Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Orestes in San Diego: My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done

Matricides are creepy. Let me just throw that out there. My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (dir. W. Herzog; screenplay H. Golder and W. Herzog, 2009) is as disturbing a treatment of the Orestes-impulse as cinema can generate. That David Lynch, purveyor of cinematic wierdos, executive-produces this film may have significance for some readers.
Grace Zabriskie, Michael Shannon, Chloe Sevigny deal with pending
matricide over a disgusting gelatin dessert. A still from the film.
But those who allow an event so tragic may incur society’s frustrated scorn, even when they allowed matricide through mere passivity. For, we are no doubt programmed to blame anybody who permitted the impulse that makes a son murder his mother in cold blood? But why didn’t anybody stop it from happening? This film worries about the development of that impulse and about the stultifying failure of the murderer's associates before the most inexplicable crime. 
Three principal characters surrounding matricide Brad Macallam (Michael Shannon) cannot fathom the “strangeness” that overwhelms the man’s darkening existence. Mrs. Macallam (Grace Zibriskie) seems unable to quite figure out that she is in dire trouble. She also hasn’t figured out that her mismanagement of jello deserts and her son’s personal life have gotten her to this unfortunate place. His girlfriend Ingrid (Chloe Sevigny) does as little to check his stifling weirdness as, perhaps, a real person in such real circumstances might really, neither cajoling nor altering his onset tendency to enact the role of Orestes. And the disturbing passivity of Lee Meyers (Udo Keir), a black-box theater director utterly incapacitated by such clearly worded foreshadowing offered by the matricide himself as “A bird was the largest animal I ever killed, until I killed my mother.” Meyers makes note of that alarming confession several weeks after hearing it, and an hour or so after Mrs. Macallam has been killed by her son. Nobody saw this coming?
The murderer is clearly and patently crazy. Most of what we learn about him through the cinematic narrative comes through flashbacks. Macallam invents pseudo-scriptural commentary on the vile ostrich, quoting the Book of Job on the subject. He gives away all his possessions to a millennial frisbee player in Balboa Park. And he sets up his basketball in a sapling for some future NBA star who might someday come along. But he is first and foremost the brooding actor rehearsing the role of Orestes in a play-within-a-film. We meet this play throughout the film’s central exposition. Flashbacks take us to rehearsals of the play where Macallam’s failure to dissociate acting from role-playing foreshadow, for us, the horrific deed of matricide. We also meet the play in a workshop where the director explains the family curse of the House of Atreus, informing the cast that the mythological Tantalid curse is actually an explanation of the human condition. It affects us all. And a third vignette from that same play shows us a moment when Macallam and his mother together are in the audience of another production and he cannot keep from reciting Orestes’ lines. So deeply has he internalized the need to murder his mother. In the moment, his mother shyly smiles at her future killer’s quirkiness, and the audience judges him with their eyes alone. Why does nobody deal with his psychosis, his patently dangerous wierdness? That must be the point of this odd tale. Mental illness can lead to dangerous consequences, and these might be preventable if somebody does only intervenes.
Macallam’s role as Orestes is acted out literally in a performance of Aeschylus’ Oresteia. Critics of the film have missed this fine point. Reviews accessible through imdb.com seem to generalize the play-within-the-film as some Greek tragedy of Orestes, “the one where he kills his mother.”  None identifies Oresteia. The low point for me has been the Netflix description that says “Brad McCullum [sic] begins to have visions that make him believe he’s living in a Sophocles [!] play in this psychological thriller inspired by true events.” But, there are several less obvious identifiers to assure the viewer that the internal performance is certainly Aeschylus’ Oresteia. In his workshop, director Lee Myers mentions “this trilogy”. The lines rehearsed then performed in the vignettes within the film allign with passages in Choephori then Eumenides. And paracinematic material on the DVD, a dual interview with the co-screenwriters, reveals that Aeschylus was clearly in mind both during the writing of the screenplay and, more essentially, within the real-life events upon which this narrative is based.
A vignetted flashback to one rehearsal presents a chorus chanting ominously about “the cruel bitch of female passion,” of “the sword cutting deep, straight through the lungs,” and of a “child brought to the house to avenge the curse.” This sort of language impels a classicist-viewer to look toward Aeschylus and the Choephori (Libation Bearers) especially. And at Choe. 909 – 916 a little scrutiny shows that sure enough, the chorus is rehearsing Aeschylus. The arrival of the Libation Bearers in the film seal the fates, as it were, of Mrs. Macallam and her brooding son. The scene plays on, even though Macallam is unable to maintain a straightforward rehearsal — the ostensible reason for replaying this flashback.
Knowing the Aeschylean source text helps analysis. For, as that same vignetted rehearsal continues, Macallam misplays Orestes and skips “a hundred lines”. The director objects, walks onto the rehearsal stage and observes the gaffe. Much is wrong. “It makes more sense this way. It does,” says Macallam. What he skips, ever so blithely, is the onset of the Erinyes as acted in those omitted lines from Choerphori. A critical viewer may note that Macallam’s psychotic energy is allowing him to skip gently from the moment of matricide to the heroism of vindicated patriarchy, oresteian quid pro quo venegeance (Clytemnestra for Agamemnon) without those nasty retaliations. Clearly, the director fails to understand what is going on in his actor’s head. He just knows the play’s set narrative is being changed. Then, to compound a non sequitur onto the psychotic chaos, the actor indulges himself in a random anecdote about once shooting and missing a half-court basketball shot that failed.  The director, perplexed, shrugs it all off, and in a moment they are back at the rehearsal of the same scene, the rehearsed chorus chanting about bitches and swordsmiths of destiny and all that.
The director recalls in a police interview having once heard Macallam say, a month or more before the matricide, “A bird was the largest animal I ever killed before I killed my mother.” The vignette enters the cinematic narrative as one of the film’s flashbacks to the Aeschylaean context. In another, the director is workshopping the dramatic text with his cast and crew. 
Lee: [In workshop lecture.] Let me warn you straight out. These ancient Greeks were not just a bunch of philosophers and aesthetes pussy-footing around. They were into the real thing. So as I was saying before, we are dealing here with a trilogy. You know that the king comes home from Troy only to be killed by his wife. Then the son returns home to avenge him, to take his mother’s life. But there’s a history to this curse. The killing goes on for generations. Orestes is just the last link in a bloody chain. It all starts with Tantalus, the one who spends his eternity in Hell chained to a rock by the gods, starving for grapes just beyond his reach. He is the source of our word “tantalize.” He is at the root of our own curse, lusting for something we want but cannot have. He challenged the gods, this Tantalus. He challenged the gods, to see if they were real. So, he invited them for dinner. And just as a test, he served up his son in a stew. The gods puked up his flesh so he could still father more cannibals and killers. Like his own son Atreus who cooked the sons of his brother and then invited him for a feast. I’m saying: to understand Orestes and the curse you must feel the whole weight of this god-forsaken Tantalus house, a dynasty of ruthless kings and diabolical queens who eat each others flesh and ***** [seduce] each others’ wives century after century, generation after generation and only Orestes can lift that curse, but he has to murder his mother to do it. [Eye contact with Brad.] So, he is damned if he does; he is damned if he doesn’t. And doubly damned if he wavers."

Brad: “That’s it! Razzle Dazzle. Razzle them. Dazzle them."

Lee: “I’m the director, Brad. You do what I tell you.” // Brad: “Lee, some people act a role. Others play a part. [Brad grabs the sword. Lee swallows hard.] [Cut back to film's main time.] “You know one thing I could never get out of my mind. He clutched his sword and he said to me: ‘A bird was the largest animal I ever killed until I killed my mother. ‘”

Real-life matricide, Mark Yavorsky’s 1979 slaying of his own mother during the production of the Oresteia  (reported in the San Diego and national press), captured the creative attention of Boston University classics professor Herbert Golder. A press clipping from 12 June 1979 reported “The Elements of a Greek Tragedy? Brilliant UCSD Student Held in Slaying of Mother. Apparently the production was called “Orestes, Orestes”. Yavorsky played the role of the murderous son. At some point, Yavorsky walked out of the world of the play and killed his mother. The bitter irony of this tragic confluence, myth and reality merging, was not lost on a forensic psychologist who pointed Golder at the source narrative that was Yavorsky’s tragedy. Golder later worked with innovative cinematic director Werner Herzog to create a cinematic work with artistic tendencies of its own. In the creation of the screenplay, both Golder and Herzog concern, they were “not interested in making a documentary,” but striving to create a narrative based on fact, and poetically reinvented and stylized, true to both “the poetic core and the original context”.  (This information is shared in “Behind the Madness” interviews with Werner Herzog and  Herbert Golder on the DVD.)
Golder avers in his paracinematic interview that the impulse for MSMSWHYD is akin to Jules Dassin’s A Dream of Passion, a narrative of an actress playing Medea (Ellen Burstyn) coming to know a woman (Melina Mercouri) who murdered her own children.  “I was a student of the classics at the time I saw [A Dream of Passion]. It was the most powerful representation. I always had it in the back of my head,” before and during the creation of
            The formula for fascinating cinematic mythological reception is perfectly poised for brilliance in MSMSWHYD. A mythological narrative, real-life events, a quirky film — all elements deliver that brilliance to an arguable degree. Does it meet muster for consideration as an overt usage of classical mythology and (of real importance) further study? Absolutely.


Transcriptions from the film. Presumably the uncredited translations of Aeschylus are provided by Prof. Golder.
 rehearsal text of Aesch. Choe. 585 – 651 greatly truncated
Chorus of Libation Bearers:

Earth breeds many things,
begetting pain, terror and
horrors of suffering and
the depths of the sea teem
with murderous monsters.
And flaming comets stab down
through the sky and blast
creatures that fly. And creatures
that crawl. And things more
horrid still like the cradles of storms,
cradle of stoms, cradle of storms.
But who can describe the audacity
of man or the daring and passion
of women that stop
at nothing and lead to mortal ruin?
The cruel bitch of female passion
can break apart the yoke that
joins a pair and force apart
the dark embrace of beasts
and man alike. (585 – 600)
This sword cuts deep.
Straight through the lungs.
And justice is flouted and
stomped in the ground.
And the sword smith of destiny
hammers the weapon.
A child is brought to this house
to avenge to lift the seeping stain of
ancient blood. Brought by her, we
shudder to name the dark, brooding fury. (639 – 651)

πολλὰ μὲν γᾶ τρέφει
δεινὰ καὶ δειμάτων ἄχη,
πόντιαί τ᾽ ἀγκάλαι κνωδάλων
ἀνταίων βρύουσι:
πλάθουσι βλαστοῦσι καὶ πεδαίχμιοι
λαμπάδες πεδάοροι,
πτανά τε καὶ πεδοβά-
μονα κἀνεμοέντ᾽ ἂν
αἰγίδων φράσαι κότον.
ἀλλ᾽ ὑπέρτολμον ἀν-
δρὸς φρόνημα τίς λέγοι
καὶ γυναικῶν φρεσὶν τλαμόνων καὶ
παντόλμους ἔρωτας
ἄταισι συννόμους βροτῶν;
ξυζύγους δ᾽ ὁμαυλίας
θηλυκρατὴς ἀπέρω-
τος ἔρως παρανικᾷ
κνωδάλων τε καὶ βροτῶν.
... [omit strophe B thru antistrophe C]
τὸ δ᾽ ἄγχι πλευμόνων ξίφος
διανταίαν ὀξυπευκὲς οὐτᾷ
διαὶ Δίκας.
τὸ μὴ θέμις γὰρ οὖν
λὰξ πέδοι πατούμενον, τὸ πᾶν Διὸς
σέβας παρεκβάντος οὐ θεμιστῶς.
Δίκας δ᾽ ἐρείδεται πυθμήν:
προχαλκεύει δ᾽ Αἶσα φασγανουργός:
τέκνον δ᾽ ἐπεισφέρει δόμοισιν
αἱμάτων παλαιτέρων τίνειν μύσος
χρόνῳ κλυτὰ βυσσόφρων Ἐρινύς.[1]

A Canadian production performance of Eumenides 245 ff. and then 588 ff. — when he’s in the audience with his uncomfortable mother. Udo comes and asks him to be quiet.

Leader and Furies: Like the hound on the trail of a wounded deer, we will track him down by the drip of blood.
I snort. Lungs bursting from long man-slaughtering toil ranging over every corner of this earth.
In pursuit without wings I have flown over oceans,
and now that this man is here,
somewhere, cowering.
The scent of human blood grins wide for me.
Look. Look. Look. Look. Look. Look. Everywhere.
Cast your eyes in every direction. Don’t let this mother-killer get away unscathed. (245 – 57)

Macallam joins in from audience, reciting with in unison with the actor onstage the following dialogue. His mother is clearly disturbed.
Orestes/Macallam: I now stand here. Made glad. Made mad with the blood, exulting, wailing, I slew her. (Eum. 594, sort of; it’s actually a telescopic reduction of lines 588 to 600)
I deny no word, heroes. Hear me, woven web that slew my father. This robe. She dyed it in the blood that ran around her lover’s sword.

Furies: Yes, you must tell the manner of your deed.
Orestes/Macallam: Drawn sword in hand, I lopped her head.
Furies: Who, and by craft of who, did urge you on? (607)
Orestes/Macallam: Fate and Necessity made me do it!
Lee intervenes, placing his hand on Macallam’s shoulder. His mother tries to grin in the withering embarrassment.
Lee: Brad don’t participate. You’re disturbing the play. Just be quiet.
Leader [on stage]: … and long dead draw from their killer’s blood to answer blood. 

Brad Macallam — Michael Shannon
Detective Havenhurst — Willem DaFoe
Ingrid Gudmundson — Chloe Sevigny
Lee Meyers [the director with the German accent] — Udo Kier
Mrs. Macallam — Grace Zabriskie

[1] The Greek text is the edition of H.W. Smyth, downloaded from Perseus: http://data.perseus.org/citations/urn:cts:greekLit:tlg0085.tlg006.perseus-grc1:646-652 [accessed 24 Oct 2014].
[2]  Again, here the text is taken from H.W. Smyth, ed., Eumenides as included on Perseus: http://data.perseus.org/citations/urn:cts:greekLit:tlg0085.tlg007.perseus-grc1:254-275