Monday, November 19, 2007

Movie Review: Protagonist

Yesterday, I got to see a preview of a new documentary film by Jessica Yu called Protagonist at the Philoctetes Center. I knew nothing about this film other than remembering that the director when she won an Academy Award for best Documentary Short Subject for Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien had joked that her dress cost more than her film.
The Philoctetes Center always shows the most interestings films. I saw Crazy Love there this summer before it opened, and the films I saw as part of their summer series still resonate with me so I was eager to see this one.
Protagonist is a term used to refer to the figure or figures in literature whose intentions are the primary focus of a story. Classically protagonists are derived from good will, however, this does not always have to be true. Protagonists cannot exist in a story without opposition from a figure or figures called antagonist(s). Classically in literature, characters with good will are usually the protagonists; however, not all characters who assist the protagonist are required to be simple protagonistic. This is the definition that Wikipedia gives for Protagonist and it's a pretty good definition for the film because each of the subjects had a clear antagonist even if it was within themselves and not an external antagonists.
The film features for men, Hans-Joachim Klein, a German terrorist, Mark Salzman (a martial arts expert and Ms. Yu's husband), Joe Loya, a former bank robber and Mark Pierpont, a gay former missionary. The one thing all four men have in common is extremism and a certainty. They each in their way took extreme measures reacting to circumstances in their lives, in most cases it was physical or emotional abuse by either their parents or their peers. All four of them believed that this extreme behavior would save them. Loya frequently mentions thinking that he was turning himself into Nietzsche's ubermensch by robbing banks as if each bank he robbed made him stronger when it reality it just increased his chances of getting caught (It's funny how people have distorted Nietzsche's theories over the years. Leopold and Loeb were also caught up in Nietzsche which led them to try and commit the perfect crime, since they both had genius I.Q.'s and all). Ultimately of course the behavior turned out to be destructive for all of them. The certainty they had in their lives, turned out to be not so certain after all and they all had to regroup.
In Klein's case, his mother committed suicide shortly after his birth, and he later discovered that not only was she Jewish but that she'd been interred in a concentration camp. His father and step-mother were abusive, and he got caught up in the fervor of the 60's radicalism in Germany. Only in his case, it wasn't enough to just protest. He felt that only by violence could a point be made. So he got involved with a wing of the Bader-Meinhof gang (a group of extremists) and ended up involved in the kidnapping of a group of Opec executives, in which 3 people were killed and he was wounded. While recovering he saw the Raid on Entebbe and something about the plight of the Jews on the flight spoke to him and it changed his life. He realized that they weren't really changing anything.
For Mark Pierpont, he grew up in a religious household and tried through prayer and missionary work to change his nature, which was being gay. Joe Loya tried to escape the brutality of his father by becoming a bank robber. He was taking control of his life in a very bizarre way. Mark Salzman was tormented as a child by bullies, and he had a father who wasn't very masculine (at one point he mentions his father coming to one of his martial arts matches and doing needlepoint), so he found the most extreme sensei possible to teach him martial arts.
The stories on their own would have held my attention but Jessica Yu frames it using Euripidies Ancient Greek tragedy the Bacchae to illuminate the subject. In the play Dionysus is angry at his human family for rejecting him and not believing that he is the son of Zeus. His mother Semele died looking upon the face of Zeus which was verboten, him being a god and all. Dionysus disguises himself as a blond youth, who has a group of female worshippers including his aunts and cousins, who he's driven into an ecstatic frenzy. His cousin Pentheus has banned the cult of Dionysus from the kingdom. Since it's a Greek tragedy you know it doesn't end well.
The director uses puppets to illustrate not only sections of the play (which are performed in ancient greek with subtitles) but also to illustrate the more graphic violence such as when Joe Loya describes stabbing his father. While I found the use of the puppets in this case to be illuminating, I found the Greek tragedy sections not to be that interesting. Partly because unless you know from the get-go that the play is the Bacchae, you're not really going to get the nuances that the director is going for. Now that I know the scenes were from the Baachae, they make more sense, and I would like to see the movie again with that knowledge.
Not only does the movie illustrate extremism, but there are also elements of the hero's journey in the film, Joseph Campbell's landmark work which I know solely from Christopher Vogler's the Writer's Journey. The director frames each segment of the film using terms like catharsis with lovely ancient Greek illustrations, but I found that I would have liked to have come to my own conclusions without being led so much by the director.
I read a review that said the film had more in common with Sophocles than with the plays of Euripides, in particular Oedipus who famously killed his father and married his mother. Clearly all four men had serious father issues and issues with their masculinity or society's version of what constituted a man.
All four men were incredibly articulate about their journeys, all most too much so. You almost wish that at least one of them had been struggling to communicate. In her production notes, she states that she searched for months for the other three protagonists (since one of them lived in her house). I would have liked to have known more about her process of finding and interviewing people. Apart from her husband, and why she chose to include his story. Mark Salzman had written a book about his experiences teaching in China which was very well received and made into a movie in which he starred.
Unfortunately the director was not able to be at the screening to answer these questions, so I'll have to wait until she's interviewed or for the DVD extras to get my questions answered. But I would definitely go see this film, if you like documentaries or even if you just like human stories.
Thanks for reading,

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