Chicago International Film Festival #2

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More than anything, Into the Abyss seems to be Herzog’s attempt to make an Errol Morris film, with the trademark Morris straight-to-camera interviews, penchant for exploiting strange characters and moments, and odd cuts which serve no purpose except to remind us of the presence of the camera.

 

 
Sleep
Katsumi Sakaguchi’s Sleep is the kind of film which has its natural home at festivals because while it will be a tough sell to a general audience, it offers a specific kind of experience which many festival attendees seek out. An elliptical tale of a family whose lives have been placed on hold, Sleep provides no easy payoffs and at times deliberately confuses the audience and pushes it away.
As a teenage ballet student, Kotono (Komagata Miyuki) was raped by a stranger on her way home from class. Almost 18 years later, she is still haunted by that experience and lives a nomadic life with her daughter Natsume (Hirano Mariko) and her crippled father Kai (Iwao Takushi). They live in a van, cook their meals by the side of a river, and spend most of Kotono’s earnings (as a masseuse and prostitute) on private detectives hired to locate the man who raped her. Life goes on around them (a train rumbling overhead is a recurring motif) while they lead an insular existence, totally dedicated to each other and barely part of the world around them.
Sleep is not an easy film to watch: scenes often end abruptly and long stretches in which nothing much happens are shattered by violent explosions of emotion, including some uncomfortable scenes of sexual violence. The Japanese title translates as “Sleeping Chironomid,” referring to a mosquito whose larvae can survive years of drought. This conveys the story’s meaning much more clearly than simply “Sleep”: this family is surviving in a kind of suspended animation while they try to resolve one huge issue. When that opportunity for resolution comes, there is no easy payoff but only more moral dilemmas, and an appreciation of how complex life can be.
Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life
I doubt anyone would give Into the Abyss a second look were it not directed by Werner Herzog. Judged on its own merits, this documentary is a meandering and sometimes exploitative collection of interviews with people connected to a horrific triple murder committed in Texas about ten years ago, supplemented with related video (including police documentation of the crime scene). The interview subjects include the men convicted of the murder, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, along with members of their family, relatives of the murder victims, the prison chaplain, an investigating officer, and others who knew Perry and Burkett. Beyond the brutality of the crime itself is the further horror of its very stupidity: Perry and Burkett killed three people in order to steal a car, which one detective estimates they had in their possession for less than three days. They weren’t particularly clever criminals, either, as both bragged about the crime shortly after committing it, leading to their rapid arrest.
More than anything, Into the Abyss seems to be Herzog’s attempt to make an Errol Morris film, with the trademark Morris straight-to-camera interviews, penchant for exploiting strange characters and moments, and odd cuts which serve no purpose except to remind us of the presence of the camera. Through it all, Herzog seems like a voyeur, or worse a vampire, feeding on his subjects’ defenselessness to fuel some perverse fascination of his own. The result is a collage which seems to have been hastily slapped together but which will reward art house audiences with the undeniable pleasure of feeling superior not only to the murderers but also to those individuals foolish enough to allow themselves to be interviewed.
There are plenty of sad stories in this film besides those of the victims and their family. For one thing, the eyewitness statements are full of spelling and grammatical errors, leading you to wonder about the general level of education in and around Conroe, Texas. To take a more serious issue, crime seems to run in the family of one of the killers, as his father recalls being shackled to both his sons on a prison bus. Most seriously, one of the killers seems almost cheerful, even goofy, when asked about his impending execution, making me wonder if he is in full possession of his faculties. This is one among many questions that Herzog chooses not to investigate, leaving us with the visual evidence of this interview but no sense of what it means. | Sarah Boslaugh

 

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