Reviews Of My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?; Cave Of Forgotten Dreams; And Into The Abyss
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/10/12
I recently streamed and watched three recent films by the great German filmmaker Werner Herzog. The first was a fictive film- My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?- which, despite my expectations and others’ reviews, turned out to be the best fictive film Herzog’s done since the end of his collaborations with actor Klaus Kinski, and the other two were highly lauded documentaries (a form Herzog has excelled in over his half century long career)- Cave Of Forgotten Dreams and Into The Abyss- which were, oddly, not nearly as good as the criticism received.
My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? is a 2009 film that misses out on greatness simply because it’s a single-minded film, and not a film that contains any depth, in relation to how its tale nor characters relate to the greater society. It is one of the best portrayals of a psychotic and psychopathic mind since Martin Scorsese’s 1976 classic, Taxi Driver, but the comparison to that great film is very instructive as to why the Herzog film fails at greatness. In Taxi Driver, we see how Travis Bickle’s actions reflect and affect the people and times he is in. We get nothing of that in the Herzog film.
That stated, we do get an utterly brilliant and wholly realistic portrait of a killer in star Michael Shannon’s Brad McCallum (or McCullum- the name is never clear for most of the characters in the film pronounce it McCullum while the screen credits list it as McCallum), who calmly murders his shrewish and overbearing mother (Grace Zabriskie) with a sword while at a neighbor’s house. The film’s title comes from the last words his mother utters before death. The rest of the film follows Brad’s journey, while holding his two pet flamingos hostage, and this scenario is the best and most realistic portrait of such a time since Dog Day Afternoon. We see lead San Diego detective Havenhurst (Willem Dafoe) and his partner Detective Vargas (Michael Peña) deal with the people Brad knows, as they try to coax him to surrender. These people fill in Brad’s backstory with flashbacks. Included are his Brad's fiancée Ingrid (Chloe Sevigny) and his friend, Lee Meyers (Udo Kier), a local theatrical producer. Brad and Ingrid had studied with him, and we see flashbacks of Brad’s obsessions, and being asked to leave the cast when he obsessed on elements of a Greek tragedy (he was to play Orestes in Sophocles’ Electra) Lee was gearing up to direct. The film then ends with Brad’s surrender, after Ingrid realizes his ‘hostages’ are his flamingos- or eagles in drag.
Shannon is pitch perfect with his madness, starting from a Peruvian kayaking trip he demurs from (the scene of the start of another of Herzog’s great films on insanity, Aguirre: The Wrath Of God), which kills his friends, to his assumption of the name Farouk, to his belief that the face of God resides on an oatmeal container, to his calm bizarreness in general. Sevigny is excellent as the clueless and desperately lonely fiancée, while Kier delights as the agog friend- and Herzog makes ironic use of Kier’s iconic stature as a horror film actor to rein him in to comment on assorted bizarre things he witnesses, such as the over the top scenes between Brad and his loony and racist ostrich farming uncle Ted (Brad Dourif), which ends in a classic ‘Herzog Moment’ involving a dwarf. While Dourif chews scenery, it’s perfectly apropos to the moment the film unhinges itself, and also given that we see this partly from Brad’s POV. Other odd moments occur when we see Brad at Machu Picchu, in a Tibetan marketplace, and seeking to buy pillows for ‘the sick, in general, ‘ at a San Diego military hospital, and often these scenes, retrospectively, are seen as telegraphed earlier, but not in the ham-handed way a Steven Spielberg would do so. The film ends with Brad’s surrender, and asking Havenhurst two questions: 1) could he put in his report that it was ostriches running, not flamingos, that were the birds involved, and 2) what happened to his basketball, which, in the film’s final shot, we see a small boy pluck out of the branches of a tree.
Herzog’s direction is flawless, and cameraman Peter Zeitlinger does his usual sparkling cinematography by making blasé San Diego seem feral. Ernst Reijseger’s score is apropos to the scenes, but the weak link is the film’s screenplay, written by Herzog and Herbert Golder. It is good, for all it does; the problem is with just a few more moments and scenes, here and there, this 91 minute film, at 100 or so minutes, could have hit greatness. Some critics missed the boat and panned this excellent work, usually bemoaning it as a bastard love child between director Herzog and producer David Lynch, but there is little Lynchian material here. It is all Herzog. And it is definitely NOT a black comedy. Moments of humor do not make a film a comedy. It is straight on drama, and very realistic to the point that its utter lack of real poesy hurts it, artistically. Still, this is a relative claim since Herzog oozes cinematic poesy in almost all his films.
Well, almost all his films. The most interesting thing about this tercet of Herzog films is how banal the two highly lauded documentaries I watched were. The first was 2010’s The Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, an 89 minute plop into the center of Chauvet Cave, in France, where two decades ago, the oldest known cave paintings were found, dating back over 32,000 years. Because the film was shot in the cave’s limited quarters, and the crew was not allowed to get off a small two foot wide walkway, the film uses odd camera angles, and the goofy 3D device to try and sell it, but it does not work (and, no, I did not see this streaming film on Netflix via 3D).
The French regard for the cave is a bit over the top- sealing it in as if it contained the country’s entire collection of precious minerals. Instead, all we see are some rather banal to interesting cave paintings. Yes, they may be the oldest yet discovered, but the renderings are, of themselves, not particularly great. The cave is also filled with toxic gases and radiation, but the bulk of the film follows the scientists and spelunkers opining on the art in rather puerile terms, and also going to great lengths to conjecture over the meaning of the images. Some of these posits are almost funny, but most are almost assuredly wrong, for they reflect what each scientist holds most dear. They become Rorschach Tests.
Why Herzog deemed it prudent to film this in 3D is something of a mystery. One supposes he wanted to try and make the paintings, not on flat surfaces, come alive, and maybe they do, in 3D, but in 2D it does nothing. Worse, this film really does nothing. There is nothing essentially Herzogian in it. It’s a documentary any filmmaker could do for a cable channel, save for the pointless Postscript to the film, involving albino alligators and mystic mumbo jumbo Herzog finds profound.
The film, at 89 minutes, is probably an hour too long, and while interesting cinematography, by Peter Zeitlinger,, and a nice soundtrack by Ernst Reijseger, enliven the film, they can only do so much. Herzog’s narration is not what it is in earlier documentaries of high quality, and one sense the filmmaker gets bored with it all about halfway through the film. Nonetheless, it’s a tossup as to which of the two documentaries, here under review is worse. This one is not good, but not bad, merely dull.
By contrast, whereas Cave Of Forgotten Dreams is a dull film, Herzog’s nest documentary, 2011’s Into the Abyss, is almost a pointless one, and, given its trite title, that’s the least of its sins. Clocking in at an hour and 47 minutes in length, this film attempts to be Herzog’s answer to Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line, save that Morris’s film was on a miscarriage of justice whereas this film documents apt justice being done to two gutless and psychopathic killers, one- Jason Burkett- given a life sentence, who cons a dumb woman into marrying him and bearing a child, and the other- Michael Perry- on Death Row, who shows no remorse for his part in a triple murder over the theft of a red Camaro, and even mocks the justice system by feigning to impart forgiveness to the state of Texas and the victim’s families for wanting him dead.
That stated, since the pair are obviously guilty, there is no reason for the film, as the duo evoke nothing but contempt, and Herzog evokes nothing but the worst Texas stereotypes of white trash, even those who are not criminals, themselves, and even those who have all the material trappings of ‘success.’ Ostensibly, Herzog claims the film is supposed to be about how people on death row deal with their conceptions of time. Instead, we just get the details of a rather, and unfortunately, banal murder. There is nothing special about any of this- the killers, the victims, the motives, their fates. So why is Herzog interested? Yes, in 2004’s Grizzly Man, one can at least argue we get to see true insanity in Timothy Treadwell’s death wish that is met at his consumption by the bears he exploited. We get no such satisfaction here. Yes, the killers die, but no lessons are learnt, except perhaps that Burkett’s prison groupie wife is as fucked up as the rest of the town of Conroe, Texas, despite hailing from Nebraska.
Yet, this film lacks even the Herzogian touches that a flawed film like Cave Of Forgotten Dreams retains, if even poorly. On a side note, a quick Googling of the case shows that many of the claims made by people in the film- apart and aside from the two killers, is simply not true. Now, this may be Herzogian, if he actually knew the truths and allowed lies to be filmed, but, given the tenor of the film, and Herzog’s anti-death penalty stance, it seems more likely to just be poor fact-checking.
Herzog narrates the film, but the cinematography and music, by Peter Zeitlinger and Mark Degli Antoni, are not up to snuff. Again, very pedestrian, and one sense that Herzog almost feels as if he needs to get a film done, no matter what, including the quality. In the end, Perry fries, and Burkett survives, but the most important point comes from the daughter and sister of two of the victims, who describes the deep sense of peace and satisfaction she got from seeing the vile Perry bite the bullet, and her disappointment that Burkett and his then girlfriend (not seen in the film but at the scene of the crime) did not also get justice meted to them. It is to Herzog’s credit as a man and an artist that he allows this sentiment to get out, despite his disagreement with it. Nonetheless, the whole film seems a pointless exercise, and Herzog accords it a similarenergy.
Overall, the three films rank as a disappointment. For the last two decades, Werner Herzog’s career as a documentarian has eclipsed his ever rarer ventures into fictive filmmaking, but, if these three films are an indication, perhaps the remainder of the man’s career should be focused on that realm where he made his name and career early on, for My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? towers over both Cave Of Forgotten Dreams and Into The Abyss, artistically. It is not a great film, but it’s damned close, and with a bit more focus on the fictive side, perhaps Herzog may yet produce another masterpiece or two before his last breaths. Here’s hoping.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Salon website.]
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