“Being back in Helena, Montana reminded me how conflicted I used to be about my gender. If being masculine means throwing a football, I was going to throw the perfect spiral. I thought that would fix me and prove to me as well as others I was normal”, laments narrator-director-protagonist Reed in the opening scene, starting off with the perfect pitch, providing an equally philosophical, insightful and personal voice-over that carries the viewer through this Telluride-premiered documentary and winner of the FIPRESCI Critics Award at the 11th Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival.
It’s All True
Once upon a time there was a happily married couple living in Middle America. The McKerrows. The wife is a schoolteacher, the husband works as a doctor. After years of attempting to have kids, they adopt a baby boy (Marc). Surprisingly enough, right after the adoption, the wife gets pregnant. The birth of their first biological son (Paul) is followed by another surprise, a second (or third) son (Todd).
Fast forward eighteen odd years: Paul leaves home for San Francisco where he has a sex change operation to make his turning into a woman complete. Todd, on the other hand, turns gay and settles in San Diego, as far from the family nest as possible. When Paul/Kim breaks the news to his parents about his/her transformation, Beloved Doc Dad (a.k.a. B.D.D.) accepts it without much hesitation.
Adopted son Marc suffers a severe head injury in a car accident near Las Vegas while driving a truck to celebrate his 25th birthday with his buddies. Oddly enough, five years after the accident, he starts having seizures. They become so intense that B.D.D. decides it’s best to have some of the scar tissue removed from Marc’s brain. In effect, the seizures get better but the mood swings worsen.
Cut to the present day: 20 years after graduation, Kim (née Paul) is heading back to Montana to face the townsfolk for the first time in her new physique — as a woman. She encounters only light jokes (“All of us changed, we’re fat and you’re a girl”), but not hostility, except for Marc. They’ve been estranged for more than a decade. Slightly nerdish, obnoxious and, not so slightly overweight, Marc’s slow speech pattern, a monotone rumbling seems to still reflect the aftermath of his brain surgery.
It turns out, they had a ‘hard time being siblings’. Marc enjoyed all the benefits that being a cherished first-born child can offer, until he was held back in pre-school, and found himself in the same class with Paul who leaves Marc far behind in all fields, including sex appeal: the handsome sportsman is voted Most Likely to Succeed by his classmates.
Grudges of the past, conserved envy and angst soon emerge from the muddy waters of the confused teenage years every time this mountain-sized, brute of a man, the heavily medicated Marc goes berserk. Kim has to empathically listen and swallow all the nasty remarks. Marc often plays the piano. “How? I do not know. I was just playing whatever my fingers play. That’s the thing I don’t understand. I don’t know where it came from. It’s one of the reasons I wanna research the family all the more.”
As a result of this research, he finds out that in actuality he is the illegitimate grandson of Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles. His mother is Rebecca Welles who lived in obscurity in Washington D.C. deliberately trying to isolate herself from her parents’ fame. Marc and his mother start corresponding by mail. The first time he gets to see her in person is at the funeral. She lies in the coffin. Dead.
Reed, who as a filmmaker was understandably in oath of Welles, to her greatest surprise finds a Welles-scion in his Stepbrother. Orson’s companion Oja Kodar invites Marc to her house in Croatia. He asks Kim to accompany him. Still astounded by the revelation, Marc spends some of the best days of his life trying to get accustomed to his new Wellesian identity. “At last I’m becoming the person I wanna become and I’m getting the chance to go somewhere in life”, sums up Marc on this new turn in his life. But the ‘Stepbrotherness’ is not that easy to wear out. Kim notes: “I felt Marc would have given anything to be the man I have given anything not to be. We were haunted by the same ghost”. Namely: Paul.
Back home, the family drama ensues — courtesy of Marc. Going overboard, he feeds sexist remarks to the family dialogue on religious (fundamentalist) grounds. He ruins a Christmas family gathering and goes violent on repeated occasions after which his calmed self isn’t short of apology for what “this bizarre head of mine” did. In his outbursts he breaks into appalling tirades, breaks the glass frame of a family photo, hits his sister while she is filming him, gets his brother Todd in a chokehold, and threatens the family with a knife. In our very eyes, a faintly Wellesian guy (minus the deep, resonant voice, the handsome features and the charisma) turns ugly and violent.
In the end he has to be taken away by the police. He ends up in jail, then at an institution for mental examination. To this day, he continues to get in and out of hospitals due to his violent outbreaks and his fading short-term memory.
If one would pitch a movie script like this to a producer, he would most certainly be turned down as sensationalistic because the story sounds so far-fetched. Yet, it’s all true. Here is what life offers us — surpassing our wildest imagination.
The film instantly reminded me one of Carl Gustav Jung’s concepts. According to the late Swiss psychoanalyst children often act out their parents’ suppressed desires and subconscious needs on a temporary or permanent (life-long) basis. Ultimately, they become subliminal inclinations activated, and turn into realized acts by shifting energies within the gestalt of a family’s consciousness (the overall sum of the family members’ individual consciousness). It can appear in various forms in the child’s life, from a teenage hobby to something as primal as sexual orientation.
However, when such shifting takes a great role, it can also polarize a family. The God Almighty Father and the Mad Prodigal Son, or the Daughter-Turned-Son for that matter, are different sides of the same coin — on a subliminal level they create each other. Kim somehow must have been aware of that deep interconnectedness when she said to Marc: “You’re still part of me”.
On this Jungian note, it is eerie, if not outright spooky, to see Marc (after the revelations) to play the piano again and again. “I don’t know how to read music, don’t know the cords, and I wondered where it came from.” Orson lost his pianist mother at the tender age of nine, and even though he, too, was talented in that department, after her death he quickly gave up on a musical career and never touched the keys again. “It’s from her”, Oja Kodar, Welles’ muse, bemuses. It is tempting to think that in some way Marc may be channeling Orson’s unfulfilled pianist aspirations — another way of the above mentioned shifting of psychological energies through family ties, as it continues to resonate in the Welles’ psychological heritage, the family’s collective subconscious, eager to be played out by the latest scion — even when he doesn’t know for years where that comes from. It’s all in the subconscious.
Also, when Marc turns insane in front of the camera, it’s hard not to think of Welles’ portrayal of madness and tyranny taken from Shakespeare’s works.
I Am a Camera
To make a narrative out of one’s own life or emotional arc holds great many traps for a neophyte documentarian (structural, ethical, narcissistic etc.) — not all of them does Reed manage to escape. Judged by her poignant voice-over comments, she certainly possesses the sort of emotional intelligence needed to grasp such mind-blowing twists. A film editor by profession, she also knows how to take charge of material without falling in love with it and losing objectivity. Shot over a few years at less than a dozen family events, Reed seamlessly blends old home videos, establishing shots (mainly landscape imagery) and newly shot footage (interviews and domestic moments) together into a coherent structure.
To what extent does Kim intervene with the flow of events? Was she subtly manipulating the events? When Marc grabs the knife, it is she who orders the family to leave the house immediately. It’s her lesbian girlfriend who calls the police. The blurred line between the stance of a family member (active participant) and a documentarian (passive observer) is a tricky thing to get away with. (Note that it was her back then, as little Paul, who directed his siblings in home-made features.) In her defense: she never raises her voice to quarrel with Marc and always tolerates her stepbrother’s outbursts — but to some degree, it can also be deciphered by a more critical viewer as her showing of emotional charity.
The film raises ethical issues, after all we’re witnessing the mental deterioration of an individual who may well be called demented. When asked after the Thessaloniki screening by an audience member whether she abused her brother by filming him and using his story for popular appeal, Reed maintained that Marc is a great fan of the film and always asks about its festival presence. Also, all members of the family, no matter whose side they take, were approving of the finished film, per Reed.
The quirky family dynamics raise more questions than what the film (e.g. Reed) is capable of answering.
“The bedrock of the family”, in Reeds words, or B.D.D. (Beloved Doc Dad), remains a single photograph in the film, an unquestioned Demi-God, a Sacred Taboo, no more fully-fleshed than a card board cut-out (hence the ironic abbreviation here, to highlight his schematic function in the story). At one point, as the mother explains, he kept a distance from the decisions involving Marc’s brain surgery, saying “the less I know the better”. It would have served the film better if fellow doctors, with knowledge of Marc’s medical history, would have voiced their professional opinion on the father’s decisions.
How would father handle Marc now if he was still alive? At the peak of one of his tirades, Marc claims father would love him and he is the only McKerrow he loves and needs. which seems to confirm the flawless, immaculate, character of the father?
What at first glance stands out as the film’s greatest missing link, is the mother’s take on the events. She is given little space, and when she is seen, she is a caring and loving presence, but demanding, too, for she also forces Marc to take his medicine by refusing to talk to him until he does so. An in-depth conversation would have greatly helped the film, adding nuances: she never addresses her two biological sons’ non-ordinary sexuality. It is quite possible that they never talked about sex. So, blame it on the parents’ generation or the cultural climate of Montana?
But the very act of documentary-filmmaking should ideally serve to transcend all those inhibitions. Had they advanced further in their self-development (both mother and daughter-turned-son) an expanded version of the film should one day consist of such a conversation. And many things more. We know little, if anything, about why she and Kim (then Paul) has always walked on eggshells around Marc. Was it because perhaps the head of the family unknowingly supported tyrannical behavior on Marc’s side? There is no mention of possible reasons why the family kept Paul’s sex change hidden from Marc for many years. If Paul/Kim indeed had a rough time being siblings, has the father ever tried to ease the rivalry between them? It is never really explained. Skipping these crucial issues, Reed devotes precious film-time to detail his life in San Francisco where Paul was last seen before he turned into Kim. Several question marks hang over the film. Prodigal Sons perfectly mirrors Reed’s maturity, but to what degree is she able to come to terms with her own past as well as her family’s?
One-sided as it is, Reed’s personal documentary still manages to maintain the level of interest and suspense necessary to save it from becoming too solipsistic or self-boasting — too easy a trap for self-narrated, self-designed documentaries which more often than not end up being purely self-serving. Despite its structural flaws, Prodigal Sons is a testament to her skills as a director and the thoroughly captivating life-material: the sheer power of dramatic events captured on tape as they unfold (verbal and physical abuse; inner torment turning into insanity). These staggering moments often make one’s jaws drop.
Prodigal Sons ends at 86 minutes. Were the missing links included they would have made it a bona fide masterpiece of around 100-110 minutes. In its current format it still comes close to that.