CIFF Diary: Day 11, pt.2 - Tombstones Take Flight

10/17 - ECSTATIC takes it's name from legendary earth walker and film maker Werner Herzog and his notion of "ecstatic truth," which has defined his consistent goal of seeking new and deeply truthful images, always engaging the stories he encounters with a uniquely expansive view of the narrative paradigm.  The image you see the word "Ecstatic" pasted over at the top of this page is that of Anna Karina, a favorite actress of mine, and of French New Wave pioneer Jean-Luc Godard.  In interviews Herzog has occasionally delighted in deriding Godard as "intellectual counterfeit money," all the while praising the cultural significance of "The Anna Nicole Show" and the cinematic superiority of a good "kung-fu" movie.  One of the exciting parts of following the career of Herzog (and Godard, for that matter) is the unexpected nature of his choices and his strange preoccupations, always challenging the perceptions of his audience, always asking them to take another leap into a new abyss.  Needless to say, his new film Into the Abyss was for me one of the most anticipated screenings of the festival.

Michael Perry, eight days before his execution - Into the Abyss
Into the Abyss (subtitled, "A Story of Death, A Story of Life") may surprise Herzog fans in it's technique, as it masquerades in part as a conventional "real crime" television show.  For others, Herzog's disinterest in getting to the very bottom of "who did what" in favor of his central questions about capital punishment (as well as his tendency toward interview questions like: "Tell me about an encounter with a squirrel") will most likely frustrate; a sentiment I sensed from the few walk-outs that happened around me before the film's end Monday night.  But, in Herzogian fashion, I like to re-author those walk-outs as a dissatisfaction with the very thing that makes Into the Abyss so essential (though, I'm afraid, poorly titled).  Into the Abyss was shot very quickly with little room for error or re-takes, especially in the case of the scenes that are shot within prison or death row confines.  In this sense, the film recalls Herzog's last film Cave of Forgotten Dreams, where we witness he and his crew find a way to record and transform the ancient cave paintings of Chauvet in the south of France while confined to only a narrow metal walkway.

Herzog and his crew shoot the Chauvet Caves
Jason Burkett - Into the Abyss
In some ways, it feels almost as if the confinement of the Chauvet caves inspired the limitations put on Herzog in Into the Abyss, as he seems to embrace the immediacy of the situation, having supposedly only one attempt at the interviews with the convicted criminals:  Michael Perry, sentenced to death; Jason Burkett, up for parole in 2041.  Herzog also interviews Delbert Burkett, Jason's father, who is serving 40 years on eight felony counts.  Although we have seen Herzog interview in this way before, Into the Abyss contains a lot of Herzog-as-interviewer, which sets up the audience for a film that could possibly lean into John Stossle-like expose territory.  Fortunately, Herzog is incapable of creating something that fits neatly into the facile, exploitative landscape of commercial television.  Going back to the walk-outs I mentioned, perhaps their impatience is a reaction born of the dull conditioning of commercial "re-enactment" dramas.  Into the Abyss asks you to actually listen to it's subjects in a way that simply cannot be explored from within the template of reality TV.  This kind of case shows up on TV nightly, packaged with jittery, repetitive editing and canted angle black-and-white re-enactment footage, relentlessly teasing the "money shot" as the lead in-and-out of every commercial.  In contrast, Into the Abyss asks us to listen deeply.  Once again, this seems complimentary to the way Cave of Forgotten Dreams asked us to really look at it's revelatory images in a way that similarly challenges the impatient "travel" or "nature" TV doc.

The walls of Chauvet Cave
Werner Herzog shoots Into the Abyss
In a recent interview for the Toronto International Film Festival, Herzog commented on this tension between commercial storytelling and the nature of his role as storyteller:  
I have such reservations about television, which interrupts stories with commercial breaks.  Such a great achievement of communal life is the ability to tell stories. We have created it since Neanderthal times, and all of a sudden we are fragmenting it, fracturing it and destroying it for the sake of commerciality of product.
There are moments of Into the Abyss that may go sadly unnoticed, as a majority of audiences tend to look at a film like this through that commercial storytelling lens, only asking the question of "what really happened?" and maybe failing to see the goal of Herzog's storytelling.  Herzog states very clearly in the film, to Perry himself, that he does not feel that anyone should be executed in the manner that Perry was, but the film is far from a Michael Moore-esque polemic against capital punishment (nothing against Moore--unlike Godard, Herzog and I are both fans).  In fact, Herzog gives tremendous weight to the story of the mother of one of the young victims who describes how witnessing Perry's execution literally healed her heart, eventually summing up her position as "some people just deserve to die."  Later, as he surveys the cross-shaped  tombstones of the death row executed, inscribed with only their prison inmate numbers, Herzog fades quickly to black, then back up to a shot of a nearby landfill swarming with birds in chaotic uniformity.  It's through these ecstatic juxtapositions, the ability to allow tombstones to take flight, that Herzog remains one of our most important seekers of truth.

Up Next:  A very French vacation:  Pascal Rabate's Holidays by the Sea

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