Sunday, November 13, 2011

Into the Abyss - A Review

I was going to write another post about the Rule of Law and the Law of Rule.  I was going to talk about the USA Patriot Act and John Yoo and waterboarding and drone strikes and secret memos and about the theory of what's been called the "Unitary Executive" and how it can get really nutty.  And maybe I'll do that one of these days.
But then I went and saw Into the Abyss, Werner Herzog's extraordinary documentary film.
Begin with gurney and a couple of bibles - one in English and one in Spanish.
Then a field of crosses.  A graveyard in Texas for those, a special one.  Here lie the remains of those the state killed.  Not all of them.  Just those who had nobody to claim the body.  And there, in front of this 21st Century boot hill, crosses behind him, stands the Rev. Richard Lopez, chaplain to the condemned.
The camera simply focuses on him as he speaks.  He tells of saving the life of a squirrel on a golf course by stopping his golf cart before running it over.  And he cries as he acknowledges that he cannot do the same for those whose ankle he holds as they are killed.  He doesn't know why God allows the death penalty he says in answer to a question from Herzog.  But he knows it's wrong.
Into the Abyss is an examination murder in the context of a single, horrible crime in Conroe, Texas, a small city north of Houston.  That's true, false, and misleading all at once, so I should explain.
In October 2001, Sandra Stoler, her son Adam, and Adam's friend Jeremy Richardson were brutally murdered by Jason Burkett and Michael Perry (or one of them) in order, it appears, so that they (or one of them) could steal Sandra's red Camaro.  Perry and Burkett were captured after a gun battle in a parking lot.  Burkett pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison which will make him eligible for parole (not likely to get it, but eligible) after 40 years in prison.  Perry was put to death last year.
Herzog gives us often gruesome (yet oddly poignant in its quotidian detail) video from crime-scenes and shopping center cut with explanations by a lieutenant who was there and investigated the crimes explaining what happened.  Interwoven with that footage are the interviews that make the heart of the film.  With steady camera focused on the subject, Herzog speaks with those who are left.  
  • He speaks with members of the families of the crimes' victims.
  • There's Lisa Stotler-Balloun who talks of her love for her mother and brother and says that while she didn't much want to watch Perry being killed, but found that when he died a "great weight" was lifted from her.
    There's Charles Richardson who has tattoos of teardrops by his left-eye in memory of his dead brother and his dead sister.
  • He speaks with Burkett, who claims to have been only tangentially involved.
  • He speaks with Perry, just 8 days before he was killed by the state, and who claims to have had no real involvement at all.
  • He speaks to members of their families.
  • There's Jason Burkett's father doing life for murder and quite sure he and his son will both die in prison.  He seems to have matured, to care.  He blames himself for what his son did, for h
    There's Jason Burkett's wife, who met and married him since he went to prison and who is, somehow (she's coy about the details, but they're not hared to figure out), pregnant with his child despite the fact that they are allowed only to hold hands on her visits to him.
  • And he speaks with Fred Allen, for 125 killings he was captain of the Texas execution team.  It was his job to strap down the condemned man's right leg.
And the camera again pans over the crosses.  Each cross bears an inmate number.  None, as Rev. Lopez told us, has a name.
If Texas dehumanizes, Herzog humanizes.
Herzog has a point of view.  He's unalterably opposed to capital punishment, and the film doesn't shy away from that perspective.  But it's no mere polemic.
These men and women, the living and the dead, victims all though not equivalent in their victimization, are Herzog's subject.  His unwavering camera never loses focus.  We never see Herzog himself though we hear his soft voice as he asks clear, hard, probing questions of his subjects who speak of love, loss, pain, joy.  And continually of God.  He lets them speak.  He listens.
It's said that he met each of his subjects only once, on the day he filmed them.  Once really was enough. 
The film's full name is Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life.  And it is that.
Into the Abyss tells of a crime and its consequences.  The particular crime, the particular consequences, are examined in detail.  But as Herzog hones in on those details, he captures the universal.
Tomorrow morning, the State of Ohio intends to murder Reginald Brooks.  The details are different.  The story's the same.

1 comment:

  1. "... a single, horrible crime in Conroe, Texas ..."

    Conroe, Texas, notorious also for the Clarence Brandley case: ``State District Judge Perry Picket wrote that, "no case has presented a more shocking scenario of the effects of racial prejudice, perjured testimony, witness intimidation (and) an investigation the outcome of which was predetermined ..." than Brandley's case.' '

    At least in the case you refer to the convicted were guilty even if who did what is unclear.