Werner Herzog’s Into The Abyss is not Grizzly Man nor is it Cave Of Forgotten Dreams.Both of those films had some sort of wonder and joy in them. Many will scratch their heads at the word “joy” being applied to Grizzly Man—many cannot see beyond the unhappy ending. How many people tick off days of their lives sitting in an office sending email to someone who sends it on to someone else who decides how the latest widget should be marketed?
Personally? I would much rather be mauled to death by a bear. Timothy Treadwell lived for something and died for something. And he left behind the remarkable footage Herzog used in his film. Argue all you want, then go back to your cubicle and send out another email.
Into The Abyss has none of that wonder and no joy, no hope either. There is a section of the film titled, “A Glimmer of Hope” but it seems a faint and false one. If Herzog truly sees hope in this story his eyes are keener than mine.
The film is the story of a murder, the murderers and the families of the victims. It is about people, not much detail about the town, about the setting. Nothing really matters except the interviews—and most poignantly with a man not even involved in this specific case.
One of the greatest things about Herzog as a documentary filmmaker is his honesty. In this day where the likes of Michael Moore have turned the term “documentary” into “political screed” or even, “propaganda” Herzog is honest. When it is his opinion—he literally TELLS you it is his opinion. Herzog does not believe in the death penalty, which is stated right up front. It doesn’t mean the condemned men are “exonerated” either. He directly says that as well and never tries to trick the audience. He doesn't even state the obvious or point out which interviewees are "unreliable narrators." That is left to the audience.
There are several points in the movie where, an audience member trying to find a point may despair; then there is an interview that ties pieces brings it together. A former prison guard talks of his experiences and you see the effect of state sponsored revenge on people guilty of nothing other than doing their job (in fact, this is how the film starts). An aging inmate comes to realize he wasted not only his life but the lives of his sons. None of this is pleasant but should this story be pleasant? Why would you force "pleasantness" upon it?
And just because Herzog makes his distaste for the death penalty known it doesn’t mean everyone’s reaction to the film will be to turn against the ultimate punishment upon seeing the film. It isn’t meant to do that. It is meant to make you think about it, make you see it. The audience sees people who probably deserve to die and the heartbroken people with ruined lives left behind. Who witnessing that has the strength to say; “Enough”?
But if, after watching this, you have no appreciation as to how the crime and the reaction to it by the state, by us, is nothing less than a terrible tragedy, you may have some empathy issues of your own. You may not walk out against the death penalty (it may even make you more for it) but you will think about it more seriously, unlike two older women who sat next to me and my son, who were laughing throughout. My son, who at 14 asked me to take him to this film, said “I wanted to punch those people next to us.” I thought; no punch could be worse than living your life with a mind that thinks any part of Into The Abyss is funny.
The movie Buck
is a small movie. That term can imply a lot of things but usually it is a movie about something specific, something not grand; there are no cavalry charges, there are no alien space ships or giant earthquakes. Some small movies are good and some are bad. Buck
is good. It is a simple movie about a man who is probably more complicated than he comes off in the film. He is a man who, despite personal physical and mental abuse, repudiated violence in his own life. And what he does with his own life is “train” horses. He doesn’t whisper to them (although he was a consultant on Robert Redford
I went to see this movie because I was not paying $32 (for 2 people) to see Transformers, Dark of The Moon
. I knew I was going to see it but there is a limit to how much I will allow myself to suffer. And the day after seeing Buck, boy, did I suffer. I was one of the only people over the age of 12 who was tolerant of the second Transformers movie. I apparently liked it better than the cast or the director--although I use the word “like” in the loosest possible way. I use the word in the “I only wanted to sort of poke out my eyes while watching this film” way.
The new Transformers made me want to poke out my eyes. Really. That is not hyperbole. I got up and went to the bathroom even though I didn’t have to go. Anytime any character talked for more than 20 seconds all I could think was “God I hope a robot comes in and freaking blows something up.”
If you enjoyed this film and are over the age of 13 you should go to your medical professional for a CAT scan.
But let’s get back to Buck. The point of this movie, in addition to loosely sketching the story of a man’s life, is that violence is not the answer. You do not need to beat hell out of a horse to get it on your side. And even more important that the victims of violence are not doomed to, themselves, be violent.
It is also a movie for people who like horses and old fashioned documentaries. There is a curious glossing over of some details. Buck talks, his friends talk, one of his daughters and his wife talk. But other, presumably important, people in his life do not. He talks but there is a reticence there. In some ways this is a little frustrating.
But it is also sort of refreshing. After all in today’s world “celebrities” have reality shows where they talk about their bowel movements on national television isn’t it nice to have a retiring, private man who shares enough, just enough, to let us into his world and life and to teach us something? And this isn’t just a subtle lesson about how violence is unnecessary but how patience is. He scoffs, at one point in the film about how people who are 40 and say they are “too old.” He then notes how one of his mentors was “breaking” horses when he was 94.
Buck is a small film but there are big lessons there if we choose to take them to heart. You can also just eschew that and watch a movie about a man with a different way of “breaking” (the term is not really apropos) horses. It isn’t all happy and cheery. But ultimately the film is low key, hopeful and if it doesn’t give you a laundry list of important life changing issues to think on, it gives you a handful and some very clear and specific reasons why you should think on those issues it does touch upon.
A few weeks ago I saw Thor and I intended to write something about it. But I just couldn't bring myself to do it. Now, I thought Thor was a pretty good movie, judging on the basis of the genre, but there just isn't much to say. It is written carefully enough to elicit minimal eye-rolls. None of the actors embarrass themselves (or distinguish themselves). Most important, for a super-hero/comic movie, it is well-paced. They don't get bogged down in mumbo jumbo or feel the need to make it two and a half hours long.
But that is about all I would have had to say about Thor. I have much more to say about Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Although I am not always sure what it is I want to say about this.
First of all the subject matter of the film is eerily moving. A cave with paintings dating back over 30,000 years is discovered in France and the area is immediately sealed off because of the magnificence and significance of the find. The paintings are so pristine some think they are modern fakes.
And there is something about this, this connection to our ancient past that almost brings tears to the eyes. Some hand from the past reaching out to us and us back to them, forming a connection. I do not know how to describe the emotion it creates.
And neither does Herzog or any of the people in the film precisely. They move back and forth between the science of the find to bits and pieces that are almost mystical. Herzog prods to get more mystical, more spiritual answers. One interviewee describes how he went into the cave for five days straight and became so overwhelmed emotionally he had to not go in the next day. He had to step back. It makes sense somehow. There is also discussion of how scientists and filmmakers both felt almost watched in the caves. You need not think of this as a supernatural (you also can feel free to do so).
There are disconnected bits about hunting using spear throwers. There are discussions of the artistic beauty of calcite covered cave bear skulls. These images are so old and yet seem so new. There is no context, no real way to ever know the purpose--or perhaps more chilling, the utter lack of purpose--in their creation. Is this art for the sake of art? Is this a Stone Age art gallery? There are hints of a religious purpose but they are only hints.
Perhaps the eeriness, the meaning comes from these ancient images making you feel connected and yet small, a small part of some large progression.
The film, the narration and interviews, seems to struggle to make sense of what this find means and how to place its significance in our modern world. It is baffling but this does not ruin or in any way harm the movie. It is as if we have caught Herzog and the various art historians, archeologists et al trying to make sense of this themselves. It would be interesting to follow up with these people over time. I suppose one could do this by awaiting their various papers and books on the subject.
Then there is the 3D. This is almost essential in this case. It doesn't matter for the interviews or the exterior shots. But it does for the caves.
The artists in these caves did not paint on flat surfaces but used the curved and rounded walls of the caves as part of their paintings (not unlike many modern painters who are using three dimensional paintings). You would not get the full effect of these paintings in a 2D movie. Luddites can go back to cawing about how all movies should be black and white and silent. They are just plain silly.
3D is like a hammer. It is a tool. You can use it to create a better movie, like Herzog does here, or you can make Resident Evil IV.
I am glad Herzog had the exclusive right to film here rather than a James Cameron (with all due respect to his Titanic documentary). He made a movie that is beautiful and thought-provoking in that it raises more questions than it provides answers.
Postscript-If anyone can give me a definitive idea as to what Herzog's postscript is about I will be grateful. We are all mutant albino crocodiles peering into the past? If you say so Werner. Who am I to argue?