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directed by Werner Herzog
USA 2009

 

Based on a true story about a promising young actor (Mark Yavorsky, in 1979 a student at UC-San Diego) whose character in the play he was in kills his mother. One day he walked out of the play and went home and continued the performance.

The Movie: 6
Ordinarily we don’t think of the films of Werner Herzog as comedy. Quite the contrary. In movies from Aguirre the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, to Grizzly Man, Herzog explores the dark side of human nature, that part of us that drives us to impossible goals and, in some cases, enables us to overcome impossible odds. It’s not that a typical Herzog film is entirely bereft of humor (witness his version of Bad Lieutenant) but comedy has not, up until now, been so much in the foreground. For how else are we to understand and respond to My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, a title with a curious rhyming lilt that could portend a punch line as much as tragedy?

On the face of it, the subject, matricide, is hardly a joking matter. If we were to attend only to the dialogue, the movie would appear to explore seriously how such a deed might have come about, but in Herzog’s hands, the result is quite different - emotionally detached, as are we, from the deed, its perpetrator and the effect on those closest to them. This may be no coincidence. As Herzog himself observes in the bonus feature “Behind the Madness” when he met Yavorsky to research his subject he found him quite scary and decided there and then that his movie would not closely follow the life and times of the real-life protagonist. Perhaps Herzog went further in that direction than he meant or perhaps the film represents a new path for him.

As I watched this strange movie - more, I thought, David Lynch than Herzog - I wondered if I were an architect in 1949 when the movie of The Fountainhead came out, if I would be so distracted by questions about the designs used to represent this or that intention of the protagonist that I would be unable to assess or enjoy the film as drama, or metaphor, or whatever. For psychology being my profession, such was the case here.

Michael Shannon plays Brad McCullum, a man, not so young that his girlfriend can’t help but remark that he still lives with his mother (Grace Zabriskie) after thirty-odd years and caters to her every whim. While this might contain the seed to explain his murderous act, Herzog wants to tie in two other events: a kayaking adventure in Peru that left five of his friends dead, and the classic Greek play he had been rehearsing, “Orestes” where the title character, played by Brad, kills his mother in order to put an end to a larger cycle of generational killing.

Herzog and co-writer Herbert Golder are careful not to show us the “pre-morbid” Brad. The story proper is told in flashback interviews, post-Peru, with the fiance, the director of the play and an eyewitness to the murder who says that Brad was “changed” by the incident in South America. Changed from what, we may wonder? When we watch Brad and his mother together in these flashbacks we cannot but assume that their love/hate balance of dependency and antagonisms have always been that way, and that something about Peru and Orestes merely tipped a fated scale. Perhaps.

When he returns from Peru, Brad speaks of having had contact with an “inner voice” that he took as the voice of God cautioning against joining his friends on an adventure that to anyone with the IQ of an avocado would have been seen as suicidal. He has a girlfriend (Chloë Sevigny) of two years who was planning on marrying him in another few weeks, but we never see the slightest whiff of affection exchanged between them. Instead he shares with her his insight as to the identity of God: the face on a box of Puritan Oatmeal. (Who knew!) The director of his play (Udo Kier) says he put up with Brad’s strange behavior because he was talented, but we see no evidence of that talent. Brad’s mother, on the other hand, complains to her son that she bought a grand piano for him but he never plays it.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Brad is clearly certifiable (as was Yavorsky). While the temptation is seductive, even overpowering, those who try to explain schizophrenia in historical, rational terms do so at their peril. Those close to Brad admit only he was “changed” when he returned from Peru. Having the results of his handiwrork, the detectives who arrive on the scene (Willem Dafoe and Michael Peña) take Brad seriously (Brad has holed himself up into his house across the street along with two “hostages”). But then, they hadn’t interviewed him and are only playing the situation by the book. A correct diagnosis would not likely have changed their strategy. (More on this shortly.)

I’m not saying that anyone should have smelled danger about the “changed” Brad, but the fact that his friends were willing to make allowances in one form or another speaks volumes about the kind of social animals we are. I feel that this is the most reliable dramatic thesis in the screenplay, yet it is not underscored by Herzog. What’s more, I remain pretty much unimpressed by any suggestion of cause and effect relationship between the play Brad was rehearsing and the matricide, and I doubt that Herzog would say otherwise. The play and the sword are convenient devices both to mature and crystalize Brad’s pre-existing insanity and for Herzog’s narrative. Bad luck for mom. Werner has a field day with it.

So, what’s all this about a comedy! As Roger Ebert tells us repeatedly, a movie isn’t just about its subject but it’s about how it’s about its subject. At the risk of seeming all film-schooly, starting with the opening scene where Detectives Havenhurst and Vargas joke in the car before they head off to the murder scene, there is hardly a moment, aside from the fleeting shot of the corpse floating in her blood, that isn’t dripping with off-kilter humor. Over here we have the detectives making the oddest measurements of the precise placement of coffee cups on a table in the room adjacent to the murdered victim as if they could have the remotest importance; later we see them standing in the street both with their hands up discussing strategy; and later still, Vargas delivering pizza to a talking garage door. There’s Brad yelling to the detectives through a curtain behind a sliding glass door - as the voice speaks, wizardlike, the curtain moves like he’s breathing directly into it. Then we have the rehearsals of Orestes where Brad stands there dazed, brandishing a lethal sword, and all the director can say is that it’s not a proper Greek sword.

There’s Brad Dourif as Uncle Ted, whose very presence is pure comedy, assisted by a corral full of world’s largest bird in one scene and the world’s smallest man in another. There’s the Peruvian expedition where every man is whacked out of his mind on some hallucinogenic or other, and where only Brad has the good sense not to risk having his brains bashed in by a raging river I wouldn’t dip my toe into – and even he has to invent an “inner voice” to get himself off the hook. But nothing compares to mother herself: the amazing Grace Zabriskie, with cheeks a chipmunk would envy and a glance of pure reproach. Perhaps you remember her as the bobbing head that warns Laura Dern in
Inland Empire... which reminds me again that this movie feels more like David Lynch than Herzog - and not only because of the pink flamingos.)

 

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Theatrical Release: September 6th, 2009 (Venice Film Festival)

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DVD Review: First Look Studios - Region 1 - NTSC

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Distribution

First Look Studios

Region 1 - NTSC

Runtime 1:31:05
Video

1.85:1 Original Aspect Ratio

16X9 enhanced
Average Bitrate: 8.3 mb/s
NTSC 720x480 29.97 f/s

Audio English Dolby Digital 5.1; English Dolby Digital 2.0
Subtitles Englsih SDH, Spanish & None
Features Release Information:
Studio:

Aspect Ratio:
Widescreen anamorphic - 1.85:1

Edition Details:
• Audio Commentary with Director Werner Herzog, Co-Writer Herbert Golder & Producer Eric Bassett
• “Behind the Madness” - with Werner Herzog and co-writer Herbert Golder (27:30)
• “Plastic Bag” - a film by Ramin Rahani (18:25)
• Previews: My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, Leaves of Grass & The Locksmith

DVD Release Date: September 14, 2001
Standard U.S DVD Case

Chapters 12

 

Comments

Image: 4/3
As it happens I do watch a good deal of DVD material so I am not so caught up with high definition video that I can’t appreciate what 480 can look like. So I must report that First Look does not present an image that will make you feel good about spending all that money on your home theater. Despite its high bit rate (averaging about 8.3 Mbps) and its being free of damage and having as little evidence of edge enhancement as any DVD out there, the image is remarkably vague (to call it “soft” would be kind), with no black or much of any tonality to speak of, with swaths of overexposure to the point of having neither color or detail. Having not seen the movie theatrically I cannot comment as to the DVD’s authenticity - only to say if this represents Herzog’s intentions I am at a loss to explain why.

I might add that Herzog shot his movie with the Red One HDCAM which can record at resolutions up to 4,096 horizontal by 2,304 vertical pixels. Other movies shot with the Red One include: The Girlfriend Experience, Che and District 9. Given the results we see in both the theatrical and high def video image for District 9 we have to assume the look of Herzog’s film is intentional post-processing or the result of a transfer accident, and not due to the camera.

As for the possibility of this being a transfer error, I offer these two caps in evidence: the one taken from the DVD feature film, the other from the Making Of Bonus Feature (see last capture). I shall say no more.

Audio: 4/8
It’s unfortunate that 5.1 Surround has become the default expectation these days, because there are some instances – and this movie is a good example - where a simple PCM stereo would have served its intentions much better. Just about everything takes place in the forward channels, even though there are at least two scenes that call out for an immersive soundscape: when Brad and friend stand next to the swollen river rapids and the scene near the end that takes place in the middle of a busy Chinese market.

The only thing that stands out to me as not essentially comical is the music, which, depending on your view of the movie, serves to underscore the pathos or act as counterpoint to it. The sung material - clearly recorded and spaciously presented compared to everything else - is from south of the border, much of which has an arresting bittersweet, nostalgic quality. This is especially true of both the music under the title credits and the long held shot in the winter forest. You might recognize the latter (“Cu Cu Ru Cu Cu Paloma”) from Happy Together where Wong Kar Wai used it as the camera pans across Iguazu Falls. The song is so mesmerizing and affecting that it transcends the need for translation and demands to be played in the foreground. Herzog begins the song behind dialogue but soon stops the action on the screen altogether as it continues its lament.

Extras: 8
The extra features for First Look’s DVD cover the required areas of interest, plus a bonus. First up is an audio commentary with the director, co-writer Herbert Golder & producer Eric Bassett that accompanies the length of the movie, a fascinating trialogue in its own right. Herzog is always intriguing, even if his subject is often himself and not the movie.

In “Behind the Madness” Herzog and co-writer Herbert Golder talk about how they came to this project, the real life inspiration for their film and how and why they reconsidered it for cinematic purposes. Even though Golder had interviewed Yavorsky extensively and Herzog met him once, their movie is not in any way a documentary, nor, for that matter, all that much about the real killer.

“Plastic Bag,” narrated by Herzog and directed by by Ramin Rahani, is an eighteen minute film about the life of a plastic grocery bag. Wry and worth your time.

Recommendation: 4
The picture quality of First Look’s DVD of My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done is even less inviting than David Lynch’s Inland Empire. I have some trouble seeing the point of it, except to suggest a dreamlike state - and even then, it strikes me as contrary for its own sake. The audio is acceptable if unremarkable. Extra Features are interesting. The movie is not typical of this director - not in style, tone, or photography, yet Herzog is still recognizable under the hood. Rent it first. It’s an odd chicken, but you might like it
 

  - Leonard Norwitz

 



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 First Look Studios (Feature) - Region 1 - NTSC TOP vs. First Look Studios (EXTRAS) - Region 1 - NTSC BOTTOM

 


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Region 1 - NTSC

 

 




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