Archive for November, 2011

A Note on Herzog at the Egyptian

November 11th, 2011 No comments


Thank God for the AFI Fest and their free tickets to shows that I just can’t convince my wife to spend money to see.  She’s not interested? No matter, a few friends are, so I reserve the tickets to Werner Herzog’s Into The Abyss at Grauman’s ornate relic from Hollywood’s Golden Years, The Egyptian.  Outside the palatial theater Brazie and I stand in line with other ticket holders, but we’re just about bringing up the rear of the line, so we’re nervous about even getting in.  But that is why I showed up an hour early, that’s why I printed my confirmation page off the AFI website, to get into this documentary.  I was confident we’d get in without any issue.

I end up apologizing to Brazie when we don’t get in.  We were turned away at the door as I had only printed my confirmation page and had not gone to the festival box office to exchange it for a hard ticket.  There was Herzog, in front of the AFI banners posing for the cameras ready to enter the theater and there was Brazie and I, rejected by the girl at the door who is probably some Freshman undergrad film student who has only taken her intro to film studies and screenwriting courses so can tell me all about Eisenstein’s montage theory but is completely unaware of the living legend she is refusing to let us see! After waiting in the rush line, we are ushered in, a few people didn’t show up and there are ten more seats available (or so they say but once Brazie and I took tickets 9 and 10 we saw a handful of empty seats inside the palace).  We ended up in the second row.

Werner comes out and introduces the movie, it’s brief, he just wants us to know that this film is not to take a stance on the death penalty and it is not his intention for this to be any sort of call to action or condemnation of the death penalty.  It’s simply a tale about death, a tale about life.  Thunderous applause, quick title cards with the sponsors being prominently displayed for the AFI Fest (brought to us by Audi) and then the face of Fred Lopez, the chaplain that stands in the room with the men that are executed.  He’s in front of the Huntsville cemetery where those executed are buried without names, just numbers etched on the crosses marking their resting place. “Why does God allow for capital punishment?” Herzog asks him. Starts to feel like a message movie.

More interviews begin, with family members of the victims of this triple homicide, with Michael Perry who is ten days away from his execution for said crime, with the accomplice Jason Burkett who got life in prison, with Burkett’s father who is serving another 40 years, with witnesses and with a former executioner.  I think I’m onto Herzog, a man I know from the past is anti-death penalty, so I can see him building this case as he builds sympathy for Michael Perry. Then we interview some family members of the victims and I’m not so sure. They are all pretty comforted by the death penalty as a form justice. And with each interview Herzog’s message seems to fade and it starts to feel more like a documentary from a younger Errol Morris.  We’re now just spending time with a group of people all tangled in the same web of misfortune.

Herzog’s latest documentaries have been either darkly and morbidly comedic or wondrous poetry, but both felt like Herzog had a very firm direction that he was pushing the documentary toward.  With Into The Abyss he only captured 6 hours of footage and what he cut together had it’s own unaffected life.  There wasn’t an opportunity for him to capture anything trivial or irrelevant.  Even when it seems to break off on a tangent with an interview of a local young man who once had a screwdriver stabbed through his chest you feel that it is all interwoven.  He had a loose connection to the boys convicted of the triple homicide, but still a connection and was affected by what had happened.

Although Herzog claims this isn’t an “issue film,” and for a good portion you forget about the issue and focus on the characters, at the end you are too aware of the filmmaker’s stance on the issue for it to not be considered an “issue film.”  He creates enough sympathy for both Perry and Burkett through interviews with Burkett’s father and wife and the way he presents Perry that regardless of guilt you don’t feel that anyone deserves to lose their life.

Herzog said in the Q&A afterward it is not about establishing guilt or innocence.  Which is true, it is a captivating look down on a menagerie struck with violence both from civilians and from the state.  At times I felt each person was absolutely crazy.  Burkett’s wife met him online, fell in love with him sight unseen and agreed to marry him on her first visit.  She later became pregnant with Burkett’s child despite not being about to do more than hold hands on each visit. To which Herzog asks knowingly, “there is often reports of contraband being smuggled into jail, but is there much contraband being smuggled out.” To which she replies, “we prefer to say that the child was artificially inseminated.” Oh!  and of course she doesn’t see herself as one of those inmate groupies that goes around falling in love to convicted felons. That would make her crazy.

A poor iPhone photo

As the interviews progress they become very human. Listening to the former executioner talk did more to cement any message than Herzog’s own words could, which is why narration would have been inappropriate for what he wanted to achieve.  In the end, it is a very engaging tale of life and inevitable death.  It’s fascinating to hear someone talk that knows when and how he will die, a torment (or comfort) that none of us have.

The Q&A only lasted about 15 minutes, and Herzog took that time to answer just one question (he’s a bit of a talker) so I didn’t get to ask him what really drew him to this particular story. It doesn’t seem like there was anything remarkable about this case opposed to any of the other hundreds of death row cases in Texas.  That speaks to the masterful hand of a veteran filmmaker who can take, in some of these cases, only 30 minutes to interview a subject and get right to the heart of the issue with a focus on the most interesting aspects of their character and life.   Knowing them now as human, it seems eerily disconnected to mark each cross with just a number, as though the state doesn’t want to think they’ve buried a name just a body.





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