What do a German terrorist, a martial-arts fanatic, a bank robber and a gay preacher all have in common? They’ve all got Daddy issues, and according to Oscar-winner Jessica Yu‘s latest documentary, they’ve all taken similar journeys in life that follow the ancient Greek plays of Euripides. Compared to her fantastic and fascinating “In the Realms of the Unreal” (2004), Yu’s follow-up doesn’t have the same compelling and perverse punch, but it’s an intriguing experiment all the same.
The project came about after the Carr Foundation asked Yu to make a documentary of Euripides, most famous for his classic dramas “Medea” and “Electra.” Rather than do a traditional portrait, Yu came up with the idea of finding people today whose real lives mirrored the dramatic arc of a specific Euripidean tragedy: that of the extreme personality. Interestingly, Yu focuses on four men – opposed to the famously single-minded ladies at the center of “Medea” and “Electra – and tells four intertwined stories about the great lengths these four gentlemen go to pursue a goal.
Hans-Joachim Klein (recently the subject of his own documentary “My Life as A Terrorist“) is a wild-haired German and former member of the Revolution Cells, a descendant of the infamous Baader-Meinhoff gang. With a father who was both a Nazi and a cop, the 59-year-old Klein rebelled in a big way, joining anti-Fascist movements and eventually becoming an ally of Carlos the Jackal. Just as compelling is the story of Joe Loya, a man horribly abused as a child who grows up to become a ruthless California back-robber. Loya’s childhood remembrances are evocatively portrayed through child-hood paraphernalia: a birthday card he gives to his father heartbreakingly reads, “I love you even though you hit me.”
Mark Salzman offers the comic flipside to Klein and Loya. A small, defenseless boy who spent his years at a Connecticut high school enduring the game of “hit Mark,” Salzman becomes inspired by the 70s TV Show “Kung Fu” and eventually signs up for a martial arts class, which consumes his life. Lastly, Mark Pierpont recounts his days as a popular Christian evangelist, who toured the world preaching the power of God while simultaneously struggling with his own homosexuality.
Yu chronicles the men’s stories using traditional interviews and archival footage, but also wooden puppets that evoke an ancient Greek chorus. In interstitial segments, the puppets also quote Euripides (“there is pleasure in hardship,” etc.), and throughout the film, the men’s lives are broken up into chapters of dramatic notions, from “Provocation” to “Turning Point,” “Threshold” to “Doubt,” “Catharsis” to “Resolution.” There are several others, such as “Fever,” “Reversal,” and “Cost,” which, after a while, begin to feel overloaded. Some concepts are explored more fully, while others are glazed over.
The mix of the more obvious Euripidian references (the puppets, the pretentious 5th century dialogue) with the modern lives of the men doesn’t always cohere. Sometimes, such complex insertions distract from the stories. But admittedly, at other times, the juxtapositions of the men’s experiences under a certain rubric, such as “Certainty,” reveals a stimulating link between the characters: all of the men at some point find themselves vexingly fixed to a black-and-white existence, unable to find the gray areas in between.
But what’s most interesting about these four men seems to have little to do with Euripides, and more to do, perhaps, with Sophocles (sorry, Euri). If they’re not out to kill their fathers a la Oedipus, both literally (in the case of Joya) and metaphorically (Klein), they’re struggling with their masculinity. Perhaps it’s a simple matter of focus, but “Protagonist” may have been a much stronger reflection on human nature if it’d had more deeply explored the extremes that define maleness in the late 20th century.
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