Friday was Foreign-Born Documentary All-Stars Tackle Powerful Symbols of America day at TIFF. The scarily prolific Werner Herzog (whose first foray into 3-D, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, premiered at this festival last year before its blockbuster theatrical run this summer) is back with another new feature, Into the Abyss, which considers the different fates of two young men accused of collaborating on a murder: one was sentenced to 40 years in prison, the other to die at age 28 via lethal injection.
The press screening of that Texas-set story preceded Sarah Palin: You Betcha!, an attempt by British documentarian Nick Broomfield (whose work has long circled infamous American women, from Heidi Fleiss to serial killer Aileen Wuornos to Courtney Love) to “find out about the real Sarah from the people who know her best.”
Abyss (already acquired for distribution by Sundance Selects) opens hours before the scheduled execution of Michael Perry, sentenced to death at age 19 for three murders related to the theft of one cherry red Camero. Once we've met the affable, childlike Perry through the prison visitation window, Herzog goes back in time, using police video and his own interviews to first trace the facts of the crime, and then sketch in the context that arguably caused it to occur.
This is probably the most traditional “issue” doc Herzog has ever made. A bit out of his element, the master storyteller chokes back his own distinct style and adopts some of the formal conventions of advocacy cinema: judicious use of shocking (if blurry) crime scene video, teary talking head testimony. Herzog even states his own opinion on capital punishment directly in the movie's prologue, choosing words that unequivocably humanize a murderer because he's the potential victim of the cause the film is fighting against. “Destiny has dealt you a very bad deck of cards,” he tells Perry. “I don't have to like you, but I respect you, and I don't believe human beings should be executed.”
Abyss has no narration — which means there are none of Herzog's inimitable voice-over ruminations on life, death and survival instincts. His voice is heard off camera asking questions, and there are a few unmistakably Herzogian on-screen titles, but generally he lets his subjects speak for themselves. Or does he? As usual, the filmmaker detours from his story to unearth little idiosyncrasies of a person's personality or life, the stranger-than-fiction building blocks of human experience.
Herzog seems particularly fascinated by two tangential characters. One, an acquaintance of the killers, tells Herzog he learned how to read and write as an adult in jail (“a great achievement,” according to Herzog). The other is a pretty young woman eventually revealed as the wife of Jason Burkett, Perry's attractive, steely-eyed partner in crime. (Burkett avoided a life sentence in part thanks to the emotional testimony of his father, a career criminal serving his own serious time “across the street” from his son.) The wife tells an initially skeptical Herzog (he doesn't hesitate to ask her about “death row groupies”) that the first time she met Jason — he was already incarcerated, she was an aide working on his legal paperwork — she walked out of the prison to find a massive rainbow, which she read as a sign that she and convicted murderer Jason were meant to be together.
Always a sucker for the triumph of the human spirit over unimaginable adversity, Herzog presents these inspirational fragments without cynicism (one section of the movie is even titled “Glimmers of Hope”). But his signature embrace of such glimmers is all the more potent in contrast to the darkness revealed by the rest of the film. Into the Abyss leaves a lasting impression as a portrait of the truly bottomless misery of growing up dirt-poor in dead end small town America, where most father figures are dead or in jail, and there's such a pervasive climate of desperation and moral confusion that a scheme ginned up by teenage boys in need of cash for food and drugs can quickly, almost casually escalate from grand theft auto to triple homicide — because that's the extent to which death has become normalized.
If Abyss represents a concentration of Herzog's constant themes wrapped in unfamiliar style, its success makes Nick Broomfield look even worse for treading familiar ground.
Broomfield has turned traipsing across America in pursuit of a documentary subject who wants nothing to do with him into something of a cottage industry. But after successfully spinning the caginess of Courtney Love and Suge Knight into suspicion in Kurt and Courtney and Biggie and Tupac, his effort to do the same to Palin falls flat. It doesn't help that there are no new revelations in the film, just old scandals (Troopergate, Palin's lack of preparation on the McCain campaign) rehashed from a position of obvious bias. Aside from a couple of meetings with Palin's parents (during which it's evident that Broomfield is being sold a well-rehearsed script), the film's only substantive subjects are bitter former colleagues of Palin's who have an axe to grind and no comparative venue in which to do it.
In fact, maybe the film's failure is, in part, a testament to how much media has changed since Broomfield's millennial peak: why are we supposed to be surprised that someone like Sarah Palin would evade someone like Nick Broomfield? When Palin can filter her message directly to her masses of fans via Facebook and Fox News, why would she and her supporters even contemplate talking to an unknown quantity?
Herzog uses his foreignness to his advantage, disarming his subjects with odd, seemingly off-topic lines of questioning, drawing extraordinarily intimate testimony from people who, generally, have very little to gain from giving him this material. You Betcha suggests that Broomfield may have milked his foreignness — his career-defining schtick as the faux-naive outsider who masks his cunning and manipulation behind foreign credentials and deceptively lo-fi production methods — for all it's worth.