Thursday, September 09, 2010

The Kinski Precipice: Herzog's MY SON, MY SON, WHAT HAVE YE DONE? (2009)

morte magis metuenda senectus...

Despite its wordy title and relative 'smallness' of scope, MY SON, MY SON is awful good. David Lynch produced (note the LOST HIGHWAY bathroom above), Herzog directed and it turns out they share a lot of sinthoms: deep woods, coffee, dwarfs, murder, Piper Laurie, transcending time and space; you can feel their collaborative heat shimmering on the horizon even when nothing else is happening, as it usually isn't.

I've loved David Lynch even when I hated him, but up until the awesome BAD LIEUTENANT 2: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS, I admit I had a hard time with Werner Herzog. For example: I just couldn't 'get' AGUIRRE, WRATH OF GOD (monkey armies? When?) and GRIZZLY MAN (there's audio of a fatal bear attack and you just show yourself listening to it on headphones and don't let us hear it? I made a whole movie savaging that decision) Then there's Herzog's titles, which like MY SON... are often whole sentences in length: LITTLE DIETER NEEDS TO FLY? Excuse me? Am I blocking the runway? EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL? Es tu serio? Do we expect them to be born larger than normal?! My Argentine ex-wife had an old moldy PAL tape of DWARFS on our shelf for years and just the spine filled me with horror at the thought she would one day force me to watch it. It was the title more than anything else, a dumb jokey pun supposedly underlying some kind of GUMMO reconstruction of JACKASS-style hooliganism. As a Herzog title might read, I THANK YOU VERY MUCH BUT I'D RATHER GET A ROOT CANAL).

But now that I'm old and wise and have a good DVD player, am divorced from that Argentine --the moldy PAL tapes are gone and I've grown to appreciate Herzog's hallucinatory nautra metus, his anthropological mysticism, his lysergucolic documentario-synclasticism, his willingness to let an eye for artistic composition and high strangeness give the impression his static panoramas are hurtling across time and space far faster than the rest of the planet,  which turns out to be the same thing as standing motionless while the planet revolves below. I can't help but admire his willingness to heedlessly plummet into the void of insanity alongside any character who happens to be going that way, rather than hanging around on the precipice making excuses like Barbet Schroeder, even if the result is sometimes the same.

Newly minted in my admiration, I went into MY SON MY SON, WHAT HAVE YE DONE (2009) with open arms... and came out opened, and exposed.

Based on a true story about a troubled California man who killed his own mother after getting too deep into his part in a local production of Elektra. Herzog takes that germ of police blotter headline and brings (of course) a journey to Peru into it and cranks the insanity til it floods every corner. Michael Shannon plays the matricide perp, Brad. A recording of long-dead and tres obscure traveling blind preacher Washington Phillips singing "I was Born to Preach the Gospel" plays the voice of God, while the Quaker Oats guy on the Oats tub in the pantry supplied God's beaming face (and it's an effective combination); Chloe Sevigny is Brad's patient girlfriend. She tries to channel his madness by bringing him into her theater group, but you can't exorcise holy madness with the Orestia... she should have waited til they covered Bye Bye Birdy. Better she should move on, there's nothing he has anyone could possibly want... She should, like, call me. Compared to Brad, I'm the picture of sanity.

do ya bend mighty low?
The cast overflows with stock regulars from both Lynch's and Herzog's collective oeuvre: Brad Dourif channels Jack Nance as Brad's ostrich-farming uncle; Willem Dafoe is the hostage negotiator; Udo Kier the theater director; Piper Laurie the sad, isolated micro-meddling mother who pushes her boy over the edge his own psychotic inner voice has led him to, the same voice that warned him at the last minute not to kayaking with his hippie friends (they all drown, offscreen).

Awakened and chastened by this near miss with fate, Brad takes the blinders off, cleanses his doors of perception and loses his shit tripping on all the old peasant faces along the Peruvian waterfront. He gets all Jeff Bridges FEARLESS and and throws aside the handlebars that would keep him from tumbling off his tricyclics into the broken glass streets of messianic schizophrenia.

Back at home his clinging mom thinks the answer to his madness is more Jello. And so what can a poor man do, once Orestes starts speaking to him from across the centuries, but carve his way to freedom? Well, most of us would just move out, as he should have long ago...

As Don Wilson of the Jack Benny show used to say, "there's only one Jello! Look for the big red letters on the box!"

On that note, I think the part of Herzog's quest to find the holy grail of pure charismatic messianic madness and capture it on film may be a smokescreen for his private worry he already found it and lost it, namely in the eyes of the late Klaus Kinski. For the recent BAD LIEUTENANT--of which MY SON is almost a sequel thanks to similar cinematic patina and supporting cast (Shannon, Brad Douriff, Imra P. Hall, and Michael Pena)--Nic Cage brought his own line of insanity, a hipster American Kinski with more of a gonzo sense of self-aware humor. There was little room left in BAD LIEUTENANT for Herzog to project his post-Kinski stress disorder -- Cage filled the void. But Shannon doesn't have that leading man glow. Without a strong lead to delimit his relentless naturalism, Herzog's liable to forget that it helps our appreciation of onscreen derangement if we first see someone else in the film act normal at least once or twice. This lets us get our bearings, gives us a direction in which to go.

In other words, watching Kinski go insane was watching Kinski, but you can tell Michael Shannon isn't really crazy --he's just a moderately reptilian-looking actor exploring the full scope of the manic-messianic complex. There's no charm to his insanity, no charisma, no reason we can see for anyone to put up with his ravings. Unlike, say, Robert Duvall in THE APOSTLE or Graham Faulkner in BROTHER SUN SISTER MOON or Gregory Peck in MOBY DICK, you don't want to throw down your breadcrumb sins and follow him outside the gates of Eden.

Someone like Kinski may have been unbearable to work with but we can see why Herzog kept going back to him. Remember when Klaus was a hunchback shot by Lee Van Cleef in A FEW DOLLARS MORE? I mean look at those eyes (below), they're worth enduring any amount of abuse, if you truly care about making archetypal myth, of capturing genuine madness which is the 'only performance that truly makes it." Michael Shannon just doesn't achieve it, he doesn't have that same unholy glint of mischief in his eyes. He can act crazy very well--he even looks crazy--but he's not crazy. You can't fake it that deep. You are or your aren't. God, when are they going to put Huston's FREUD out on DVD, so we can see Kinski make love to a wooden leg? I'm standing by, wad of bills in hand.

Other cast members of MY SON don't have the (lack of) madness problem: Willem Dafoe as the homicide detective and Udo Kier as the theater director are more terrifying trying to do 'straight' than Shannon is trying to do 'crazy.' But since the ensuing flashback episodes are all there to illustrate 'how it came to this,' they're all about Brad's 'increasingly unstable behavior' and that's the problem. Why didn't someone recognize he needed psychiatric care long before this? And the flashbacks require us to also wonder why anyone would endure him and his messianic madness if he's not funny, hot, magnetic or fascinating to be around? Was he ever normal? A contrast to a pre-crazy time would have made the crazy either tragic or positive.

This guy knows what I'm talking about. Sane Udo is crazy anyone else... and we love him for it.

As the Herzog stand-in to Shannon's mercurial Kinski, Udo Kier indulges his lead actor's tantrums and irrational mood swings with the resignation of a rich older gay man indulging the violent whims of his rough trade houseboy. It's an indulgence that only vaguely taps into he genuine fascination artists feel around those crazier than they are, nor does it illuminate the horrific toll of soul-emptying world weariness it takes to do a film or a play with someone who's completely delusional. Just to try and get even a little of that mercurial lightning on record one has to risk death, money and aggravation. But unable to connect to Shannon, Kier doesn't project the fascination and structuring talent that would possibly placate his star. Since their relationship never becomes vibrant or larger than life, we never really understand why they even bother hanging out with each other. Shannon's Brad doesn't need a man, he needs a doctor with a talent for convincing paranoid schizophrenics that anti-psychotic medication is oatmeal straight from God's loving farm.

Herzog's worked with other crazies besides Kinski, of course, many of them clinically insane, but since Shannon doesn't bring any of his own looney tunes baggage, he has to settle for whatever was left behind by past actors in the vine-covered boarding house of Herzog's fetid, fecund vision. And we sense--not by any mannerisms or tells on Shannon's part--Kinski is working ghostly machinations between the synapses, a matchmaker creating the space and then stepping back into the shadows, perhaps too far. One hungers to see Shannon give us just a little of, say, the primal scream commitment of Crispin Glover screaming in fear at the sight of a single black glove on the kitchen floor in Lynch's WILD AT HEART or Nic Cage babbling about his lucky crack pipe in BL2.

The collaboration between Cage and Herzog gave that film a reckless, exhilarating momentum, but the Lynch-Herzog -Shannon collaboration neglects the 'glue' of normal 'strong' grounding characters like Eva Mendez's prostitute in BL2, or a Lynchian warm maternal heroine like Naomi Watts or Laura Dern. Willem Dafoe tries to be grounded as the homicide detective on the scene, but Dafoe will never be able to play 'grounded' --the more he tries, the creepier he gets --and I mean that as a compliment. He's too nice and sweet a soul to play one on TV. He's warmer when he's colder.

In the end, what can we deduce about Herzog's pet motifs?  Hanging out with messianic schizophrenics keeps him sane, maybe, but he'd never get so many details of the devouring maternal Dionysian Kali goddess so very exactly right without firsthand witness to the giant mantis alien that sucks the psionic marrow out of every unopened third eye (which is why society is structured to keep the third eyes shut at all times.)

This mantis isn't actually a hallucination --it's the only real there is, and the ability to see the way blood runs in rivers just behind the thin adhesive bandage of temporal reality's aching skin--  hurtling in every car ride towards crushed oblivion-- is enough to make you gouge your eyes out, to no avail. (like that cut line "I can still see!" on THE MAN WITH X-RAY EYES).

Enlightenment and spiritual awakening in the average individual leads to separation from the social order, which has no way to gauge or evaluate the sudden conversion of a once-normal 9-5 office drone into a state of 'holy madness.' The only difference between schizophrenia and holy spirit, then, is time and place, coherence of expression, and artistic outlet. For example, Brad's crazy mom spoils him, buys him instruments and art supplies and paper the moment he evinces a whim to try something artsy (music, painting, etc). He's thus blocked from doing any art because of her suffocating supportiveness. If she could just leave him alone, or provide him with rules to rebel against, his madness would have contours to call its own.

Seriously, didn't any of the people involved in this film ask themselves how or why someone so clearly suffering from latent schizophrenia brought on by survivor's guilt and an overbearing mother would manage to keep any friends or colleagues, let alone get to date Chloe Sevigny!? What's wrong with this land, this America refracted through the Herzo-Lynchian fantasmatic? I do not know. But here's what I did learn from MY SON MY SON:

1. The only way to channel holy madness without creating misery or your own crucifixion is to create art. BUT a true artist can get so deep into their character they can't get back out. Don't think it doesn't happen! The Joker killed Heath Ledger.

2. No matter how bad things get, old country blues and/or gospel can save you. They should play the blues round the clock in insane asylums. When I was deep in misery,  I used to sit around listening to old LPs of Blind Blake, John Lee Hooker, Leadbelly and Blind Lemon Jefferson, and always felt better, and when things got really bad, Washington Phillips, whose "What a friend We have in Jesus" has been the closer on dozens of my mix tapes, perfect right after Zeppelin's "Achilles Last Stand." For Brad, it's Phillips' "I was Born to Preach the Gospel (and I sure do love my job)" which he takes literally as a cosmic message. Dude! I've so been there. Part of the reason the LSD San Francisco rock scene covered so many old blues songs becomes apparent (beyond the post-folk revival) in this context. Nothing gets you out of a bad trip head space faster.

3. To really escape the mantis and open the third eye, an artist/writer needs to break away from their urge to always write things down and reconfigure all experience in the terms of their art, to instead live in the moment in pure joy and unrestricted awareness. Art--though higher then most other forms of escape--is still escape, a way to break short of merging into the all-consuming flame of direct spiritual experience, i.e. complete surrender of ego, of self as different than other people and the world around you and the stars around that. Instead, we get really, really close and then remove ourselves from the moment in order to write it down, photograph it, draw it, record it... etc. Creating art may be what stops us from going over the edge of madness, but unless we let go of the rope once in awhile we'll never see the bottom, so what can we really talk about other than our own navels? We will never accept death, never leave our body, nor dissolve in the oceanic sea, and suddenly re-assemble as if every cell of our body had just been to the cleaners --unless we plunge, sans pen, sans camera, sans eyes, sans everything into the abyss and therefore back into ourselves, forever changed back to the same.

Perhaps this last idea is succinctly exemplified in the way we will spend a vacation in an exotic foreign land squinting through our cameras rather than soaking up the views with both eyes open. We find ourselves saying "isn't this fun?" or "Oh, look at that mountain, honey!" or "Caitlin, are you having a good time, Caitlin?" as if needing to constantly bring ourselves back from the abyss of pure egoless presence, preferring to work on solidifying the memory of joy via photos and talking rather than abandoning language and recording devices at the door, so to speak. Writing helps us remember moments that we never really had a chance to experience because we couldn't wait to get home and write about them. We think if we let go of the rope it will swing back our way, but it doesn't. A new and better one, electric, plugged right into mainline of God's flexed arm like a two-way morphine drip, comes instead, once it's too late... that's what faith is - that leap into the blackness on the chance someone's gonna swing out and grab you from the other side of the big tent.

4.  Freedom from Permanence: This is beautifully realized in a scene with Shannon hiding out in a dark Mexican hotel, raising and lowering a glowing bare light bulb down into the center of a ring of prescription eyeglasses, and then back up again, creating a flower/sun/Tiffany lamp/mandala pattern shadow on the table--a brilliant illustration of the freedom an artist has once they've let go of trying to record and preserve everything. Each raising and lowering of the bulb is a perfect mandala sun flower, unique and non-reproducible. Brad has no need to figure out how to film it, record it, or get it into a gallery or make money or gain fame from it. He's just in it for the beauty. Riveted. All else gone to shadow.

The moral of the story? Next time you're really in it for the beauty and you get that tap on the shoulder from the giant electric hand of your Quaker Oat God, try not announcing  to everyone how spiritual you, just 'be' in that space and come to terms with the value of your own direct experience. Keep it a secret that you can express only in anonymous good deeds.

The ego, like any lover, thrives on adversity --the longer you ignore the ego the sweeter its songs. It starts giving you more of its hoarded stash of dopamine when it feels you may no longer need it. You learn your ego's sitting on a huge cache of solar brilliance and spoon-feeding you muddy shadows to keep itself in power. The person who is deemed mad has managed somehow to knock his ego off its throne (be it by drugs, electro-shock, lack of sleep, meditation, etc.) and break open the cache and let all the dopamine sunlight flood the whole damned place. This person is labeled mad because he initially feels a huge urge to keep this holy state going as long as possible, and to help others get there too. That rarely works though. Better he should learn to let go off both those urges, to surrender even that goal. Instead of shaking the lapels of those still asleep, he should just pray and chant on his own time. Otherwise they just might have to burn him at the stake or crucify him.  He better keep the ego around, after all, in however a diminished form, to not upset the apple cart. He can balance that all out in art, express in art what would be madness expressed directly. He can bury all kinds of magnificent truths people aren't ready to hear any other way. As people in the world with our own egos to deal with, we dismiss ideas that challenge them outright, but the ego feels no threat from a good fiction. Let this art stealthily address ideas of madness and artistry and even tell tales of newly-minted holy men wondering where they're supposed to go now that they're selfless in a selfish world they themselves have made. Ain't that what this is?

 MY SON MY SON conveys the way spiritual enlightenment won too soon can let the ego in through the back door and turn one into a raving lunatic. When the house is only "almost" empty, it's really not empty at all. Roaches and rats lay claim to the podium. You can spot a rat messiah a mile off, and you should run quick away.

Unless of course, like Herzog, you like to make movies about rat messiahs. Ja? In that case better make sure you have at least one very magnetic, very charismatic rat. If you don't... you just might wind up adrift on a raft heading down the Amazon towards unseen rapids... and not a camera in sight.

1 comment:

  1. I thought the movie was hilarious, and somewhat of a playful and humorous slant on Herzog's previous themes and motifs. Maybe a good comparison would be Bunuel with Discreet Charm and Phantom of Liberty. The scene at the ostrich farm might be the funniest scene I've seen in a film this year. So...good read, some very interesting points.


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