Zellner or two, The Catechism Cataclysm feels – and even sometimes looks – like an all-Austin outing.

"It was great to have that little vote of confidence from [other filmmakers], you know? It was a [small] amount of money, but, really, just to see their names coming in and to know that they were thinking about this film, that was great. Because we were like: 'What are we doing? Are we actually going to be able to pull this thing off?' That's a good time to get those voices of support."

The Catechism cataclysm: Saturday, March 19, 10pm, Alamo Lamar C

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