London Film Festival 2011 – Chapter 9

One of the strongest elements at the festival this year has been the wealth of high quality documentaries – none more so than Werner Herzog’s heart-breakingly powerful Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life.

Herzog has flitted back and forth between documentary and features his entire career, although in recent years he has concentrated more on bringing real life stories to the screen.

Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life

He’s been on a fantastic run for the past few years, starting with Grizzly Man (2005), his portrait of the sweet-natured but hopelessly naive Timothy Treadwell, who was killed by the grizzly bears he and his girlfriend (who was also eaten) were living alongside in the Alaskan wilds.

Herzog followed this in 2007 with Encounters at the End of the World, his very singular vision of life for both humans and animals in Antarctica, and then last year he brought us Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a 3D adventure into the Chauvet caves in southern France, where the oldest known pictures drawn by man are located.

Before the screening, a statement by Herzog was read out stating that Into the Abyss, a documentary exploring a brutal crime and its consequences for both the family and culprits, was the most “intense” experience of his long career. Coming from the man who gave us Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) and 1982’s Fitzcarraldo, wherein the central character tries to build an opera house in the middle of the jungle, that’s saying something.

Into the Abyss focusses on the murder of Sandra Stoller, her teenage son Adam and his friend Jeremy Richardson by Jason Burkett and Michael Perry in 2001 in a small Texas town. We learn that the trio were shot to death over a car that Burkett and Perry had their eye on. After a period on the run, they were eventually arrested and later convicted, with Burkett given a life sentence and Perry the death penalty.

Herzog examines the case in forensic detail and manages to interview Perry just eight days before he was given a lethal injection. Perry, who still looks like a boy despite having spent almost a decade in prison and on death row, never once says sorry, claiming it was Burkett who committed the murders (for the record Burkett also claims innocence, blaming Perry).

Away from the stifling atmosphere of death row, Herzog interviews the victim’s families, managing to draw out moments of heart-rending honesty through his unique brand of questioning. Likewise, he also speaks to those related to the case as well as others who have worked on death row.

I’m not sure how many documentary film-makers would think to have asked the prison chaplain a question about a squirrel he almost ran over while playing a round of golf, and manage to draw out a tear-stained reply as the man of God contemplates life and the sudden nature in which it can be extinguished.

At times Into the Abyss can be almost too unbearable to watch – the moment when Mrs Stoller’s brave daughter recounts how she has lost every single member of her family in the space of a few short years to crime, disease, suicide and accident is simply devastating. On the flipside, Herzog knows when to give someone enough rope, most particularly when Burkett’s wife, who ‘met’ and married him after he was sent down but goes on to chastise ‘death row groupies’, says with a straight face that she knew they would be together when she emerged from seeing Burkett one time to find a rainbow shining on the prison gates.

Herzog (who stakes his colours to the mast at the start of the film when he states that he is totally against the death penalty) offers up a hugely powerful and damning treatise against man’s inhumanity to man, fittingly ending with a death row guard-turned anti-execution campaigner who points out that we will all be remembered for what’s on our gravestones, so why not made it something worthwhile?

My final movie at the LFF was the Surprise Film. As the name implies you’re never sure what you’re going to end up with, but I was hoping it would at least have been better than last year’s unpleasant surprise Brighton Rock.

In the end we got Damsels in Distress by cult director Whit Stillman. If I’d known beforehand I probably wouldn’t have bothered to buy a ticket; Stillman’s movies aren’t really my thing and certainly not the choice of the guy sat next to me who made a beeline to the exit as soon as the title card appeared.

Damsels in Distress

Still, you pays your money and you takes your chance and, although at best a mildly diverting couple of hours, Damsels in Distress had a few moments of mirth.

Set in an east coast university, prissy friends Heather (Carrie MacLemore), Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and their unofficial leader Violet (Greta Gerwig) take under their wing transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton). As well as improving the university itself, they also help its depressed students by running a suicide prevention centre offering coffee, doughnuts and some friendly, if ineffectual advice.

When Violet discovers her dim boyfriend Frank (Ryan Metcalf) cheating on her with a girl they had ‘helped’, she goes into a self-proclaimed tailspin before having her faith in humanity restored by a particularly sweet-smelling soap. Violet equates happiness with cleanliness and so takes it upon herself to literally clean up the university and also introduce a brand new dance craze along the way.

It’s as twee as it sounds; in fact the only thing missing is a Belle and Sebastian soundtrack. Damsels in Distress’  heightened dialogue has its moments of humour, but ruins its best jokes by bludgeoning you over the head with them. The way in which the prim Rose desbribes the smooth Charlie (Adam Brody) as a “playboy opera-tooor” is funny the first couple of times, but after the 20th time it become kind of stale.

The film will inevitably get the attention of cult movie fans just because it marks Stillman’s return to directing for the first time since 1998’s fair-to-middling The Last Days of Disco, but if Stillman’s hoping for long-term cult appeal he’s going to have to do better than this.

And so ends my time at this year’s LFF. It’s been a great festival and much cinematic joy is sure to be had in the year ahead.

If you’re just the occasional movie-watcher or a cine-fiend, it’s well worth giving a film festival a go, if for nothing else than to say you saw it first. Until next time this is Three Rows Back signing off.

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