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Protagonist (2007)

Directed by Jessica Yu

Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad. -- Euripides, Greek tragic dramatist (484 BC -- 406 BC)

Protagonist (2007) -- puppets

Protagonist (2007) is a documentary by Jessica Yu ("In the Realms of the Unreal") that compares the lives of four very different men who passionately tell us their stories of madness and how they regained their senses (a catharsis) and turned away from inevitable self-destruction. Their stories, told by the protagonists themselves, are sometimes punctuated by newsreel footage, sometimes by family photos and films, other times by puppets that illustrate the timelessness of their narratives. Character is fate, most of the time, and the circumstances surrounding our characters set them off searching for answers and the mistaken belief that certainty will put them in control of their destinies.

Protagonist (2007) -- Hans-Joachim Klein

As different as these men are, they share similar backgrounds where chaos ruled, either in the form of crisis of spirit or extreme violence; usually both. German terrorist, Hans-Joachim Klein, describes his policeman father (a Nazis during the Second World War) as a "real monster" who advocated machine gunning the students protesting the Vietnam War on the streets of Berlin in the 1960's. His mother was a Jewish death camp survivor who committed suicide shortly after Hans-Joachim’s birth. Because of her death, his early years were spent, happily enough, in foster care until he was returned to his father. Then things dramatically changed into a series of systematic beatings administered by his father and step-mother.

Protagonist (2007) -- Mark Salzman

Mark Salzman relates what it was like growing up as a runt in an American schoolyard of the 1970's. His classmates would invent games like "hit Mark with the ball," or "shoot Mark with the squirt gun filled with urine" or simply smash a Hostess cheery pie across his unsuspecting face. Why didn't he tell his teachers or parents? He remembers the desperate desire to belong and fit in with his kiddy tormentors. His life takes a U-turn when he sees the T.V. show "Kung Fu." Here is a template for the person Mark aspires to be, and eventually he joins a kung fu school with an instructor he describes as a "hornet" and "you've just bashed his god damn hive." Mark believes that his kung fu master is Zen-tough even though there are many that believe that this man is just a psycho and tell Mark so. One clue that this is the truth should have been that his instructor likes to have students hold a target while he drunkenly shoots arrows at it... and no, he's not a particularly good shot.

Protagonist (2007) -- Joe Loya

Bank robber, Joe Loya, thinks of himself as Nietzsche’s Ubermensch as he brazenly knocks over one bank after another; sometimes four in a day. As he tells it, “Anybody who stood in front of me was in trouble. You know, if I tried to kill my father when I was a skinny, little sixteen year-old, and he had been a man who had been beating me all my life, I always felt like any stranger who got in front of me was in trouble… you could not stop me.” This turns out not be entirely true as Joe ends up in solitary confinement for two years in a maximum security prison. It’s here that he realizes that far from being an Ubermensch controlling his destiny that he is so weak that he doesn’t even have control over how much toilet paper he’s allowed to have. He hallucinates and knows his mind is falling apart. He can no longer tell the difference between his fantasies and the real world.

Protagonist (2007) -- Mark Pierpont

For Christian minister Mark Pierpont, the psychological break comes after he gets married and while raising his young son. He should be happy and feel complete. It's what he always wanted but he finally confronts the truth. Mark had grown up with a profound sense of being different from his devoutly religious family and friends. In his teenage years, he realized that he was gay and through years of intense control of his thoughts he had "cured" himself. His ministry specialized in "curing" gays through the power of Christ's love. What could possibly go wrong?

The strength of "Protagonist" is the ability of these four men to tell their stories in an intense and compelling way. Each of them thought they had found an answer to their dilemmas and sprinted blindly down a path of self-destruction. The weakness of a movie like this is that the viewer usually finds one, maybe two of the stories compelling and grows impatient with the interruption of the narrative flow by the less interesting people. That didn't happen here. Jessica Yu effectively merges their stories into a universal character arch. The journey into madness and then redemption told by a martial artist, a German terrorist, a gay Christian minister and a Mexican-American bank robber is well worth hearing. The theatrical and self-conscious use of puppets was interesting but maybe less would have been more. "There is pleasure in hardships heard about," wrote Euripides a couple of thousand years ago. Unfortunately, perhaps, that is still true today. -- Rating: $10.00

Tom Graney -- 2009 Hollywood Outsider

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