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Telluride 2011: 'Into the Abyss' vs. 'Pina' in a Documentary Doubleheader

Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss and Wim Wenders’ Pina made for quite the double header Saturday afternoon. One probes the carnival of misery surrounding a triple murder and execution in Texas, the other is a 3D exploration of the otherworldly choreography of Pina Bausch. Strangely, the latter is the one that seemed overlong.

Abyss, subtitled A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life, is a crushing account of the wreckage caused by two Texas teens who were convicted of killing three people over their desire to steal a car. Herzog alternates between chapter titles such as “Time and Emptiness” and “The Protocol of Death” with “A Glimmer of Hope” and “The Urgency of Life” to ultimately make his case for ending the death penalty, despite the violent destruction men can cause.

The film is unrelentingly grim and full of sadness as no one connected to the crime is spared the psychological scars of the machinery of death — whether random and pointless or sanctioned by the law and the state. Herzog includes interviews and images that are as unshakable for viewers as they are for those affected, such as an imprisoned father's memory of riding a prison transfer bus handcuffed to his own son.

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The filmmaker neglects to ask a few obvious questions of his subjects, but he also manages to cut to the core of one priest’s conscience with the question: “Tell me an encounter with a squirrel.” The response, which begins the film, is devastating. Also to his credit, Herzog never makes explicit the economic and educational deficiencies that led to much of the wretched behavior on display. It didn’t need to be said, and his own conscience knew that.

During the introduction to his film at the Palm, Herzog was the first to admit that a great many of his films could have been titled “Into the Abyss,” since much of his fiction and nonfiction work delves into the darker sides of humanity or the “new abysses that open up” when you really look into people’s lives. Herzog also said that the world of incarceration and punishment is one that has fascinated him since his teens, when he first drew up plans to explore Straubing prison in Bavaria in the late 1950s.

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“At age 16 I was as dumb as I could get,” he said. Many would argue that Herzog’s crazy and daring side never disappeared, just that he spun it into a useful medium and a fascinating career as a filmmaker. This latest work ends with a question from a former corrections official who supervised more than 120 executions before quitting. Referencing the dates on gravestones that indicate year of birth and year of death with a blank hyphen in between, he asks: “How you gonna live your dash?”

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu was in the audience at the screening, and so was Ken Burns, who joked to a friend outside the theater afterwards that Herzog is “turning into an old softie.”

Running over to Wenders’ Pina was a much needed tonic for the darkness of Herzog’s film, but it no less explores how people express despair, desire, longing and loneliness – in this case, through dancing. There’s no question that the film, which played today at the Galaxy Theatre, has startling moments where image and motion combine in beautiful ways, such as ensemble dances on a stage covered first with fine dirt then with rain and rock.

Throughout, Bausch’s international dance troupe takes challenges to express joy or the pleasure of movement or longing in everything from industrial and urban spaces to natural landscapes and stage sets filled with chairs. The dances are never less than inventive but the episodic, narrativeless nature of the film, which gives each of the dozens of dancers their moment, makes it feel much longer than its 103 minutes. And almost no biographical information about Bausch is given. Still, her mission to “dance with love” is hard to argue with.

Pina was preceded by a 3D Pixar short titled La Luna that continues the animation company’s streak of making short films sweet and wondrous to the point of sickness. A boy rows into the ocean with two old timers to discover that, to his surprise and delight, the moon does not change phases naturally.