The second part of the rather clumsily coloned title of Herzog’s latest documentary, A Tale of Life, a Tale of Death, builds a vast and vague picture of what the film holds in store. But vast and vague it is. Taking the specific case of a chilling crime and its aftermath, Herzog manages to capture humans in their most vulnerable and powerful moments. He chooses to look deep into the characters on the periphery of the crime rather than linger on superfluous details, rarely breaking from the verbal to-camera accounts which function as a form of penance.
Into the Abyss is divided into five parts, a device used to theme the flow from crime to punishment. Following on from the prologue (which involves the Herzogian prompt ‘describe your encounter with a squirrel’) the crime is laid out in a languorous fashion. The messy and seemingly spontaneous triple homicide of two members of the Stotler family and a friend leads us to the ‘protagonists’ of the film – death row dwelling Michael Perry and accomplice Jason Burkett, serving a life sentence. The two men are alarmingly articulate, more so in some instances than the incidental characters, accepting gracefully their situation. Frustratingly, though, Herzog chooses not to penetrate their professed innocence, in light of the hard evidence against them.
The film is unselective in who it awards the most compassion, switching from Perry and Burkett’s plight to the astounding grief and misfortune of the victims. Herzog must have thought he’d struck gold though when he scraped the surface of the individuals involved. The unmitigating tragedy which has not just touched but suffocated the lives of Lisa Stotler Balloun and Charles Richardson (relatives of the victims) is unbearably moving, letting their stories be slowly drawn out by a sensitive Herzog. Just when you think all of the bombshells have been dropped, Herzog pulls Burkett’s wife out of the bag, an attractive, mild and slightly crackers woman who tops off the film’s incongruity.
With the look of a Lise Sarfati monograph, Into the Abyss is filmed in a simple photogenic style. The film proves Herzog still has a knack for capturing the best and worst in human thought and behaviour. It could have been more confrontational in both the interview style and political motive, but it is still a documentary which is as bizarre and comic as it is affecting, a blend which Herzog still has the audacity to mix.
Here’s a taste of my feature for New Empress Magazine. Go here to read the rest, and to check out their conveniently handbag sized publication…
Reportedly, whilst speaking at the increasingly extolled Sheffield International Documentary Film Festival this year, filmmaker Steve James hailed a ‘golden age of documentary film-making. 2011 has already witnessed an epoch-inducing influx of documentaries with the subjects just as diverse as their creators. The last time the box-office experienced a surge in documentary films was between 2004 and 2006. Films such as Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and Super Size Me (2004) all featured a discernable moral tone but this year’s breakout titles, from Senna (2011) to Pina (2011), explore a range of themes which couldn’t be further from the heavy politics of past successes. Morality is still present of course; Countdown to Zero and Project Nim are just two of the more probing projects to hit cinema screens this year but there is no denying that the documentary genre is diversifying.
To enjoy Senna, you don’t need to be a racing fan, heck, you don’t even need to understand cinema etiquette judging by the two men searching for seat numbers in my screening. For a film to marry together spectators from such different persuasions is quite an achievement. Senna appears to be a rather brave documentary on the surface. With no through narrative, no talking heads, and a total reliance on archived footage, it makes for a stripped-down portrayal of arguably F1’s greatest ever driver.
Considering I know next to nothing about Formula One, (except that Lewis Hamilton is dating an ex-Pussycat Doll) Senna manages to pique the interest of even the most uneducated audience. It lets emotion lead the way, portraying Senna as a demi-God worshiped by Brazilians, and casting team mate turned rival Alain Prost, as the pantomime villain. The documentary only casts an eye over Ayrton’s richly privileged background, his deeply religious disposition, and his native martyrdom, all of which would have provided a much deeper, and possibly less biased, portrayal. However, even as an intense study of a prolific racing driver, it sucks you into the political and moneyed world of racing, often in a touchingly comic manner. Despite the well-known ending of the documentary, Kapadia still managed to push you to the edge of your seat as you wait for the inevitable moment. Senna may not leave an emotional permanence, but this is still a gripping, if formulaic, sports documentary with an impressively all-encompassing appeal
Wim Wenders has already established himself as a flexible filmmaker. He has turned his hand to several documentaries, as well as both German and English language films which demonstrate very different thematics. Pina showcases Wenders’ unique ability to find emotion in the most unexpected of places.
With the knowledge that the legendary German choreographer Pina Bausch died just before the making of the film, the documentary is already heavy with an air of sadness and loss, two sentiments which are also evident in many of Bausch’s mesmerizing dance pieces. The 3D (despite watching it in a chain cinema that took twenty minutes to project it correctly) is wholly necessary; it makes each piece feel independent of time or space, adding an even more surreal element to the dances.
Pina’s personal belief is shared with us at the start – ‘words can’t do more than just evoke things – that’s where dance comes in’. Her words hang like a spectre over the rest of the film. The emotion stirred in each dance is impossible to describe or even account for – they simply visualize aspects of human contact where words could do no justice. The Cafe Muller sequence is both alienating and affecting, in particular, the frozen man who cannot hold up his lover, constantly torn apart by another man. However, as soon as they snap back into movement, they refuse to be separated. The sequence can be seen here. It’s destructive and desperate and eventually hopeful; surely as accurate a depiction of love you can get, without uttering a word.
Wenders has created a warmly hypnotic documentary, an homage to an important figure in contemporary dance.