EIFF 2010 Film Review: My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?

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“Why is the whole world staring at me?”

(My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, Werner Herzog, US, 2009, 90mins)

“My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?”. A substitute for the pronouncement made by Mark Yavorsky’s mother as he ran her through with an antique katana. A quote both from the Bible and a Euripedes play – Herakles. Nothing could be more fitting. It is a quote ringing out of Brad’s bad dream.

[Note: This review reveals almost all key plot points]

Mark Yavorsky was a San Diego dramatic student, whom in 1979 played the part of Orestes (in Euripedes’ eponymous play) by slaughtering his real-life mother with a sabre. Werner Herzog is the living embodiment of German Romanticism, whose first film in 1962 was titled Herakles. His newest film interprets the life of Yavorsky through Brad McCallum (Michael Shannon), who has a penchant for quoting the Bible (“Job 39:13 … does the ostrich flap its wings in joy, or do its wings lack feathers?”). Which of these facts are coincidences and which have causal connections? By Brad’s dream logic, they must all be fundamentally related. Such imaginings are part of what prepares him to internalise and live out classical tragedy – amongst other inspirations made material in his suggestible, oneiric state.

Herzog claims that around three quarters of the script is original fiction. Prior to production (but not necessarily as part of research for the script), Herzog visited with Yavorsky (for reasons you are welcome to conjure for yourself). He described the former psychiatric inmate as “argumentative”, as does Lee Myers (Udo Kier) in his discourse on Brad – a delightfully neutral turn of phrase, if not a total understatement. Herzog alleges that Yavorsky keeps in his trailer a shrine to Aguirre – the antihero of der Zorn Gottes, and the prototypical self-deified director-symbolic focal point for all Herzog’s studies of sanity in nature. Could this be made-up exegesis, or is it another disturbing coincidence? A question beside the point – Herzog’s fact-as-fiction has always involved an element of myth-making.

Here, for the first time, myth per se appears as an explicit subject. Herzog claims his “fascination is…looking into the deep abyss of the soul”, which is partly the point of mythic tragedies like Orestes (or Sophocles’ original Oresteia, the play Brad rehearses for My Son, My Son…). Yet the principal writer was not Herzog, but Herbert Golder, Professor of Classical Civilization at Boston University. He spent a great deal of time with Yavorsky in the early 1990s, after discovering his case at a drama conference, anatomised by a lecturing psychologist. (Incidentally, on these trips he too saw the poster of Aguirre, amongst many quotes and images crowding the walls, and by coincidence was spending time with Herzog after hours). Golder’s interest was in a man whose apparent madness drew him to live the part of Orestes, and he persuaded Yavorsky to participate by promising to treat his case poetically and mythically.

There is no question of Brad’s madness. Brad kills his mother, then the police lay siege to his home while he holds hostage McDougal and McNamara, his pet flamingos. But any line between sanity and insanity is also beside the point. He completely disconnects from mutually comprehensible modes of discourse – he discloses personal visions spontaneously and without solicitation; he cannot respond to questions or participate in conversations with any coherence. He deliberately discards familiar language in favour of quotes and aphorisms (“I was born to preach the gospel”, rings out on his stereo), in a vain attempt to escape modern culture. His statements sound like pseudo-prophetic rambling, but also a little like the grandiose things Herzog says when implying our existential groundlessness. Herzog’s camera shares Brad’s perspective throughout.

To Brad (to us), characters who participate in the artifice of conversational language do not  disclose themselves as actors reading a script, but nor are they realistic or natural – they sound as though “playing a part” in a theatrical reality – as if trying to form sentences in a foreign language. Detective Hank (Willem Dafoe), fiancé Ingrid (Chloë Sevigny), and theatre director Lee are all foreigners failing to become fluent (“Jesus God”, exclaims Lee). Dafoe even seems to adopt some of Lynch’s own characteristic quirks of speech. Brad views his mother (Grace Zabriskie) as entirely unhinged, a pathological mother nearly as disconnected from comprehensible body language as he is from the verbal. Only his Uncle Ted (Brad Dourif) appears at home with his extraordinary idioms (“A Greek play! The only thing Greeks know how to play with is each other’s balls”).

As his fiancé and director relate Brad’s back-story, he dreams of his travels. Originally intending to set these scenes in the western Himalayas (revealed by Brad’s nominal interest in converting to Islam), Herzog moved the setting (allegedly for safety reasons) to his favourite region in Peru, on the Urubamba river. Here he shot both Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes and Fitzcarraldo. This choice certainly better suited Brad, given Yavorsky’s fixation on Aguirre. If the real Yavorsky played fictive Aguirre, it makes perfect sense for fictive Brad to play the real Kinski. And Kinski was to Herzog what Brad is to Lee – a visionary actor he can no longer work with (whose extraordinary talent blinds people to his inherent madness – “talented, but he gave me problems. Hmm, hmm,” Lee titters hammily). But Brad is quite unlike Kinski and Aguirre, in that he does not wish to impose his will on the world – he is a dreamer, wrapped up in his separate world to deadly effect.

The attraction of Brad for Herzog (and Golder) is the poetic beauty of his chaotic, uninhibited self-expression. The way he creatively shapes his ‘madness’ contradicts the empiricist’s orderly structuring of life. He seeks primordial experience – ancient life disconnected from the increasingly artificial present. Brad’s love of nature is directed at descendants of extinct species – ostriches, flamingos – “dinosaurs in drag”. Brad rails against his peers failing to recognise imminent reality, compelled as they are by thrill seeking or New Ageism (“This is the river. This is reality…Stop meditating! I want people to think, come up with a coherent argument!”).

“I’m not going rafting down that river. I’m not going to take your vitamin pills.” [thunder clap] “I’m not going to take your vitamin pills … I’m not going to discover my boundaries. I am going to stunt my inner growth. I think I shall become a Muslim. Call me Farouq.” Brad’s desire to dissociate himself from the real world is galvanised when he prophesies the deaths of his travelling companions on the Urubamba. From then on he views himself as a true prophet. “God is here. He’s in the house with me. But I don’t need him any more.” His predictions just keep coming true. Brad leaves his basketball in a park, “hoping some young future player will find it”, and in the final shot of the film this comes true.

Transcendent experience is drawn from his presence to awesome nature – a sublime void – inhuman mountains and voracious rivers. Fear of nature – a species of respect – gives meaning to words that were vacuous in The Fountain – “death is awe”. Struck by the possibility, Brad reportedly tells his fiancé (when she lies at his feet, his murdered mother in Oresteia) that he’s “never killed anything bigger than a chicken”. To re-enact the ancient tragic climax – to once again end a blood feud as old as the gods (the idea planted in his thoughts by Lee) – is the most ancient and authentic experience he can conceive of. “Razzle them. Dazzle them. Razzle dazzle them.”

My Son, My Son… is geared toward stimulating viewing experience as much as it is an elliptical study of its central figure. The claustrophobia and creeping sense of dread that Herzog explicitly sought is brought out in his own trademark fixation on fauna, domineering cityscapes (San Diego looks like Monument Valley) and jungle; Lynch brings it out more acutely with dissonant cello scoring (the antithesis of ‘mood music’ sentimentality), distressingly long shots of faces and obsession with how uncanny everyday objects can be. Yet a sense of vast, expansive freedom is established in Peruvian mountains; aphoristic outbursts from Brad; the passion of performance and aesthetic appreciation of architecture (“the perfect stage for a cosmic melodrama”); an ultimate refusal to judge, coupled with optimism about self-creation (or creative self-destruction). Bringing together the elliptical with the infinite mirrors the creative fusion of drama (Herzog) and dream (Lynch). Their product is the boundless yet irreducibly personal world of Brad.

Nods to Lynch abound, ranging from the strange, mocking care with which the detective serves coffee to his interviewees, to the appearance of a dwarf in black tie, in a scene where Uncle Ted ecstatically describes the possible reality of a trompe d’oeil (a dwarf riding the smallest horse in the world, chased around the largest tree by the biggest chicken in the world – “the rooster, the rider of the apocalypse” – accompanied by the most exquisite Spanish singing and guitar). All of these features combine to create the aura of an individual’s own richly conceived, intangibly anxious nightmare. This, and those influences outlined above, are definitely the work of Herzog, dancing in tune to Lynch, perhaps out of creative deference, and gratitude for financing a film that had languished without finance for too long.

Shooting on digital video was necessary on a tight budget. It affords a couple of tight, eerie shots reminiscent of Herzog’s lizard’s-eye view in Bad Lieutenant – a kind of out-of-body experience for Brad. It also facilitates expressive mise-en-scène, such as slowing down time around Brad (“Did you see that Ingrid? The whole world almost stopped…”), and a haunting sequence in which the camera invades an Uyghur market, eyeballing the Xinjiang peoples, to draw out their combative stares (“Why is the whole world staring at me? Why are the mountains staring at me? Why do the clouds look down upon me?”). The style never ceases to be restrained, composed, stable – using a cumbersome high-definition Red One camera may have forced this, but it’s effective nonetheless.

Herzog borrows some of the most vigourous techniques from Japanese film tradition – after a torturous dinner showcases the maddening relationship between Brad and his mother (Zabriskie), all three actors pose in a living freeze-frame – a moment of extended stasis drawn from Kabuki and made famous on film by Kurosawa. Another living freeze arranges Brad, Ted and the dwarf from their fantasy in a trinity. The film has a preoccupation with stasis, as when Brad walks the wrong way down an escalator in Calgary, fixing him to the spot in the middle of a glass and metal architectural feature that he’s taken for a tunnel through time. Or when he recalls discovering “the still point. The unwobbling pivot of the world” in a mid-air basketball shot.

Shannon (who last appeared at  EIFF with The Missing Person) is a dazzling presence. His unhinged performance and heavy stature recall Karloff’s Frankenstein – though he delivers lines like Jack Nance under Lynch’s direction. Each actor is perfectly cast, and brings their own strange flavour to the ensemble. What they achieve with such a minimal narrative is astonishing. Such fine acting and direction will be hard to find anywhere else at the festival.

My Son, My Son… will not entertain audiences on the scale of Bad Lieutenant, nor should it. But it remains deeply fascinating, and probably the greater work. Comparing the two beasts seems facile given the narrative minimalism of the former and the televisual fragmentation of the latter. If we must, My Son, My Son… has much more to say. It is said with a power almost unmatched throughout the rest of Herzog’s career – this is something of an apotheosis. If you seek simplicity, fun, escape or joy at the cinema, it’s likely not for you. But if you are intrigued by complexity, challenge, something nasty sneaking up on you – if you’ve a dark heart beating inside – My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done? is unmissable.

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