Monday, June 20, 2011

My son, my son, what have ye done: Grade A


My son, my son, what have ye done (2010)

Willem Dafoe, Michael Shannon , Chloe Sevigny; Grace Zabriski; Co-writer and director: Werner Herzog.

This very non-traditional, and very Herzoggian film is not for those who insist on a conventional story. It is a collection of creative scenes and stunning cinematography, loosely held together by the story of a police hostage situation in San Diego. And I emphasize “loosely.” But for Herzog fans, and David Lynch fans, this movie is exciting and challenging.

Shannon plays an insane stage actor who kills his mother (Zabriski) with a sword, then retreats into his house with hostages. Dafoe is the police detective who tries to talk him out, but eventually calls in the SWAT. But that story is just a framing device for other characters to fill in the background with flashbacks, as the detective interviews them. Sevigny is the killer’s fiancé and does most of the talking. She reveals that the suspect became “strange” after he returned from a trip to Peru, and after that he was disruptive in the play rehearsals (the classical Greek Tragedy, Electra, in which a man kills his mother) that they were both in (the fiancé playing the part of the mother).

We in the audience see immediately that the man has gone schizophrenic, hearing voices and speaking madness, but the fiancé must have never taken a psychology class, because she tolerates him. But this movie is not about realism. It’s about creative filmmaking. The so-called “story” is just an excuse to shoot fantastic scenes, such as a stampede at an ostrich farm, and an extremely good Greek chorus singing in the Electra play. There are too many other non-sequitur scenes to mention, but each of them is challenging, and thrillingly creative. Herzog channels Lynch, who was an executive producer but apparently did not have a hands-on role.

It’s not a perfect movie. The acting is wooden and the speeches contrived. The characters are symbols, not people. There is no dramatic tension, because we don’t care about the hostage situation or any of the characters. There are some obvious and distracting green-screen shots.

But the music is wonderful, some kind of Spanish language singing, and the scenery and sets are perfect. I tried to find the meaning of the San Diego matricide within the ancient Electra story, but the parallel is no more than a loose analogy. A study of insanity, it isn’t: Guy goes nuts, the end. A cop show, it isn’t. Good storytelling, it isn’t. The movie is only about exploring the creative boundaries of filmic, visual language, and by that criterion, it is an artistic triumph. But not for everybody.

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