Herzog’s voice in the wilderness

When we send the next space/time capsule into the cosmos, to greet extraterrestrials with a sample of human life, we must include a recording of Werner Herzog’s voice. It has no peer. Early in Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life, that probing, fastidious instrument, whose vowels have a bedside intimacy while its sibilants could cut glass, says to a Death Row chaplain: “Describe to me an encounter with a squirrel.”

It’s a perfect moment, daft and inspired. God’s golf-playing man in penal Texas has just started weeping over nature’s bounty, out there on the links (including squirrels), and the German documentarist entraps him – oh, so politely – in the difficult chasm between God’s beneficence and God’s tolerance of meaninglessness and cruelty. The “squirrel” is perfect. Silly animal; no clue except instinct; goes about its myopic, acquisitive business. The creature is as pesky and useless as the condemned criminals interviewed in the film, yet it is also, at times, as weirdly watchable. It may even be – here comes the gulp – similarly lovable.

If this capital punishment documentary does nothing else (though it does plenty) in its 107 minutes of hypnotic inquisition, it shows how even the worst murderers, once allowed to talk, become, in stray and tiny moments, sympathetic. This case’s killers are Michael Perry (since executed) and Jason Burkett (serving life), who in 2001 blasted three victims, including a mother and son, into eternity simply to steal a red Camaro car. Near the film’s close Herzog shows the car mouldering in a police compound. It’s a pathetic treasure to have coveted. But for Perry, a pretty boy with dreams, and for Burkett, a solemn, handsome thirtysomething, their brains just caught the wrong train…

Like the Camaro they deserve to rot. Herzog, who is anti-death penalty, thinks they don’t deserve or need to die. At the start his interviewing voice-off tells the men he respects them as human beings but doesn’t have to like them. Yet midway he delivers us a sneaky “Eureka!” moment. The sister of a victim, recounting her witnessing of Perry’s death by lethal injection, says, without a scintilla of bitterness, with even a tiny hint of a glow, “He was just a boy!”

Is this the distinguishing mark of humankind? Our tragicomic power to distribute hate and love to the wrong people? Christ-like, or conned by compassion, we can be touched by the wicked. Blindly and stupidly we hate or kill the undeserving. And with an incongruous respect that also has a kind of genius, Into the Abyss shows we can build an entire film around a bunch of losers (the prey as well the predators) who prove how vast, in middle America, is the dominion of the dysfunctional.

Trailer-trash lives; thwarted dreams; Bible-belt godliness. And in the victims’ extended clan – where recent deaths include a suicide, a fatal illness and a pair of transport accidents (knockdowns by car and train) – the fantastic infectiousness of ill luck in fated gene pools. When Tolstoy said all unhappy families are unhappy in their own ways, perhaps he was thinking of Texas. But even he reckoned without the rich, extraordinary complexities of unhappiness chronicled in Herzog’s film.

Take another American family. The superb Tiny Furniture, written, directed by and starring Lena Dunham, shows what you can get with an extra squeeze of the YouTube. Dunham cut her teeth, or cleaned them, with web shorts and series. These included one multiple-hit work depicting herself brushing – yes! – her teeth while standing semi-naked on the bowl of a university fountain. In her first feature she walks about semi-naked. Her pudgy, expressively helpless appearance (both face and body language) defines the heroine “Aura”, a graduate returning home to start a life but discovering that life doesn’t start unless you – well – start it.

To assemble her cast, Dunham travelled the length and breadth of her living room. Mum is played artist-photographer mum Laurie, sister is sister Grace. Best friend Charlotte, a yakky English rose, is played by Dunham’s London-born friend Jemima Kirke. Incestuous? So is most of Sophocles and Aeschylus if you want to name-call. What matters is “Do we care?” Dunham’s on-screen mixture – essentially all the S’s (sadness, structurelessness, serendipity) – is stirred so skilfully it makes recent indie cinema of extemporisation, from mumblecore to Miranda Otto, seem like am-dram.

Aura has two hapless encounters with men, one a room-hunting sponger who takes over absent mum’s bedroom (but won’t respond to daughter’s amorous invitations), the other a sous-chef cum virtual date-rapist at the diner where Aura temps as a “day hostess”. Whenever mother and daughter intersect there are loving quarrels. “He’s in my laundry room mixing lights and darks!” cries the older woman, returning to find the sponger. The titular tiny furniture (miniatures used by mum in her photo-tableaux) stands for the doll-house dinkiness of these characters’ problems, minuscule in the cosmic scheme of things, yet enormous for those young enough or susceptible enough to be in awe of them.

3D just won’t go away. Like enormous furniture it is too big for filmmakers to push out of the door, even if some might want to. Aardman’s The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! scarcely needs the process at all. The Plasticine buccaneers are stereoscopically enhanced while mugged of their brightness by the 3D lenses’ dimming effect. Hugh Grant’s Pirate Captain, David Tennant’s Charles Darwin and others do their best as they troll the seven seas, but Gideon Defoe’s script from his novel could use more jokes and everyone could use more charm. After 30 minutes you start to hanker for Wallace and Gromit.

Wrath of the Titans
does what 3D ought to do, especially in combination with the wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling Imax effect: it explodes around you. Forget the story: there barely is one. Zeus (Liam Neeson) and his brother Hades (Ralph Fiennes) have a lot of grief with Hephaistus (Bill Nighy). Demigod Perseus (Sam Worthington) – have biceps, will travel – does the heavy biffing. Mountains blow up, armies clash and monsters are minted by the minute. British actress Rosamund Pike moves through it as Andromeda with extraordinary grace: she should be rescued for better things.

The week’s subtitled imports are Corpo Celeste (Italy) and Babycall (Norway). Neither lights a fuse to our brains or hearts. The first has nice scenery – Calabria – in the symbol-laden tale of a young teenage girl simultaneously experiencing her first communion and first experience of another, more gender-specific blood rite. Babycall is a twisty psychological drama-thriller. Noomi Dragon Tattoo Rapace has a son who is haunted, disturbed and murder-threatened. Or is he … ?

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