Psychedelic Film Criticism for the Already Deranged

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 won't play it?) Then there's Herzog's titles, which 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? That's the title of your film? Why? Do we expect them to be born larger than normal! My Argentine ex-wife had an old moldy used/Buenos Aires 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. Nothing personal. I was just a dumb Yankee at the time, and knew for example, nothing of the rest of the world and the little creatures in it. It was the title more than anything else, a dumb jokey pun supposedly underlying some kind of GUMMO reconstruction of JACKASS-style hooliganism.

But now that I'm old and wise and have a good DVD player, am divorced, and more tolerant of my naturalistic German side, I'm perhaps better equipped to recognize my own issues tainting the clarity of Herzog's hallucinatory nautra metus. I am growing up/into appreciating his mix of German anthropological mysticism and lysergucolic documentario-synclasticism; and how his willingness to let an eye for artistic composition and high strangeness turn his narrative into a static panorama that seem to be hurtling across time and space far faster than the rest of the planet. I can't help but admire and love Herzog's 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 emptied.

Based on a true story about a troubled California man who killed his own mother after getting too deep into his part in a theater production of Elektra. Herzog takes that germ of police blotter headline and brings (of course) a journey to Peru into it. 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 Brad's pantry plays God's beaming face (and it's an effective combination). Chloe Sevigny plays Brad's patient girlfriend who tries to channel Brad's 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. 

do ya bend mighty low?
The cast overflows with stock regulars from both Lynch's and Herzog's collective oeuvre: Brad Dourif does a dead-on Jack Nance as Brad's ostrich-farming uncle; Willem Dafoe is the hostage negotiator; Udo Kier the theater director; Piper Laurie the tragic mom --a sad, isolated lonely figure whose good-natured micro-meddling helps push Brad over the edge. The main culprit for that actually is an inner voice that warns Brad at the last minute not to go kayaking with his hippie friends in Peru (they all drown, offscreen). Awakened and chastened by this near miss, 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/or Jules at the end of PULP FICTION 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 is madness is more Jello. And so what can a poor man do, once Orestes starts speaking to him from across the centuries, bidding him that old samurai sword of his uncles like a mast to wave? 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 madness may be a smokescreen for his private worry he already found it and lost it, namely in the eyes of the late, great difficult 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 humor. There was little room left for Herzog to project his post-Kinski stress disorder -- Cage filled the void. But without a strong lead to delimit him, 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, to get our bearings.

In other words, watching Kinski go insane was watching Kinski, period, but you can tell Michael Shannon isn't really crazy; he's a charismatic if reptilian-looking actor doing a fine job of capturing the full spectrum of the manic-messianic complex but 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 wanted to anyway: Kinski is a wild man, archetypal and one-of-a-kind. He's 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, as Mick Jagger says in PERFORMANCE, the 'only performance that truly makes it." Michael Shannon just doesn't have that same unholy glint of mischief in his eyes --he can act crazy, he even looks crazy, but he's not crazy. 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 hands.

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 'straight' than Shannon is 'crazy.' And 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, a) why didn't someone recognize he needed psychiatric care long before this, and b) why endure his holy madness if it's not fun or fascinating to be around? c) 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 coupled to the genuine fascination artists feel around those rare souls more fucked-up than themselves, and the horrific toll of soul-emptying world weariness it takes to try and make a film with someone who's completely delusional just to try and get even a little of that mercurial lightning on record. But as with Shannon, Kier doesn't project the maniacal charisma that would possibly ground a loose wire like Brad. Since their relationship never becomes vibrant or larger than life, we never really understand why they even bother hanging out with each other. Brad doesn't need a man, he needs a champion, who'll convince him his 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 gets whatever was left behind by past actors in the vine-covered boarding house of Herzog's fetid, fecund vision. And you sense--not by any mannerisms or tells on Shannon's part (he's great)--that Kinski is there, working ghostlike machinations between the synapses, a matchmaker creating the space and then stepping back into the shadows to give Lynch and Herzog time to Kinski with each other. The issue at work here may as well be too much respect and not enough spittle.

The collaboration between Cage and Herzog in BL2 had a reckless, exhilarating momentum, the Lynch-Herzog collaboration doesn't have immediacy, perhaps as it neglects the 'glue' of normal 'strong' grounding characters like Eva Mendez's prostitute, 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 auteur-like motifs? He's either crazy himself, super enlightened, has done psychedelics, or--most likely--all three, Hanging out with messianic schizophrenics keeps him sane, maybe. He'd never get so many details of the horror of the devouring maternal Dionysian Kali goddess so very exactly right, without firsthand witness to the truth that, behind the wizardly curtain, a giant mantis alien 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 but the only real there is, and the ability to see the way blood runs in rivers just behind the thin adhesive bandage of aching skin--   hurtling in every car ride towards crushed oblivion-- is no easy thing to bear. 

 Enlightenment and spiritual awakening in the average individual leads to separation from the social order, which has no way to process 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 and artistic outlet. For example, Brad's crazy mom spoils him, buys him instruments and art supplies and paper the moment he mentions a whim to try something, and 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 no tknow. But ere'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 that has its own problems, as 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, the 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' (heard here, with his double zither), whose "What a friend We have in Jee-ee-sus" 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 in this context. Nothing gets you out of a bad trip head space faster than th e songs of an old, dead, black, blind singing preacher. (Plus they're easy to learn, easy to jam on). What a friend we have in Jesus!

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, we'll never see the bottom, so our art will never be that great anyway. 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.

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 our full vision, or instead of silently taking in a vista in rapture, 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 speech/writing 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.

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 how spiritual you are to your horrified family and friends, 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 it the sweeter its songs. But your ego's sitting on a locked cupboard full of solar brilliance and spoon-feeding you muddy shadows. The person who is deemed mad is the person who surrenders and knocks his ego off its perch, breaks the lock and lets the light pour out. This person is labeled mad because he initially feels a huge responsibility to keep this holy state going as long as possible, rather than knowing to surrender even that goal, so he runs about shaking the lapels of those still asleep, hey! wake up to the light from the cupboards! But maybe they don't want to wake up, and why should they? Just 'cuz you say so? they shout at him, and--if so inclined--they just might have to burn him at the stake or Golgotha to shut him up.

A few incarnations later, he learns that unless he's cared for by a dozen attendants and speaking daily at the flower-bedecked ashram he better keep the ego around in however a diminished form, and he can balance all that in art. Within art you can bury all kinds of magnificent truths people aren't ready to hear any other way. We dismiss ideas that challenge our egos outright, but we'll always stop for a good fiction, one that stealthily addresses ideas of madness and artistry and newly minted holy men wondering where they're supposed to go now that they're selfless in a selfish world they themselves have made. Where are the damned lepers with the dirty feet in San Diego?

 MY SON MY SON has a lot of that kind of inner problem, the way spiritual enlightenment won too soon can let the ego in through the back door and turn you 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?

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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