October 14, 2010

Justify My Netflix: My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done

(Like many Netflix customers, I too can get quite lax with the timely watching and returning of my movies, which of course defeats the entire purpose of having a flat-rate rental plan in the first place. To combat that, I am now writing standardized mini-reviews of each and every movie I end up watching through Netflix, both instantly and on DVD. Don't forget, all previous 'Justify My Netflix' reviews can be found on CCLaP's main movie page.)

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done

Today's movie: My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, 2009 (Amazon | IMDB | Netflix | Wikipedia)

Why I added it to my queue: Because this is the latest by renowned veteran experimental filmmaker and German New Wave pioneer Werner Herzog, who I am in the process these days of trying to become a completist of; produced by one of my favorite filmmakers of all time, the exquisitely strange David Lynch; and based loosely on the true story of an actor in California who has a psychotic snap one day and stabs his mother to death with an antique Asian sword, after becoming obsessed with the ancient Greek play Oresteia. And if that's not enough reasons to put a film in my Netflix queue, I don't know what is.

The reality: Wow! I gotta say, I haven't exactly been the most thrilled Herzog fan in the world since his terminally goofy yet inexplicable hit from last year, The "Nicolas Cage Goes Batsh-t Crazy" piece and Bush-Era commentary Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, made almost literally at the same time as this newer film; but My Son, My Son almost singlehandedly makes up for it, a powerful, poetic and deeply weird take on all the random bits and pieces of life that are taken in by a schizophrenic while in the process of having a nervous breakdown, and the bizarre, tabloid-television-worthy ways he spits these random stimuli back out as a complicated personal mythology after having his psychotic snap. And that can be credited in large part, I believe, to the involvement of Lynch, who apparently became producer after having lunch with Herzog one day in the late '00s and talking about their mutual desire to get back to the "essentials" of filmmaking in their careers, i.e. small budgets and great scripts, and basically holding Herzog's feet to the fire while telling this lean, tight, unsettling story (although be aware that only about 30 percent of the finished script is based on true events, centered loosely at first around the events of the real-life Mark Yavorsky, but then with Herzog quickly starting to change the details to make for a much more artistic and metaphorical storyline).

A complex, interweaving production that certainly still features the bizarre, very German humor of Herzog, but with it kept in much better check than the sometimes ridiculously silly Bad Lieutenant, it also serves as an excellent showcase for a veritable Who's Who of respected indie actors currently in Hollywood, including Willem Dafoe, Chloe Sevigny, Brad Dourif, and a revelatory Michael Shannon as the deeply disturbed lead, and I don't think it's a stretch to call this as emotionally resonant as such classic '70s Herzog masterpieces as Fitcarraldo and Aguirre, The Wrath of God, albeit on a much smaller scale. (Although perhaps I shouldn't say that; after all, this features location footage from such spread-out locations as Calgary, Peru and China, the latter case done guerrilla-style literally with the director and lead actor wandering the streets with no film permit and being their own cameramen, which incidentally gave Herzog a chance to bitch very publicly afterwards about his terrible experience with the religiously loved RED ONE digital camera, causing instant controversy within the burgeoning digital filmmaking movement.) It comes strongly recommended, absolutely a new high mark now for his late-career work.

Strangest piece of trivia: This script started as a pet project by classics scholar Herbert Golder, who became fascinated with the way that the real Yavorsky weaved bits of the Oresteia myth into his psychotic breakdown, eventually meeting with Yavorsky many times over several years to do direct interviews. Herzog actually attended the last of these in 1995 himself, the same year that he first became interested in doing a film version of the story; but after finding Yavorsky "argumentative," then discovering that he had built an obsessive shrine in his house to Herzog's film Aguirre (concerning a Spanish conquistador in South America in the 1500s who goes through a similar psychotic snap), Herzog decided that it'd be best not to physically meet up with Yavorsky again.

Worth your time? Absolutely

Filed by Jason Pettus at 5:08 PM, October 14, 2010. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |