Film sends age-old message to modern audience

Stewart Oksenhorn
"Oedipus Marshal," a film by Javier Tellez, shows at the Aspen Art Museum through Oct. 1. (Courtesy of the artist)

In the company of the emotionally disturbed, we tend to steer clear of troubling topics. It is a reflection of our well-intentioned desire not to add further woes to their perception of the world, littered as it already is with hard-to-maneuver situations.

Javier Tellez shows no such timidity. The son of two psychiatrists, Tellez as a child played in the same room of the family’s Venezuelan home while his father consulted with patients. The familiarity seems to have left Tellez, now a Queens, N.Y.-based artist, with the notion that the mentally ill need no such protection from the darker realities of life.

“Oedipus Marshal,” a film project directed during Tellez’s time as the Aspen Art Museum’s distinguished artist-in-residence, ties together elements from Western films, Japanese Noh theater, and Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex.” The most obvious thread running through all three is death. In Sophocles’ play, Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother, who takes her own life. In Noh drama, the characters are ghostly beings, reflected in the pale masks often worn by the actors. Westerns are marked by violence; death always rides high in the saddle.

Tellez collaborated on “Oedipus Marshal” with members of the Oasis Club House, a Grand Junction outpatient facility for the mentally ill. Oasis Clubber Aaron Sheley, a former film student, co-wrote the script with Tellez and stars as Oedipus; the rest of the cast is made up of Oasis patients. Despite the presence of the mentally fragile, or maybe because of it, Tellez doesn’t back off from the discomforting themes, but actually heightens them.

The film is set, as was Sophocles’ play, in the plagued town of Thebes ” but here Thebes is recast as a Western ghost town. (“Oedipus Marshal” was filmed this past spring in Ashcroft.) As Matthew Thompson, assistant curator for the museum, observes, the setting is portrayed as a ghost town: “There are no extras roaming the streets. There’s no effort to make it look like a working Western town. So there’s this out-of-time quality.” The soundtrack features traditional Noh music, a high-pitched, eerie sound not unlike the wail of a pack of coyotes. As the film proceeds, the disembodied narrator is transformed from a Greek chorus to voices inside Oedipus’ head.

The story follows the original material closely. Oedipus, an orphan now grown, shoots a man, Laius, at a crossroads. The dead man had been the sheriff; as his killer, Oedipus becomes the new sheriff, and takes the widow Yocasta as his bride. Later, Yocasta tells Oedipus how Laius had been killed, and Oedipus realizes his intimate connection to both the deceased and to his wife. In their horror, Yocasta hangs herself, while Oedipus blinds himself.

It is a bleak story, and Tellez tells it in a way that allows for no escape. One of the themes played up in “Oedipus Marshal” is the power of destiny. Oedipus, and his father before him, had been to the fortune-teller, who envisioned doom for both of them. Laius was told that his “future was all used up.” Neither one doubted the truth of the teller’s vision.

Perhaps the gloomiest angle to the film is that awareness ” of one’s fate, or one’s self ” doesn’t provide relief. As Tiresias, a witness to the murder, says, “The truth is terrible. You see the truth but the truth brings only pain to him who sees.”

Could it be that Tellez is suggesting those in emotional turmoil, like the patients of the Oasis Club House, are the ones with their eyes open widest, the most exposed to the painful truth?