Monday, October 4, 2010

"By walking and walking and walking, everything stands still": Werner Herzog on My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done

There once was a man named Brad, who even in his mid-30s still lived with his mother, but Brad went a little mad somewhere along the rapids in deepest Peru, and when he came back he was talking about inner voices, about how god lives in his house, about basketball. He was to play Orestes in a Los Angeles-based production, but was dismissed for erratic behaviour. Unable to kill his mother on stage he wound up doing it in real life, with a sword, at the neighbour’s house one sunny suburban San Diego morning. All this has already transpired by the time we tune in to My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, which plays out mainly through flashbacks prompted by Brad’s girlfriend and former director, who arrive on the scene to discover Brad’s holed up inside his bungalow with a pair of flamingos for hostages, while baffled police surround the house, order pizza, and ponder Brad’s cryptic declarations and offerings of oatmeal and old gospel tunes.

Ostensibly based on a true story, the movie was scripted by Werner Herzog and longtime collaborator Herbert Golder, directed by Herzog, and granted an executive producer’s blessing by David Lynch, who otherwise had nothing to do with the picture, though its particular brand of quirks seem at times almost an homage to the director of
Blue Velvet, and Brad’s irritation with his hippy friend’s meditation practice reads as a friendly jab at Lynch’s outspoken advocacy for TM. Songs from Chavela Vargas, Washington Phillips and Caetano Veloso, as well as a haunting score for strings, piano and accordion from Herzog regular Ernst Reijseger provide haunting accompaniment to this strange study of untreated schizophrenia and unbridled eccentricity. Michael Shannon imbues Brad with tremendous conviction, this Aguirre returned from his Amazonian raft to transform into Woyzeck. Grace Zabriskie plays the over-attentive mom, Chloë Sevigny the worried girlfriend, Udo Kier the thespian and father figure. Willem Dafoe and Michael Peña play the homicide cops too fascinated by the enigma of Brad to attend to their duties with due rigour, the latter especially seeming eager to do whatever it takes to get close to the raving murderer. Brad Dourif turns up as a bigoted rancher uncle. There are ostriches, tiny horses, and a well-dressed dwarf. There are inexplicable sojourns to Tijuana and Central Asia. It’s hard to shake the suspicion that Herzog is simply cramming the movie with truckloads of weird items he likes having around. It’s equally hard to resist the movie’s magisterial control of atmosphere, its charismatic performances, and brilliant bits of humour.

My Son, My Son had its world premiere at Venice 2009, alongside Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans. Though unsavoury and ill-behaved in its own right, the latter got a decent theatrical release while My Son, My Son, perhaps considered the more difficult of these spastic cinematic siblings on account of its countless knee-jerk non-sequiturs, has been ushered directly from the festival circuit to home video. I posted part of my TIFF 2009 roundtable interview with Herzog earlier this year when Bad Lieutenant turned up on video store shelves, and now offer up the remaining exchanges that deal specifically with My Son, My Son.

As we settle down and surround our captive subject with a battalion of recording devices, a bespectacled young fellow launches right in and asks Herzog about collaborating with Lynch on My Son, My Son, pointing out numerous elements that strike him as being especially Lynchian.
“There was no collaboration,” Herzog replies.
“Really? None whatsoever?”
“He read the screenplay,” says Herzog, signaling for the next question.

Another writer asks Herzog if he could describe the movie’s reportedly long genesis.
“There was an early phase of the project at least a dozen years back,” Herzog explains, “when I wrote the screenplay together with a friend of mine, Herb Golder, who has been my assistant director. He collected materials from a murder case which took place around a staging of
The Oresteia. Herb Golder had translated The Oresteia into English. He kept a huge pile of homicide detective reports, psychiatric evaluations and these sorts of things. He always wanted to write a screenplay yet could never come up with one. I told him to give it to me and I will write the screenplay. It will take me a week, not three years! So we sat together and in five days we wrote the screenplay. Then it fell dormant. It couldn’t be produced. Now to answer the earlier question in a way, I like David Lynch’s work. We have great respect for each other. I was with him and I kept saying in this financial crisis the budgets of big movies are still skyrocketing. 100 million, 180 million dollars: this is not sustainable. Almost like a manifesto I suggested that we should make films that cost no more than two million dollars, but with the best of the best of actors, and with a great story. David Lynch and the producer Eric Bassett founded a company which is some sort of offspring of David Lynch’s production company. So David Lynch said, ‘Yeah, we should do it! Do you have a project?’ I said sure, we have a project. He said, ‘When can you start?’ I said tomorrow. He said, ‘Then borrow my name and you can probably sell it better to France. Canal Plus has always bought my stuff.’ So I said fine, yes, put your name as executive producer. Otherwise, if we see any points of comparison in the film to Lynch’s work than he must certainly have learned from me!”
Everyone laughs. Herzog smiles, reconsiders.
“However, yeah, there’s a small homage to him. You will see in one scene there’s a man on a treadmill running and he has an oxygen mask. I put that in to say hello to David Lynch. Otherwise he has nothing to do with it. We are very, very different in character, and in our personal lives we couldn’t be more different.”

A bossy woman asks Herzog what it is about The Oresteia that endures.
“I can’t really discuss it,” Herzog replies. “It’s going to be too deep plowing. The fact is that it has been alive for more than two and a half thousand years now, and rightly so. It’s a very beautiful text. However, what you hear in the staging of the film was actually taken from a variety of ancient Greek tragedies. We concocted some sort of a text which is not just The Oresteia. But that doesn’t really matter. We improved it!”
Everyone laughs.

I ask about the moments of stillness in My Son, My Son, when the actors suddenly fall silent and create tableaus. These scenes made me think about the Russian tradition alluded to in Incident at Loch Ness of sitting silently for a minute before embarking on a significant journey.
“It’s good that you refer to those because they are somehow pivotal moments in the film,” Herzog replies. “There’s a standstill. Quite often the leading character is puzzled by the tunnel of time. By walking and walking and walking, everything stands still. During the rehearsals of the ancient Greek drama he speaks about basketball and how he was a three-point man and he gets the ball and jumps and in mid-air and realizes he’s 70 feet away from the basket, just shy of mid-court, and then he freezes, and everything else freezes, and he contemplates, and he’s suspended in mid-air, and then he shoots, and the director says, ‘And then in swished in?’ And he says, ‘No, it kind of rattled. It hit the rim hard and rattled in.’ And he speaks of the pivot of time. It’s a motif which is very important in the film, this stand-still of time, of persons who all of a sudden turn toward the camera and look and look and look until the song is over. I love these central moments. For example, the tree stump with the midget on it and the tiniest horse in the world. It’s at the exact centre of the movie, like the pivoting point of the movie.”
I ask what made him choose the Vargas and Veloso songs.
“They’re very beautiful,” he says with a shrug. “That’s it. Yes. I immediately knew I had to do that. There was not one second of deliberation.”
And suddenly there was not one second left for more questions. I asked Herzog to sing my copy of
Conquest of the Useless, which he did with pleasure, repeating his belief that his books will outlast his movies, and the lot of us collected our things and shuffled out.

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