Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Razzle Dazzle

My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done(2009)
Directed By Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog’s “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?” is a hostage negotiation film on the surface, when the film begins and swirls around a murder in suburban San Diego, but it doesnt remain in familiar territory for very much longer after that.
A man named Brad (played by Micheal Shannon and inspired by the case of Mark Yavorsky) has murdered his mother with a sword and has barricaded himself in his home, claiming to have hostages.
Willem Dafoe is a homicide detective who shows up on the scene after an introductory discussion of the blurred lines between cops and criminals, echoing his own “Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans”, and then upon arrival, switching gears from police procedural to poetic madness.
Defoe interrogates the alleged attacker’s family, friends, and neighbors with more focus on the ever elusive “why” than the “how” of the murder, which remains off-screen.

What follows is a tale of psychological deterioration, but despite David Lynch’s place as producer, his influence is constrained to marketing.

Herzog has returned to the surreal black humor of “Even Dwarves Started Small”, the deadpan endings of “Strozek” or "Cobra Verde", and the lyrical non-sequitters of “City Of Glass” and his “Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans”.

As his documentaries become friendlier to mass audiences (his latest in 3d) his feature films, at least in these last two, have become more madcap and delirious.

“My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done?” is not a difficult movie to understand, Brad is insane and this much is obvious from the word go.

The rest of the film does not offer us an explanation of his psychosis, but an operatic interpretation of it.

While on a rafting trip in Peru Brad gets a compelling and inexplicable urge not to go into the river.

His friends go in and they all drown in a tragic accident.

Brad is convinced (though we got the impression not completely surprised), that God is speaking directly to him and has a very special plan for his life.

Later as we see him trying to convince, an utterly lost (both in her performance, and as her character) Chloe Sevigny, that God is the man on the Quaker Oates box.

“If God manifested itself to us today he would do so as a product advertised on television”-Philip K. Dick.

Sevigny is his soon to be wife and the two of the are acting in Aescylus' Oresteia play which Udo Kier is directing.

Brad’s volatile stage presence delights Kier, but his “disruptive behavior” later forces his dismissal from the production.

Brad’s relationship with his mother is largely absent from the film, she appears in only three or four scenes, one at a dinner table staged as a religious tableau.

Brad’s shifting mental state is the films center show-piece.

Herzog and Greek mythology scholar and Professor Herbert Golder provide a script which transforms a lunatic’s rantings (the screen-writing process began from reading the real Mark’s own case and medical transcripts) into a poem about the absurdity of faith (the doomed progress so many Herzog characters have made) and the Kierkegardian (or G.K. Chestertonesque) notion of faith as absurdity.

In Harmony Korine’s “Mr. Lonely” Werner Herzog flies a plane full of nuns over South America.

One of the nuns falls out of the plane and we watch her descending thousands of feet from a first person perspective to the ground below but survives miraculously completely unharmed.

Later the nuns try to recreate the miracle, and they splatter like bugs. The lesson learned? Don’t push your luck.

Brad’s predicament (faith as absurdity) is not so different, the voices in his head (if they are voices at all) are clearly not-right, and at times he seems lucid enough to recognize there is something wrong with him.

On the other hand he owes his very life to rejecting reason and the rational.

Without listening to his voice, that Quaker Oates man-within, he might not have any life at all.

The facts that Brad’s character in the play murders his mother, or that his Uncle was an Emu farmer with an idea to strike it big with a plan involving a midget, a redwood tree stump, and a photo opportunity too good to pass up is all just gravy on Herzog’s strange biscuit.

If each scene were not full of some small, tightly contained, dashes of brilliance, humor, and visual gusto the film would be dismissible and even deplorable in its exploitation of mental illness for shock’s sake.

Herzog met with the real life Mark who was released before shooting the film, and upon discovering a small shrine dedicated to the doomed conquistador from own Peruvian epic “Fitzcarraldo”, in Mark’s trailer, abruptly ended the meeting.

Or so the wiki-legend has it. Herzog later said he found Mark “argumentative”.

The story was built around the case file it embellishes and hits target in creating moments of ecstatic truth.

The lines of documentary madness, tragedy, and the baffling and sadly beautiful randomness of the cosmos that Herzog has been exploring his entire career, wonderfully culminate in this unprecedented twist of the conventions of the cop drama and psychological descent.

This film does distinctly what only Herzog films can do and it does so tightly, with greatest musical and visual effect maximized in every moment.

“My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?” is a not a cerebral puzzle meant to be put back together into a discernable whole, nor a cautionary parable, it is the Book of Job adapted with the prolonged deadpan of a Monty Python sketch.

The basketball in the tree scene, at first is inexplicable can later be understood as something of the films raison de'tre and summary of Herzog's approach in general.

Something strange occurs in "real-life" whose happening seems to rupture reality itself, and then someone else comes along and sees it differently, with little or no knowledge or understanding of it's origins or intentions and makes art of it by recoding it at another angle.

The film is about the poetry found in a close up of flamingo’s face, the sensation of being the only person alive and wondering why the world is looking at you, it is the moment when an escalator in Toronto becomes the wormhole out of which all time and space flows.

In other words it’s a Herzog flick, a bitterly funny one, but after seeing 14 of his 18 features (not including documentaries), the little voice in my head tells me it's one of his best. I'm inclined to trust it.

1 comment:

Ben said...

Joe, what a write-up! You've got to get your stuff out there in other means than the blog, man, you have a vast knowledge that lends and adds to your work, and manages to flow with it all the same, supporting, supporting, supporting.

It puts any of my more thought out pieces to shame.

Anyway, I agree with you wholeheartedly on this one. I'm becoming a fan of WH more and more, and this one showcases what I like best about his stuff.