Tuesday 21 September 2010

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (Werner Herzog, USA / Germany, 2009)

It seems a simple premise. A whacko holed up in a house with a shotgun. He’s got two hostages and has just run his mother through with a sword. A couple of cops arrive on the scene. What has happened is clear… why it has happened is another matter… Detective Hank Havenhurst, trying to extract the dude and save the hostages, interviews his girlfriend, his mentor and the neighbours who witnessed the slaying. Yep, a simple premise for a film, yet a formula which Werner Herzog takes in My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, warps and sprinkles with a dash of madness. Wonderful, of course. But why? Why did the killer do what he did..? and what is Herzog doing in the film..?

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.

Next to arrive on the scene is theatre director Lee Meyers. Meyers tells us how Brad is a wonderful if unpredictable actor. They had been working together on a production of The Oresteia by Aeschylus. The play, as Meyers explains, is about the murder of a mother by a son.

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.

According to Gilles Deleuze, the flashback is a recollection-image and has 'two extreme poles,' on the one hand there is the flashback as 'an explanation, a causality or a linearity' (C2:49). This is destiny… the past which leads inexorably to the present. On the other hand there is the flashback as forking paths, 'a fragmentation of all linearity… [as] breaks in causality' (C2:49). This is marked by multiple flashbacks from multiple characters. Forking paths allow the dissolution of the movement-image, which for Deleuze is the way in which a film organises the perceptions, affects, thoughts and actions of a character within a specified setting. Forking paths, in this way, are the conditions for the emergence of time-images, films which create opsigns and sonsigns, pure optical and sound images, which stymie character actions, make affects opaque and do not allow a clear differentiation between objective and subjective perceptions. In short, rather than the spectator thinking with the film, the film demands thought from the spectator.

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…

Interestingly, Herzog makes an appearance twice in Deleuze’s cinema books, once in respect to the movement-image, once in respect to the time-image. With regards to the movement-image, Herzog creates inversion-images… the quotidian, the sublime and the enfeebled… where the character is a visionary, ‘a man who is larger than life frequent[ing] a milieu which is itself larger than life,’ or the characters are ‘weaklings and idiots’ (C1:184-5). Or both at one and the same time. No doubt there is something of this in the film too. Brad is an opaque character, brooding, apocalyptic, grandiose… yet he lives in suburbia, he has no job, lives with his mother… has no aim or plan…

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.

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