The film operates predominately through flashbacks, which seems – at first – a straightforward enough way to contextualise and explicate the events happening in the present. The present of the film starts just after the murder of Mrs. McCullum. Detective Havenhurst and his new partner, Detective Vargas, turn up at the suburban street to find the body in a neighbour’s house. Brad, her son, did it; they are told… and is across the street. Havenhurst soons discovers Brad to be more than a little disorientated. He demands to be called Farooq, believes God talks to him, rolls a tube of bran down the drive… His fiancé turns up. Havenhurst, looking for a way to understand his opponent, interviews her. Essentially, it is the interviews with Ingrid that constitute the trips into the past through flashbacks, though not all of them are encountered first hand. For instance, Ingrid begins by relating a story about how Brad was the only survivor of an accident in Peru, when he came back he was changed.
Yet it is exactly here we encounter a problem. These flashbacks are in excess of a causal explanation, are anecdotes and diversions … a meal with mum turns into a surreal exploration of jello… Uncle Ted’s plan for an advert where a midget riding a miniature pony is chased by one of his giant chickens round a massive tree… Brad showing Ingrid a packet of oats with the picture of a pilgrim on it… who Brad believes is god, and who has been talking to him since he was a little boy. In short, there is nothing that explains why Brad murdered his mum, which to say, there are too many possibilities and explanations. There is nothing for Havenhurst to use… and little for the spectator to understand Brad as a psychologically motivated character.
Thus, the forking paths of the recollection-image put cause and effect into crisis, are a condition for the very collapse of the recollection-image and the emergence of time-images. It is clear that My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done has this aspect to it. The flashbacks are all ‘about’ Brad, yet none of them emanate directly from the character of Brad. They have their source in the narratives of Ingrid, Meyers and the two neighbours. Both the present of the film (the events happening in the suburban street after the murder of Mrs. McCullum) and the past of the film (the events leading up to the murder of Mrs. McCullum) interweave in the most common of ways, and proceed with a certain linearity. Yet the actual events in the present and the past are illusive, allusive, fragmented, inexplicable, opaque, strange… In short, Herzog is operating at the very boundaries of the movement-image and the time-image… the structure is movement-image, the way in which they play out time-image: forking paths…
With regards to the time-image, Herzog creates ‘crystallised spaces’ (C2: 129). This is the crystal-image, or hyalosign, where Deleuze discusses Herzog in respect to what he calls the ‘seed and environment’ (C2:71). A warning from Deleuze ‘the virtual image [appears as] “pure recollection”, the better to distinguish it from mental images – recollection-images, dreams or dreaming – with which it might readily be confused. In fact, the latter are certainly virtual images, but actualised or in the course of actualisation in consciousnesses or psychological states’ (C2:79). With crystal-images things are different… for example… Meyer’s production of Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides of The Oresteia… Brad is ousted despite being a wonderful actor, because of his unpredictability: his refusal to dress in Greek clothes (preferring his Peruvian poncho)… not using a Greek sword (preferring Uncle Ted’s cutlass)… on-the-spot editing of the text of the play in his own way. At the performance in Calgary he gatecrashes he performs from the audience… This is crucial in respect to the seed and the environment. Deleuze writes how in the crystal-image ‘the film is reflected in a theatre play, a show, a painting… a film’ (C2:75). With the seed and environment we encounter this specifically as ‘the film [or play, etc] which takes itself as its own object in the process of its making or of its setbacks in being made’ (C2:76). Thus in this instance the seed ‘never reaches completion’ and ‘we no longer know which is the role and which is the crime’ (C2:76;72).
What is a seed? What is an environment? How do the seed and environment inter-relate? Deleuze writes ‘the seed is on the one hand the virtual image which will crystallise an environment which is at present amorphous; but on the other hand the latter must have a structure which is virtually crystallisable, in relation to which the seed now plays the role of actual image’ (C2:74). Crucially ‘the actual and the virtual are exchanged in an indiscernibility which on each occasion allows distinction to survive’ (C2:74). We have the present, we have the past… but what do they give us? The ‘present’ and the ‘past’ use the flashback formula to undo what flashbacks do. Rather, the film presents a double aspect. In the present, Brad is effectively erased. A disembodied voice emanating from the house. A shadow at the door. A hand grabbing a pizza box or shoving out a tape recorder. In the past he only appears through the stories of other characters. Rather than progressively actualise Brad throughout the course of the film (inversion-images, the destiny of the recollection-image), the film uses flashbacks (forking paths of the recollection-image) to put the movement-image into crisis. In My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, we thus pass through and go beyond the movement-image. Herzog creates time-images, the indeterminate regime of the seed and the environment. In so doing Brad ‘appears’ as a virtual entity… an absent centre.