Into the Abyss
Intensely Human, No. 1
There are certain works—paintings, films, books, gardens—that have an effect on me that I can only describe by saying: in their presence, I remember that I am a human being. Dry shallowness falls away.
I’ve been playing around with the idea of making a series where I share works that have this effect on me, along with a short essay explaining what I see in them. It would be something like a small treat in between the larger, more time intensive essays I write. Let me know if you would enjoy that. Here is a trial.
Into the Abyss, Werner Herzog, 2011
There is a scene early in Werner Herzog’s 2011 documentary (YouTube) where he meets the death-sentenced Michael Perry. Perry, a 28-year-old with a boyish face, is scheduled for an injection in two weeks.
The first thing that gives away that this scene is from no ordinary, straight-to-television, death row shock entertainment is the way the camera lingers on Perry as he prepares for the interview. Perry makes his way into the room jangly, cleans the security window they are filming through, gets instructions over the phone on how to put on the mic. This preparation, which anyone but Herzog would have cut, is allowed to go on for more than a minute before the interview starts. Perry, a person who has murdered because he found it exciting, is allowed to simply be a man in a room, not a story element.
“When I talk to you, it does not necessarily mean I have to like you,” Herzog tells him. “But I respect you and you are a human being.”
Perry looks startled by this.
Herzog’s documentaries typically border on the fictional. Whenever he interviews, the people he talks to turn into Herzogian characters, suspiciously similar to the characters of his fiction—eccentric, doomed, bordering on the theatrical. He is not interested in facts. Facts are material he uses to create semi-fictional stories, digging toward what he calls “ecstatic truth”—the kind of truth you find in poetry—as compared to the “accountant’s truth” of normal documentaries. His personal narration, filled with poetic remarks and sardonic jokes in thick Bavarian accent, make the films temperamentally closer to lyrical essays than documentaries.
The one exception to this baroque excess of personality is Into the Abyss. If you are an avid Herzog viewer, you immediately notice the lack of narration; I remember being disappointed by this the first time I saw it. It made the film feel more conventional. But the second time I watched it, earlier this year, I realized the lack of voice-over was anything but conventional: it springs from the fact that Into the Abyss is a rare example of a truly polyphonic film.
The idea of a film being “polyphonic” comes from the Soviet literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin1, who wrote about Dostoevsky and his poetics. Etymologically, the word polyphony means speaking with multiple (polys) voices (phōnē). A polyphonic film is a dialogue, in its deepest sense, where full human voices clash, with no voice being authoritative.
I wrote about these types of polyphonic dialogues in the second part of “Looking for Alice”:
Bakhtin’s core argument is that with Dostoevsky, fictional characters are not material used to advance a plot (as they were for Gogol or Tolstoy and still are for just about every other writer). Raskolnikov and the Grand Inquisitor are not finger puppets on Dostoevsky’s pinky and thumb. Rather, Bakhtin argues, they are individuals Dostoevsky talks to. Dostoevsky treats his characters as if they were full human beings, who own the final word about themselves.
What Dostoevsky is doing to his characters, to the murderers, the madmen, the idiots, the possessed, is loving them [which is not necessarily the same as liking them]. That is: he is crafting a space where the unknowable engine at the bottom of their souls starts generating words that reveal them to themselves. He’s bringing them into being by attending to them with open curiosity.
If Dostoevsky had lived to make a documentary, it would have looked like Into the Abyss.