My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? directed by Werner Herzog
In Werner Herzog’s masterful yet troubling My
Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, Brad McCullum (Michael Shannon), like Orestes he
portrays onstage, murders his own mother. Called to the scene by two
neighbors whose house became the scene of the crime, San Diego police
Brad’s fiancée (Chloe Sevigny) and the play’s director (and something of a
surrogate father) Udo Kier try to reconstruct the actor’s mental landscape
in the days leading up to the tragic moment.
The film, executive-produced by David Lynch, looks a lot
like the kind of films Herzog and the old masters were making in the 1970s
that inspired Dogme –– with largely hand-held cameras and bare-bones
location shooting, often out of necessity, not trendiness. When the actors
freeze, they physically freeze –– not with After Effects digital trickery,
which has recently been known to choreograph flying bullets. “Guerrilla
footage” shot in Western China on a small DV cam ironically bears a crisp
high-tech look. Herzog seems to have set out to exemplify the old golden
principles for the sake of the younger generation: a good story and solid
cast, trimmed of big-budget excess fat.
For the good story, co-writer Herb Golder brought to the table
the story of a real-life matricide by a San Diego actor turned criminally
insane. Golder, a professor of Classics, in turn sites A Dream of
Passion (1978) by
Jules Dassin, starring Melina Mercuri and Ellen Burstyn, as an inspiration.
I happen to have seen the earlier film in Tokyo many years
ago. In A Dream, Mercouri is an actress playing Medea onstage. In order to
research her role, she meets Burstyn, in jail for murdering her children.
While the Greek chorus of police reports paint the mother as a monster who
was “eating a honey cake” while writing a letter of confession, Mercouri’s
actress learns that she was doing so because it was Passover. The woman who
emerges through the exchange is not a monstrous anomaly but a woman bound
by ethos –– observant of traditions amid alienation in a foreign country
and her husband’s infidelities. Medea was driven to renounce her motherhood
and humanity by machinations –– of wars and political marriages –– of Man’s
world; what A Dream uncovers is her pathos.
Herzog, as expected, is masterful where a man’s madness is
concerned. Shannon’s agonized countenance is juxtaposed with the
breathtaking nature of Peru (where the master is reunited with his favorite
location), insistently upbeat Tijuana mariachis and the craggy faces of
sheepherders of Western China –– held together by the avant-garde score of
Dutch cellist Ernst Reijseger that surges in and out of incidental local
music. Shannon is yet another American suffering from an existential
crisis, restlessly drifting in a quicksand –– he wants to be a Moslem, a
Peruvian, a born-again Christian –– where he desperately tries to hang on
to his yet unrealized self in the grip of a devouring womb.
Grace Zabriskie –– a Lynch regular cast as a tribute to the
film’s executive producer –– is superbly creepy as Brad’s mother. She
provides an instant visual explanation to her son’s “insanity” that led to
her own demise: a smothering mother, at once critical and possessive.
Having lost her husband early, she clung to her son, who in his ‘30s still
lives with his mother. Instead of the holy madness of Aguirre or the seeker
of the ruby glass, the Greek tragedy thus becomes Freudian, 20th-century
American-style. It is not to avenge his father or his sister Elektra’s
passion that he puts his own mother to the sword, but to cut the umbilical
The result is a Lynchian misogynist surrealist disturbia
populated by nattering Furies, an ungainly cow of a girlfriend and rather
ample neighbor ladies (should I mention the lone female officer of the SDPD
force, just to be fair?). Brad’s fiancée Ingrid Gudmundsson (Savigny) –– an
actress who plays his mother/victim onstage –– is a giantess next to the
tiny Kier and the slight Dafoe. Her height may be excused by the name that
suggests Scandinavian origin, but there is no rhyme or reason as to why she
should be wearing a four-inch miniskirt that showcases her thighs reaching
to Kier’s chest. With her drooping shoulders wrapped in a series of ugly
sweaters of indefinite colors, she’s a ton of ineffectual flesh, punished for failing to “cure” the protagonist.
Yes, Surrealists cited Freud as an inspiration. But, a
hundred years later, is that enough? What hangs in the balance is a flawed masterpiece,
and it’s a flaw that speaks of our artistic fathers’ generation’s
limitations. Sure, if you were a young male film student, you might take
that in stride, as an affirmation, even –– which makes this limitation even
more profoundly disturbing.