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October 4, 2012 – 10:50 pm | No Comment

The following is a breakdown of the titles showing in the Manhattan Short Film Festival, unwinding Friday, October 5, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Each film is introduced by its respective director.
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Into the Abyss

Submitted by MBergeron on November 24, 2011 – 7:03 pmNo Comment
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One of the aspects that make documentaries by Werner Herzog so compelling is his inimitable way of pointing out existential quandaries peculiar to his subjects. In Cave of Forgotten Dreams he wonders who left thousands-of-year-old footprints, and in Encounters At The End Of The World he turns his camera to a lone penguin marching off into oblivion. These are Herzog moments that produce smiles as well as quizzical eyebrows.

There’s still the Herzog touch in his new documentary Into the Abyss but there’s never a moment of levity. Into the Abyss confronts two men in prison for a brutal series of murders. The film was partially shot in Huntsville and Conroe, the latter town where the killings took place about a decade ago. One of the men talking to Herzog will die of lethal injection before the film ends.

Herzog shows respect to his subjects but he stands his ground, explaining to Michael Perry that he doesn’t approve of him but wants to tell an accurate story. Into the Abyss unwinds not so much to examine guilt or innocence but rather to observe the web of victims, law officials, and peripheral players in the game. Perry was executed in July of 2010.

Herzog gets his camera up close and personal on death row establishing the distance between prisoner’s cells and the death chamber. Interviews establish that the other convicted man, Jason Burkett who gets a life sentence, was married to a woman he met after incarceration. When Herzog talks to her she admits she’s pregnant by Burkett even though they have only held hands. Into the Abyss doesn’t free anybody from a life sentence (like another current doc, Paradise Lost 3) so much as it seems to prove that Burkett smuggled his sperm out of prison.

The film’s subtitle, A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life, defines it perfectly. Herzog wants to know what kind of nation kills it citizens. Into the Abyss doesn’t come off as preachy or insincere, in fact quite the opposite. Every crime creates a trail and here we meet many of the people tangled up in Burkett and Perry’s story. Into the Abyss would make an excellent double feature with another regional independent film that delves into a Texas murder and subsequent execution - Incendiary: The Willingham Case.

- Michael Bergeron

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