After seeing In the Realms of the Unreal, Jessica Yu’s lyrical documentary/ animation film on the extraordinary Chicago-artist-by-night and custodian-by-day Henry Darger, the Carr Foundation approached Yu to make a film about the fifth-century-B.C. dramatist Euripides.
Yu was intrigued, but after spending a summer researching the playwright and rereading his plays, she opted not to make a documentary about him, but rather to use the structure of his plays—especially The Bacchae—as a jumping-off point for exploring a type of character that she and Euripides share a fascination for: the Extremist.
In Protagonist, Yu takes her cue from Euripides’ depiction of Dionysus as a protagonist and antagonist all rolled into one—and transfers classic tragedy to a modern-day, non-polytheistic context by deftly interweaving the varied experiences of four men, each of whom lived on the edge of extremity before recognizing he could go no further without possibly annihilating himself. Through their transformations, Yu pays tribute to the signposts of classical Greek (and, by extension, western) drama: conflict, revelation, catharsis, and resolution. These individually powerful stories are connected, amplified, and made to resonate even more meaningfully with each other through Yu’s ingenious employment of wooden stick puppets, whose faces are inspired by Greek masks. The puppets act, in effect, as a Greek chorus, and occasionally re-enact critical moments in the life story of one the film’s four subjects.
At the outset, Yu knew she wanted to tell the stories of two men. The first, Joe Loya, grew up with a father who brutally terrorized him and his brother following the death of their mother. When Loya finally retaliated in self-defense, he unleashed a self-vindicating rage that in his mind justified an escalating criminal career as a bank robber. After committing 30 robberies in Mexico, he was caught and sent to prison where he gradually came to terms with what he had done and why. The second is Mark Saltzman, an author and, as it happens, Yu’s husband. As a child, Saltzman was the kid everybody picked on, but his life changed when he discovered kung fu and Keith Carradine. Throughout his teen years, Saltzman trained obsessively with a local martial arts expert who had a penchant for putting his students in deadly chokes and headlocks. The day his master went too far, Saltzman was forced to admit that his sensei was a sadistic psycho, and thus changed his own life.
In searching for her two other subjects, Yu, her two producers Elise Pearlstein and Susan West, and several interns spent eight months combing the Internet, magazines, and personal contacts, searching for individuals who not only had pursued obsessions until they crashed and burned, but could also, Yu emphasizes, “step outside the experience to reflect upon it, and tell a story.” Yu says she and her team were seeking women, but among the hundreds of individuals they considered, none of the women’s stories fully fit the Euripidean model in which the protagonist is led by an idée fixe only to realize, often too late, that he had been courting disaster.
Yu’s extensive empirical research revealed that in life (as in the movies) the arc of this sort of drama happens more frequently to men. The director says that once the women she interviewed realized “they were on a self-destructive path, they pulled back, to change course.” But this self-awareness had dampened the dramatic impact of their stories. The men on the other hand, Yu says wryly, “kept going till they hit a wall. And that’s what we wanted—we wanted to see them hit that wall.” Yu attributes the distinction in how men and women approach their personal obsessions to the difference in brain formation. “Women excel at multitasking, and so, if necessary, they are better at changing direction.”
(In her earlier films, Breathing Lesson: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien and In the Realms of the Unreal, Yu explored the double theme of childhood trauma and male vulnerability. In making Protagonist, she says she came to understand that for her subjects, extreme experiences were a reaction to both and were a “form of initiation into manhood.”)
To round out the quartet of characters, Yu and her team finally settled on Hans-Joachim Klein, a former German leftist and member of Revolutionary Cells (an offshoot of the notorious Baader-Meinhof gang). In a botched attempt to kidnap 11 OPEC ministers in the 1970s, in which three people died, Klein was badly wounded. Later he renounced his terrorist activities. The fourth subject, Mark Pierpont, is a former Evangelical preacher, whose religious fervor masked his homosexual desire until the lie proved too psychically costly.
As an ensemble, these four subjects demonstrate what is best expressed in the chorus’s final speech in The Bacchae: “The gods appear in many forms/Carrying with them unwelcome things/What people thought would happen never did/What they did not expect, the gods made happen/That’s what this story has revealed.”