Protagonist

I sometimes forget just how crucial a role context plays in experiencing a work of art.

I was reminded of this fact just the other day when I went to the cinema to see a special benefit screening of Jessica Yu’s documentary Protagonist, screened at the Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland as a fundraiser for Walden House, a substance abuse treatment non-profit based in California. A friend of mine, Joe Loya, serves as the organization’s media relations coordinator. Joe is also an author and journalist. Furthermore, he happens to be one of four male interview subjects whose story is told in Yu’s documentary.

Protagonist covers the journeys of four grown men from innocence through revelation and extreme behavior and eventually to catharsis. Joe grew up in an abusive Mexican-American family. His mother died when he was young and his father took out his anger on Joe and his brother. Joe grew up to become a hardcore and rather sadistic bank robber before winding up in prison and eventually, upon release, becoming a writer. Mark Pierpont, a fervent evangelical missionary, fought for years to repress his homosexual impulses. He did everything he could to lead the battle to “cure” lesbians and homosexuals before realizing that he could no longer hide his true nature. He went on to become a gay nightclub performer. Hans-Joachim Klein, a German and the only non-American interviewee in the film, rebelled against his Nazi-sympathizing father and became one of Europe’s most wanted left-wing revolutionaries of the 1970s. Then there’s Mark Salzman, Yu’s real-life partner, whose arc follows his obsessive martial arts training and years spent under the influence of a monomaniacal martial arts guru. Eventually Salzman, who is a noted memoirist, turned away from the guru and launched on a literary path.

When viewed as part of a substance abuse benefit, the film looks like a story of simple redemption, of bad guys turned good. I found myself feeling that Salzman, as the only person who hadn’t lived an extreme life in the sense of stabbing his father in the throat with a kitchen knife, handling firearms or changing his sexuality, was the odd man out.

But reading reviews of the film written by people who saw it under different circumstances demonstrates a much wider spectrum of possible interpretations.

Writing in the Village Voice under the headline “Women are from Mars; Men from Greece,” for instance, Lisa Katzman writes about Yu’s exploration of male behavior and its relationship to archetypes from Ancient Greek drama (the entire film is framed by stick puppet enactments of works by Euripides such as The Bacchae.)

Andrew O’Hehir’s review for Salon, by contrast, concentrates more on the film’s structure.

The film seemed uneven to me, yet thoroughly intriguing. I think I’d like to see it again. Next time, perhaps, with the members of a male self-help group, a bunch of feminists or a group of Greek or literary scholars.

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