Werner Herzog, Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life, 2011, still from a color film in HD, 106 minutes. Michael Perry.
MORTALITY IS A FACT AND A MYSTERY in Into the Abyss: a Tale of Death, a Tale of Life, Werner Herzog’s best documentary in many years. Herzog’s subject is state-mandated execution, which he addresses via a case of triple homicide that took place in Conroe, Texas. Michael Perry, on death row at the time the movie was shot, was executed eight days after Herzog interviewed him. His accomplice, Jason Burkett, received a prison sentence that would not make him eligible for parole until he was nearly sixty years old. Their story began in 2001 when, seemingly on impulse, the two young men stole a red Camaro and killed its owner while she was in her kitchen baking cookies; slightly later, in a botched attempt to cover the crime, they killed her teenage son and one of his friends.
The movie is all the more haunting for being so straightforward in its narrative organization, visual composition, and method of address. It’s hardly news that Herzog is not a conventional documentarian; so-called objective journalism is never an option for him. He opens this depiction of a death penalty case by stating openly that he is against the death penalty. While the release of Into the Abyss follows hard on the execution of the likely innocent Troy Davis, Herzog’s position is not founded on the possibility that the criminal justice system can make mistakes. “A state should not be allowed—under any circumstance—to execute anyone for any reason,” he says, adding that, as a German, he is acutely conscious of the barbaric extermination of six million Jews by the Nazi state.
Herzog chose Texas as his location because it is the largest execution mill in the US, and this particular case because the date of Perry’s death had been set and perhaps because (as Herzog said in an interview) out of all the convicts with whom he had spoken, Perry seemed the most dangerous and the most likely to kill again if he could. Despite his baby face and soft, eager voice, Perry’s pathology—his overwhelming narcissism—is evident from his first seconds on screen. Herzog begins by cleaning the glass window that separates him from the prisoner. As in all the interviews, the director never appears in front of the camera, but his voice—in part because of the clarity and intelligence of his questions—equals in presence the voice and image of his subjects. Herzog is a superb interviewer, never bludgeoning the interviewees with his power as filmmaker nor shying away out of discretion or discouragement. He’s expert with the follow-up question, which he employs not merely as a basic journalism technique (sadly fallen into disuse) but because he wants, above all, to put the truth of his subject’s experience on the screen.
Into the Abyss consists almost entirely of interviews with eleven people, each of them framed alone as they respond to Herzog’s offscreen questions. There are also brief tours of the execution chamber and of the crime scene. (If the latter footage is archival police video, the camera operator was an artist; if it’s a re-creation, it’s the only misstep in the movie.) The picture that emerges of Conroe, Texas, is bleak and despairing, and although there are economic class differences among the interviewees, no one’s family life is untouched by problems of drug and alcohol abuse or incarceration or poor health care or violent death (sometimes accidental, sometimes intentional). In addition to Perry, the interviewees include Burkett; his father, Delbert Burkett, who has spent over half of his life in prison and whose testimony about the horrors of his son’s childhood convinced the jury to spare him from the death penalty; and Lisa Stotler-Balloun, whose mother and brother were killed by Perry and Burkett. Stotler-Balloun, who says that she felt “relief” after she saw Perry executed, offers through that description the movie’s only support of the death penalty.
The clearest anti–death penalty arguments are made near the beginning of the movie by Richard Lopez, a death row chaplain, who says he would have stopped certain executions if he could, and late in the movie, much more compellingly, by Fred Allen, a prison officer who was the leader of the team that strapped people to be executed to their gurneys. Allen performed this job for 120 executions, sometimes, he says, working two a week. (Texas Governor Rick Perry has signed off on over two hundred executions. But of course his involvement isn’t hands-on, which is perhaps why, unlike Allen, he seems never to have given the death penalty a second thought.) Allen describes how he went from believing that if execution was the law, he was going to see that “it was done with integrity” to realizing that “no one has the right to take another life even if it is the law.” It is the movie’s most revelatory sequence. Acting on his belief, Allen quit his job just a year or so short of being eligible for his pension.
Herzog’s penchant for over-the-moon characters is more than satisfied here by Melyssa Thompson-Burkett (a dead ringer for Phoebe Cates). She goes schoolgirl giddy describing her relationship to Burkett, whom she married after connecting through a prisoner letter exchange program. Although their physical contact is limited to supervised hand holding and kissing, she is nevertheless pregnant with his child. Herzog seems to regard this as a manifestation of the life force, but he still presses Thompson-Burkett for an explanation of her conception. She plays it coy (perhaps saving the details for a tabloid payout), forcing Herzog to come up with his own version of the origin of life, a combination of fact and metaphor that, like the entirety of Into the Abyss, jostled my thoughts for days.
Into the Abyss plays Wednesday, November 2, at 7:30 PM at New York University’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts as part of DOC NYC. The DOC NYC festival runs in New York November 2–10, 2011. Into the Abyss opens theatrically in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, November 11.
“THIS LOVE OF DROPPING OUT is not going to be possible in every era,” observed Terayama Shűji, the charismatic voice of Japanese youth, in 1967. He was critiquing a return to “primordial society” embodied by the futen-zoku, the so-called “idle tribe” who gathered, sedated on sleeping pills, in front of that quintessential example of busy modernity, Tokyo’s train station Shinjuku-eki.
In that era, Shinjuku was contested ground in the battle between Japan’s cultural and political radicals and the pragmatic, materialistic society that emerged in the wake of what amounted to an economic miracle. This dense network of express trains, urban trains, and subways all opening into department stores created an ideologically charged space, the setting for and subject of an unprecedented burst of counterculture in Japan.
The “Shinjuku Diaries” program, which ran at the British Film Institute this summer (August 2–31, 2011) with a parallel “Theatre Scorpio” series organized by London’s Close Up Film Centre, revisited the astonishing cinema that was born out of two of Tokyo’s countercultural hot spots, the Shinjuku Bunka and its basement venue, the Sasori-za. The Shinjuku Bunka was the most successful in a chain of boutique repertory cinemas managed by the Art Theatre Guild; the institution was established in 1961 as a distributor for foreign art-house films, but by 1967 it was successfully producing its own. The BFI program focused on the guild’s heyday of experimentation, which lasted until the demise of the Shinjuku Bunka and Sasori-za in 1974.
The Art Theatre Guild privileged themes of taboo crime, violence, anarchism, and eroticism, producing groundbreaking work by directors including Nagisa ďshima (Death by Hanging ), Matsumoto Toshio (Funeral Parade of Roses ), and Terayama (Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets ). What is remarkable about these films is how they not only narrated but also seemed to drive a period in which the boundary between artistic expression and political violence was permeable. Shinjuku comes across in the films of the Art Theatre Guild as a liminal cityscape where leftist factions, merging literary language and political rhetoric, instigated and enacted their own “Battle of Tokyo.” The most striking example of the guild’s synchronicity with this political fever pitch was K˘ji Wakamatsu’s Ecstasy of the Angels (1972), a film depicting the isolation and faction fighting of a group of terrorists after they attack a US army base. As producer Kuzui Kinshir˘ noted, “Wakamatsu’s film was too lucid in anticipating things that were about to happen.” For instance, the Christmas tree bombing Wakamatsu envisions really did take place during the shoot, and the film’s release coincided with the Asama Sans˘ Incident, a brutal purge of newly recruited Red Army Faction members by their own comrades in the isolated mountains of Gunma prefecture.
At the start of the 1970s, the utopian ideal of a counterculture combining art and politics was coming apart. The young people that had been concentrated in Shinjuku moved to other parts of Tokyo. In Kunio Shimizu and S˘ichir˘ Tahara’s Lost Lovers (1971), a former youth pole-vault champion abandons Shinjuku after witnessing the failure of the student protests, and embarks on an aimless adventure to the north of Japan, his primary companions a deaf and mute couple. With a clear sky as his roof and the air for his furnishings, he embodies the ideals of the futenzoku. But the directors are obviously unsympathetic to the principles guiding such “dropouts,” and in a curious parallel to the isolation and blinding of the terrorist in Wakamatsu’s Ecstasy of the Angels, Lost Lovers finally sacrifices its three protagonists: All end up blind, deaf, and mute after they stray onto a military training site during a weapons test.
Lost Lovers’s rebuff to the dropouts’ carefree abandonment of society is a useful starting point when revisiting the films of the Art Theatre Guild. When they were made, these works revised the conditions of the “present tense,” and in retrospect they evince an uncanny, seismographic connection to the deep contradictions in the historical landscape of Shinjuku and Japanese counterculture.
Richard Linklater, Dazed and Confused, 1993, still from a color film in 35 mm, 102 minutes. David Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey).
DECADES. They’re so much fun to look at from the outside, so miserable to inhabit. Nostalgia—commonly frowned on by intellectuals and forward-thinking folk—actually allows us to be in and out simultaneously, which might account for the enduring popularity of the nostalgia flick.
Rewatching a film like Dazed and Confused eighteen years after its release means being lucky enough to have scored two tabs of nostalgia stuck together. For Richard Linklater’s second feature is just as much about the 1990s as it is about the ’70s—a fact that might have been lost on us at the time it hit theaters in 1993, but which seems oh so clear from today’s retrospective vantage point. Aside from Jon Moritsugu and Jacques Boyreau’s Hippy Porn (1993), it’s the only viable contender for the Easy Rider (1969) of my generation.
Like Easy Rider, much of Dazed and Confused’s charm can be traced back to its essential plotlessness. Like its predecessor (and arguably the only other great film so far in the Linklater oeuvre) Slacker (1991), the film’s scenes are organized around its ensemble cast and its setting, the last day of school at Lee High in Austin, Texas, 1976. Slip a kickass rock ’n’ roll sound track into that eight-track deck, rev up the engine, and we’re ready to go. There are, of course, tiny obstacles that must be overcome along the way, but remember, kids, the secret to nostalgia is idealizing the past. As such, Dazed and Confused’s dramatic arcs revolve around such earth-shattering dilemmas as finding the party, figuring out if the new kid smokes pot or not, calling shotgun, and getting laid. It perfectly captures that fleeting moment when the only thing that really matters in life is having a fucking great time.
The film would not only be a launching pad for Linklater’s career but serve as the casting reel for a whole generation of actors no one had ever heard of before, among them Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, Anthony Rapp, Milla Jovovich, Joey Lauren Adams, and, perhaps most stunningly, “indie queen” Parker Posey (whatever happened to . . . ?)
There are reasons for retro fever. Just as the 2000s would mine the worst aspects of the ’80s—provoking a string of vapid covers of pop songs, unwatchable remakes of slasher films, and, worst of all, another right-wing religious nut in the White House—the ’70s somehow resonated with the cultural mentality of the ’90s. Though today one would be hard pressed to see any viable correspondences between the two decades, at the time, both felt like the end of something. If the ’70s were the prolonged hangover of the countercultural revolt of the late ’60s, the ’90s in America saw the last gasps of the rock ’n’ roll underground, before everything would be subsumed by that great and damning equalizer, the Internet.
For viewers of my generation, watching the film today brings back memories of Nirvana, Doc Martens, and the scent of stale bong smoke. At one point in the film, a character proffers her own spin on the “decades” phenomenon, quipping, “It’s like the every-other-decade theory, you know? The ’50s were boring, the ’60s rocked. The ’70s—oh my God, they obviously suck, right? Maybe the ’80s will be radical!” I remember this line provoking an uproar of laughter from the audience in the cinema in 1993. Perhaps the film’s rerelease on DVD signals a chance to finally laugh at the ’80s-fetishizing hipsters of the aughts.
A Blu-ray edition of Dazed and Confused is now available from the Criterion Collection.
Tom Six, The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence), 2011, still from a black-and-white film, 88 minutes. Martin and Ashlynn Yennie (Laurence R. Harvey and Ashlynn Yennie).
NOT SINCE Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Sal˛ (1975) or John Waters’s Pink Flamingos (1972) has shit made such a stink in the cinema. Initially banned in the UK by the British Board of Film Classification, Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence was released on DVD contingent upon thirty-two cuts; in the US it is showing primarily at midnight screenings. As the sequel to Dutch director Tom Six’s Human Centipede (First Sequence), the film continues the basic, gruesome premise with which the first work caused its own, more modest stir: In each instance, a man captures and literally conjoins the bodies of his victims, suturing them mouth to anus, creating the eponymous monstrosity of the films’ title. Very much a creature of the original film, the sequel begins with the first Centipede’s final sequence; as the camera pulls back, we realize that we are watching someone else watch the first film.
That figure is the latest film’s deranged protagonist: a copycat sociopath so obsessed with Six’s movie that he sets out to implement its nightmarish fiction. A security guard with a lot of time on his hands, Martin Martin Lomax (Laurence R. Harvey) even keeps a scrapbook of images and drawings from the first Human Centipede; its frequent appearance in the film calls repeated attention to the director’s self-conscious self-citations. Asthmatic, non-verbal, and morbidly obese, the mentally disturbed Martin is as twitchy and shifty as his squat body is lumbering. Improbably enough, the extra weight does not prevent him from effortlessly assaulting and kidnapping a series of victims, and proceeding with his ham-fisted design. If the director—adhering to the vow he made following the first film—pushes the already horrendous envelope of terror, it now bursts with horror-genre clichÚs. The new film is everything the first was not.
The original Centipede unfolded with literally surgical precision. The antiseptic, well-lit spaces of Dr. Heiter’s modernist glass house, his utter aplomb as he explains to his bound captives the medical procedure he is about to inflict—these were infinitely more disturbing than the crowbar that Martin bandies about. That the original protagonist was German—a German doctor at that—only underscored thinly veiled historical allusions to Josef Mengele and the unspeakable logic of Nazi science. This is not to lend Six’s larger project a gravitas it does not bear. His films aren’t about the politics of witnessing; they are about nausea and the pleasures—however unlikely and uncomfortable—thereof; Pasolini’s caprophagia bore more than an incidental allusion to Fascism and its afterlife in commodity culture. But any redemptive qualities Six’s earlier effort might have borne are in even scarcer supply in part two. The new film is all spit-and-sawdust, gore and guts. What the audience didn’t know about the unruffled Dr. Heiter made him all the more terrifying. Martin, by contrast, is a slovenly pervert; a survivor of incest and sexual abuse; a sputtering and infantile mess. Staple guns replace needles and sutures here.
Then again, as much as Human Centipede 2 duly features the ripping out of tongues, it keeps its own proverbial tongue firmly in cheek. As much as the audience cringes and whimpers, it also snickers and giggles—or, more often, guffaws outright. Judging from the canned camp lavished on certain sequences—a hysterical mother worthy of Mommy Dearest, a lecherous therapist—it is plain that outright disgust could not have been Six’s sole, or even chief, aim. A consistent and amusing sub-plot is Martin’s attempt to lure back the actors from the original Human Centipede by tricking them into thinking that they are auditioning for a sequel—directed by Quentin Tarantino, no less. The casual invocation of Tarantino, a master of ironized violence and cinematic citation, is one of many efforts at wry self-consciousness. Like most everything else, even the film-within-a-film motif is overdone, an intermittent flicker of interest doused in a heavy-handed murk.
The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence) is currently playing at the IFC Center in New York.
BEFORE SHE WAS KNOWN as the “It girl,” Clara Bow (1905–1965) was promoted as “the Brooklyn Bonfire,” and, along with Barbara Stanwyck and Rita Hayworth, the actress endures as one of the greatest exports from Kings County. Hollywood’s first sex symbol, Bow was the epitome of jazz-baby thrill seeking, a spit-curled good-time gal in silent films like Dancing Mothers and Mantrap (both from 1926) and talkies such as The Wild Party (1929) and Call Her Savage (1932).
Directed by Frank Lloyd and based on a Broadway play called The Barker, Hoop-la (1933), Bow’s final film, amply showcases the star’s earthy charms. Playing a carnival cooch dancer named Lou—her show-biz handles include Fatima and Snake Hips—Bow is introduced shooting craps backstage, whooping it up with the fair’s ticket takers and clean-up crew. When the boss’s son, a greenhorn college kid and lawyer hopeful, shows up, one of Lou’s fellow hard-boiled gyraters, for complicated romantic reasons of her own, offers her $100 to make the sap fall in love with her. It’s easy enough work, especially when Lou slips into a curve-hugging silk nightie. The na´f’s father is on to her, snarling at Lou to mind her own business; “I ain’t got the energy,” she retorts, Bow’s outer-borough vowels barely tamed.
Offscreen, Bow’s stamina would be drained by scandals involving sordid allegations by her once-devoted private secretary (which eventually led to a trial) and mental breakdowns. She retired at age twenty-eight, stating, as quoted in David Stenn’s Bow biography Runnin’ Wild, “I’ve had enough. I don’t wanna be remembered as somebody who couldn’t do nothin’ but take her clothes off. I want somethin’ real now.” Extinguishing her own flames, the Brooklyn Bonfire became a housewife and mother, raising two sons with Rex Bell, a cowboy actor and future Republican lieutenant governor of Nevada.
Hoop-la plays Sunday, October 16, at 1 PM and Wednesday, October 19, at 7:30 PM at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as part of the series “To Save and Project: The Ninth MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation” (October 14–November 19, 2011).
Pedro Almodˇvar, The Skin I Live In, 2011, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 117 minutes.
MARTIN SCORSESE once remarked that although Citizen Kane (1941) is a great film, he felt that after many viewings he had exhausted it. He could never exhaust Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947), on the other hand, because, as with a recurrent dream, no matter how many times he entered its world, the twisted, time-shifting story line—who did what to whom and when and why—eluded him immediately after the fact. The most oneiric films of Pedro Almodˇvar have a similar effect.
The Skin I Live In is Almodˇvar’s most formally complex, bravura film since All About My Mother (1999). It effortlessly synthesizes the mad-scientist horror flick, a contemporary resetting of a nineteenth-century grand opera narrative (motored by the desire for revenge and filled with dark family secrets), and the most perverse strain of the Hollywood “woman’s picture,” where the heroines are wrongly imprisoned in insane asylums or hospitals and treated as sadistically as lab rats. That it is a disturbing film goes without saying, but its affect is strikingly narcotic throughout, its moments of anguish tempered by the carnivalesque. A comedy not only because it finds the absurdity in obsession, it also resolves in favor of its protagonist, whose integrity and will to survive are never undermined, regardless of a forced physical makeover that is somewhat more than skin deep. The Skin I Live In is an exhilarating treatise on identity in which the self transcends the fragile, sullied flesh, and, as always in Almodˇvar, the law of desire trumps sexual difference.
Reunited for the first time since Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990) with the director who made him an international star, Antonio Banderas plays Robert Ledgard, a plastic surgeon obsessed with creating a substitute for natural human skin that will be just as sensitive to touch but impervious to fire. Robert lives in a sprawling, impeccably designed country villa near Toledo with his protective housekeeper, Marilia (Marisa Paredes), and Vera (Elena Anaya), a young woman whose body is covered with a flesh-colored unitard. We first see Vera dutifully doing stretching exercises for a high-end video camera; it’s almost immediately clear that she is a prisoner in the house, and while she has some Stockholm syndrome–style attraction to Robert, he prefers to watch her image projected in real time on a giant screen.
Almodˇvar sustains the mystery of who these three people are for what seems an outrageously long stretch of time, and then the revelations begin to pile up at a dizzying speed. Since much of the pleasure of The Skin I Live In derives from the precise route the narrative takes to arrive at the truth, involving flashbacks within flashbacks and the sudden intersection of seemingly unrelated plot elements and characters, it’s best to give away as little as possible. Suffice it to say that Robert has experienced not one but two tragic losses by the time he takes Vera prisoner. Robert is a cooler, more soignÚ Dr. Frankenstein, or, even better, a crueler, psychopathic version of Scottie Ferguson in Vertigo (1958), so intent on resurrecting the past that he destroys another’s present. Scottie’s Madeleine was a victim. Vera is something else. She gets to have the last word, and her summation of her experience and the movie we have just seen is hilariously direct and succinct. It has everything to do with why we leave the theater laughing.
The Skin I Live In plays at 6 PM and 9 PM on October 12 at Alice Tully Hall as part of the 49th New York Film Festival.