Monday, January 23, 2012

Into the Abyss (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway 

Into the Abyss

Werner Herzog gives the spirit of Truman Capote a run for his money in his latest documentary, "Into the Abyss". The film is raw, remaining  both visceral and detached at once. Further, it is unapologetic and  wholeheartedly human. The documentary chiefly focuses on Michael Perry and Jason Burkett. At the time of the filming, Perry is on Death Row for the grisly murder of the Stotler family over a red Camaro in 2001.  Perry, in a series of interviews, is pale faced and wide eyed with a sloping casual gate. He is little more than a boy in attitude, although he is twenty eight years old. With his severe black-bowl haircut and his hyper rolling eyes, he is a bit slapstick in a strange eerie manner as if he is a Stooge or a psychotic Jim Carrey. You get the feeling that he wishes things were different and that he could reform himself in some way but that this is impossible.
In watching the film, I recalled Capote's "In Cold Blood"  and wondered what Truman might have felt: an eagerness, a revulsion and perhaps, an obsessional passion to get the whole story. Michael Perry is Born Again and repentant, but he feels no remorse. He asserts he did not commit the murder.
Michael Burkett his friend is sleepy-eyed and thorny, resembling an anemic panther. He also asserts his innocence and blames the murder on Perry.
Herzog interviews Burkett's father (himself in prison for drugs) who details a catalogue of drug abuse and neglect, placing the murderous kids  in a vicious cycle---a culture of unrelenting violence. And you believe it. There seems no  escape for either the murderers  or the victims family (who cannot sleep or bring themselves to have a phone due to the frequency of tragedy).

The most compelling segment in the film is the interview of Fred Allen. Tan and rugged wearing a comfortable sweater, he could pass for anyone's grandfather. Occupationally however, Allen is an executioner, responsible for strapping inmates to the death gurney and administering the final injection. Although dedicated, after over one hundred injections, Allen could not handle the strain and left his job. During the interview, he loses his composure, recalling the stoicism of a female inmate. 
Everyone that Herzog interviews in Conroe Texas is either in prison themselves or is in touch with the unthinkable, specifically the act of murder. That being said the film uncovers a definite  humanness, these two monsters laugh and joke, they reflect  and yearn to have the magic to change themselves, to be another person, to turn back the clock against lethal injection. Or failing that, to turn it forward---to the afterlife.
Each frame in the film is composed like an abstract painting. For several minutes at a time, we are directly confronted with two eyes held behind a diagonal line of slanted glass or the sad brightness of a deep blue prison cell. The most terrifying moments of "Into the Abyss" are when  the camera moves in a deliberate tread to the gurney and its heavy Frankensteinian leather straps. The gurney itself is shaped like a cross, making all people on Death Row into the Anti-Christs of our age. Murder is unconscionably horrendous, but capital punishment appears equally brutal, so cold and uniform the whole routine seems, clearly not deterring execrable murders, yet offering some path to closure for the families involved.
As the camera floats into the Stotler home left as is, interrupted in the act of baking cookies, the tv is on, but all is quiet. It very well could be a scene of interior life from another planet that once sustained human life. Cookie dough is left on a sheet: the last remaining human confections. The living room itself is a stage-set.
Everyone in favor of Capital Punishment  should see this film and Herzog is to be commended for not pulling back his camera and last but not least, for suggesting that violence on both sides is an unfortunate and intimate reality that exists within our human soil.

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