Saturday, September 25, 2010

Maggie 2010: A Lifetime's Narratives, Condensed

#105. My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?

There is a point halfway through this film, inspired by the true story of a man who stabbed his mother to death, when director Werner Herzog holds before his viewers three men in near tableau. The man on the bottom right is the murderer, Brad McCallum (Michael Shannon), in a flashback long before he barricades himself in his house with two hostages, an action demanding the full attention of Detective Hank Havenhurst (Willem Dafoe) until SWAT arrives. The man on the bottom left is Brad's Uncle Ted (Brad Dourif), who claims to have once raised the world's largest chicken and now operates a sprawling ostrich farm when Brad brings his theatre director, Lee Meyers (Udo Kier), to pick up a sword prop for a production of "Orestes," in which Brad's character slays his own mother to bring an end to a bloody line of vengeance-seekers. The third man, standing on what one character claims is the "biggest tree on the planet" (I would argue "stump"), is a dwarf in a tuxedo, who speaks no lines in this film at all.

If you have never before seen a Herzog film, I would almost urge you to start My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? right here, in the full minute we spend just watching these three watch us back: not because the half of the film that comes before it is lacking; but because here Herzog takes a simple matter of setting his camera on three men, three arresting points against a backdrop of wilderness, and in so doing provides for his viewers a level of estrangement, of implacable restlessness, that has virtually no equal in the cinematic world. You simply cannot take in the image as a whole, and, forced to rely instead on component parts, one at a time, you quickly discover there is no one place to rest your eyes: despite their varying levels of importance to the plot, the film as a whole, no primacy exists at all between these three characters. They simply are, and they are waiting; Herzog is waiting, too; therefore so must you.

The notion of component parts comes very easily to bear on the rest of this film, intersecting as it does with so much of Herzog's preceding canon, and yet administered with such delicacy amid artifice that one can never be quite certain of intentionality. Certainly, the interaction between German theatre director and mad, disruptive actor cannot help but be seen in the light of Herzog's years with the irascible Klaus Kinski. Nor can the flashbacks set amid the mountains and rapids of Peru help but bring to mind the madness narrative of Aguirre: The Wrath of God or the futility arc of Fitzcarraldo. And of course, the very setting, the central framing of the tale around the day's work of a city detective, brings to bear all the genre-specific styling Herzog tinkered with in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. With so much obvious reference gently laid out for his viewers, the mind begins to see signs everywhere. Is the dwarf a testament to Even Dwarfs Started Small? Is the entire premise of Brad holding so many others to the light of his madness by barricading himself in his home, his fortress, indicative of Signs of Life?

And what of all the birds? Flamingos, ostriches, talk of chickens (which Herzog famously hates); what reptiles were to Terence McDonagh in Bad Lieutenant, birds are, explicitly, as nemeses or alter egos, to Brad here. As Havenhurst deconstructs the events in Brad's life leading up to this slaying of the all-too-doting mother (Grace Zabriskie), he is aided by Lee, the theatre director, and Brad's fiancee, Ingrid (Chloe Sevigny, who looks like she walked off the set of Big Love without a wardrobe, hair, or character change), and witnesses to the murder, Miss Roberts (Loretta Devine) and Mrs. Roberts (Irma P. Hall). The stories therein told cut between past and present with Herzog's usual indifference to gradual transition, but for this abruptness he permits us to linger instead on the unexpected whenever we're thrust upon it -- a "tunnel of time ... a perfect stage for a cosmic melodrama" in the Calgary airport; a cattle market in lowlands Peru; a wide and bracing shot of Havenhurst venturing unarmed into the static cactus and pink stucco landscape of Brad's surrounded home.

Havenhurst's partner, an unseasoned detective named Vargas (Michael Pena), holds up only as a foil in this film, an unexploited nod to the necessities of the cop drama; but Herzog's camerawork sustains no fealty to the slick demands of the same. If Herzog wants a tableau, say, he won't take the easy shortcut of snapping a still, but instead ask his actors to be still, then capture the intimate failings of the human body's every attempt. Similarly, if he's going to zoom in on a murder, he's also not going to worry about getting the shot without minute shaking around corners of the rooms; nor is he going to play that instability to hyperbolic effect: the middle ground simply is what it is. It is "real".

But "real" is, of course, a difficult concept in any Herzog film. At times one might wonder, for instance, why characters like Ingrid and Lee permit so much from Brad for so long -- why he is gently accepted in his bewildering statements and actions, and not left without job or companion. However, in My Son, My Son... Herzog is not stingy with his moments, his glimmers, through which you can see how Brad might have been when fiancee and director first met him: the sense of humour, the intuitive flair for the dramatic arts. Moments, that is, when viewers are left room to assert their own brand of sanity, of inner calm, upon the quiet madness still and always brewing in Brad's converted mind, and from this imposition incur the same, niggling hope for natural recovery that must surely exist in fiancee and friend.

It is, in the end, this unending tension between the blatant, the abrupt, the clearly artificial, and the nuance, the subtlety, the telegraphing of intent without injuring the journey, that sustains this film and establishes its director's brand so classically and elaborately. Viewers know from very near the outset of the piece who Brad's two hostages are, and in that way are freed from a sense of tension, of dread, about outcome as they traverse Brad's richly troubled world. In My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? the monstrous has already happened by the time the film begins; the beautiful alone remains to be revealed -- which is why, of course, Herzog's come.

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