Judge Kristin Munson prefers to be an antagonist. Did you mean to wear that?
"I'm not the victim. I'm the perpetrator."—Hans Joachim-Klein
The most accurate way to label Protagonist is "academic documentary," but don't let that scare you. Yes, the movie is a documentary told within the framework of Euripidean drama, but that doesn't mean it isn't fascinating or accessible. Like Euripides plays, there's plenty of sex, violence, and kung-fu.
Okay, kung-fu isn't technically Euripidean but a guy who wrote plays with orgies and infanticide probably wouldn't be against the idea.
Facts of the Case
Four men from different cultures and backgrounds share the stories of how they became a bank robber, a martial artist, a "cured" homosexual, and a terrorist and how they each reached the decision that their path was a sham.
Protagonist is a documentary with an absurdly simple idea—four guys in front of a camera telling their life stories—that succeeds on the strength of the storytellers. Hans, Joe, and the two Marks are observant, reflective, and intelligent subjects who explore the role that history and masculinity played in their decisions and confess so much the movie feels like a therapy session. Mark Salzman has the least serious story of the four men, but the guy knows how tell a story better than any of them. His animated flailing and cursing as he talks about his crazy kung-fu master breaks up the more depressing and intense stories of the other participants
Director Jessica Yu (In the Realms of The Unreal: The Mystery Of Henry Darger) treats each man as if he is the main character in his own Greek tragedy, following them on an anti-hero's journey from their shaky beginnings to their eventual catharsis. Men who would be dismissed as a criminal or a hypocrite suddenly become sympathetic, flesh and blood people after tracking them from start to finish. The documentary doesn't excuse their behavior but puts their choices into context. It's otherwise unfathomable how the child of a Nazi sympathizer and a Concentration camp survivor becomes someone who hangs out with Sartre and Carlos "The Jackal."
What makes the movie so absorbing is the way the four narratives are almost seamlessly interwoven. Common themes and experiences enable each story to bleed into another with no narration to break up the flow. Mark Pierpont and Joe both come from devout households; Joe and Hans lost their mothers at a young age; Pierpont and Mark Salzman were both social outcasts. It's amazing to see how each one winds up on a different path from the other and still encounter the same problems, and the camera never stays so long with one man that you forget about the others.
The movie relies entirely on the personal testimony of the four men, which would usually result in 90 minutes of talking heads, but Yu breaks up the monotony with puppetry and animated title cards. The slightly creepy marionettes are used to act out events where a photo sequence or live-action reenactment would normally be and the surprising thing is, it works. It's an idea that could have easily turned out silly and ruined the entire doc, but the puppetry actually lends more horror and drama to the stories. By ruling out actors and slideshow presentations, the film gets the momentum of live-action sequences without the cheesy consequences.
Alive Mind only provided a DV-R check disc, so it's hard to gauge how the final product will turn out. While the picture and color are pristine, Jessica Yu's directorial choices can make your head hurt. Black is the default background color for every scene, so the color contrast in the interviews are intense and the heavy shadows in the puppet portions are atmospheric overkill. Yu also likes to frame close-ups, puppet and person, to the far side of the screen, so the picture is swimming in darkness. The 2.0 stereo has a much better balance, the soundtrack of Greek instruments never overwhelms the dialogue, and the interviews are delivered at a good volume. In a bizarre move, Alive Mind ignores the movie's context when putting together the DVD chapter menu. The movie already uses chapters as a storytelling device but instead of using the ready-made markers, chapters are just plopped in every so many minutes. No extras were included on my copy, but the DVD description promises an interview with Yu and a "Making of" about the puppets totaling 25 minutes.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It didn't occur to me until I began writing that not everyone had a super cool Classics department at their school, full of lovable eccentrics who encouraged students to hone a sarcastic streak along with their Latin studies. Those of you who didn't get to write essays bashing Troy for exam credit or navigate the verbal minefield provided by Pandora and her famous box probably won't enjoy the movie in the same way I did.
The documentary assumes a more-than-basic knowledge of Greek tragedy in general, Euripides in particular. The titles for each section are theater terms that appear on screen in English and Greek with no explanation of what they mean. Instead, each one is demonstrated by an excerpt from Euripides, but there's not enough of the play's plot in the film to really help unless you already know "The Bacchae" like the back of my freakishly pale hand.
Protagonist is something that needs to be viewed with an active mind and a bit of background in order to fully "get it," but the individual stories and the mixed media are just as entertaining without any knowledge of the Classics. Sure, it requires some thinking, but that's what makes it a more rewarding experience than your average documentary.
It's all Greek me, but it's still Not Guilty.
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