Friday, December 11, 2009

"My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done" (2009)

The newest film by Werner Herzog is a deceptively simple inversion of narrative expectations.

The film is told largely through flashbacks, recalling the events that have led up to a man, Brad McCollum (Michael Shannon) being involved in a standoff with police (headed by a brilliant Willem Dafoe as Detective Havenhurst) after murdering his mother. Chloe Savigny as Ingrid, Brad's girlfriend, and Udo Kier as Brad's friend Lee, round out the main players in the cast. Other familiar faces include an interesting turn by Brad Dourif and a brief appearance by Verne Troyer. A real standout is Grace Zabriskie, so memorable in David Lynch's 2006 masterpiece, "Inland Empire", here portraying a mother role that is quite unlike anything I've seen before.

The film takes it narrative and stands it on its head, creating a sense of humor and reflexivity that works well. The opening sequence with Willem Dafoe really sets this tone perfectly. There are the delightful absurdities: Brad's pet flamingos, the ostrich farm, the basketball in the tree, and so on. The relationship between Brad and his mother, and Brad and Ingrid, and Ingrid and Brad's mother, provides a fascinating character dynamic.

There is also a reflexive use of the staging of a play around which Herzog weaves the film's themes, couched in the terms of a Greek tragedy. The scenes are at one pathetic and funny.

The film's narrative discourse is arranged in such a way that the careful revealing of plot points to the audience allows the plot to unfold in such a way that, even though depicting events which have been revealed early on, the film's ending is a magnificent moment of surprise.

"My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done" played at the IFC Center in the West Village tonight with Herzog himself in attendance. Speaking before the film, Herzog explained his desire to make the film on a low budget, allowing for greater control. He also spoke of his collaborating with David Lynch's Absurda company, which produced the film, and that, specifically, Lynch took a very hands-off approach in terms of intervening with the film's direction, despite rumors that he had directed certain scenes himself. Herzog did point out a delightful reference to Lynch's "Blue Velvet" in the scene in which Michael Shannon observes a man, running on a treadmill, and wearing an oxygen mask.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009


I recently had an opportunity to attend a screening of Richard Lester's film, "Petulia", from 1968. I had never heard of the film before, which is surprising considering how much I have sought out Lester's work from that period. I was even more surprised to learn of the high reputation the film enjoyed (tying with "Annie Hall" for third place on a 1978 list of the best films of the past ten years).

With this bit of build up, I was quite intrigued to see the film itself. Watching the film, the influence of the French New Wave, and Godard in particular, became quite apparent. The film involves a recently-divorced middle-aged man, played by George C. Scott, and his relationship with a mod London girl, played by Julie Christie. The film is awash in 60s cultural touchstones, including musical performances by Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead.

Without getting too wrapped up in the details of the plot (which is quite complicated), I couldn't help but feel, as I watched the film, that a large part of its critical reputation was based on the fact that Lester was employing these New Wave techniques in the service of a "serious" drama. It was, in fact, the film's narrative concerns that held it back and seemed to restrain the brilliant visual flourishes that Lester engages in during the film's more inspired sequences.

I couldn't help but compare the film with Lester's previous work; his two films with the Beatles, certainly, but also "A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum" and "How I Won the War", in which New Wave techniques are allowed to flourish without concern for narrative logic. It's hard to think of any scene more vibrantly joyous and alive than the "Can't Buy Me Love" sequence in "A Hard Day's Night", with its perfect synthesis of rock and roll and New Wave cinematic technique. The techniques that Lester employs in his work from this period seem much better suited to the kind of freewheeling comedy and musical films he'd been making up to this point. In The Beatles, he found the perfect subjects for his filmmaking style-as eclectic, vibrant and innovative in music as Lester was in the cinema. In "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum", Lester has the opportunity to work with one of his direct cinematic ancestors-Buster Keaton-whose performance style works perfectly in the context of what Lester is doing. And "How I Won the War" is one of the best satires from any period. With the same aesthetic applied to a character drama, there is a definite tension between the elements as Lester deals with narrative concerns on the one hand, and with stylistic concerns on the other.

None of this is to take away from what Lester does achieve in "Petulia". It's a remarkably mature film, and particularly through Scott's nuanced performance, is a very intricate character study as well. Nicolas Roeg's cinematography, with its heightened emphasis on bright reds, works very well within Lester's visual style. There are certainly moments where the film's narrative and character development seem at odds with the techniques Lester is employing, though. It comes back to the concern that critics are willing to see things in a serious drama that they may never acknowledge as existing in "lower" genres, which overlooks the incredible work that Lester had been doing all along up to this point.

"Petulia", in this sense, may be a kind of 1960s equivalent of equally-forgotten films like "Cavalcade", wherein the very qualities the film was praised for have become passe. Fortunately, in the case of "Petulia", the film still has much to recommend it for contemporary viewers, from Lester's strong visual style, to the intricate performances of its lead actors.