Jessica Yu's new documentary, "Protagonist," draws a fascinating line from ancient Greece to a place like New Jersey. Her ostensible subject is tragedy, specifically the sort found in Euripides, and her approach is shrewd. The Greeks are represented by a puppet chorus that comments on and sometimes reenacts details from the personal histories of the four men whose lives Yu uses to illustrate how the Euripidean dramatic model is evergreen. A bad flower blooms from innocent soil, and the proverbial apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Each of the men emerges from childhood damaged and gruesomely obsessive in one way or another.
The men tell their stories themselves. Yu complements their monologues with stock footage and the men's personal photos and home movies and breaks the drama into about a dozen parts ("Provocation," "Opportunity," "Fever," "Certainty," etc.) that she thinks are staples of Euripides's tragedies. It's not as clinically academic as it sounds.
The trouble starts at home. Mark Pierpont was raised in a religious family with a dad who made Mark feel ashamed of his emotional sensitivity. Joe Loya's devout Christian father turned physically abusive after Joe's mother died. Mark Salzman was bullied at school (his father was too ineffectual to lift a finger). And Hans-Joachim Klein, a German, lived with a foster family but had a terrible relationship with his biological father.
None of these men liked who he was or where he had come from. But, despite everything, they all spend their lives becoming who they are, anyway, which is the opposite of who they want to be. In most instances, that's their father. Klein's dad, for example, was a violent Nazi, and while Klein himself tried to veer into peaceful activism, he winds up a wanted political terrorist during the Baader-Meinhof era. And Salzman, as an adolescent, discovers the ridiculous placidity of David "Kung Fu" Carradine (more or less a tough version of Salzman's passive father) and falls into an obsession with the martial arts. Pierpont becomes a guerrilla missionary and develops an ugly psychological allergy to his homosexuality. And Loya retaliates against his father, overthrowing him in a sense, and transforms his triumph into a violent bank robbery career. (Picking up on his father's religious ironies, he says, "I was a religious fanatic for evil.")
"Protagonist" is another astute piece of nonfiction profiling by Yu. Her previous film, "In the Realms of the Unreal," was an audacious deconstruction of the artist Henry Darger. Here Yu doesn't ask whether biology is destiny. She barely needs to. Her plane is less psychological than classical. The puppetry, designed by Janie Geiser and expertly controlled with rods, bonds 5th century BC to the late 20th century. The puppets could be doing the tragic life of Joe Loya or "Medea."
To draw these parallels Yu has to make distillations; she doesn't make reductions. The movie boils down these men's lives to their most essential theme: "I was good until I wasn't." But Yu arranges the narrative similarities to create an amplified case study in personal brokenness. The tragedies ricochet off each other.
These men - Yu's dramatis personae - sit on a set, look just past the camera, and explain themselves with tremendous clarity. Salzman is particularly energetic; if he could karate-chop something he would. Amazingly, no one seems steeped in the salubrious self-explication of therapy. They just sound like very good storytellers.