Saturday, October 27, 2012

Into the Abyss/Herzog

I just watched a documentary by the masterful filmmaker, Werner Herzog, Into the Abyss. He does what a great filmmaker can do, change your perception of an issue.  The film is not the most pleasant of subjects, a triple slaying of three people, and then the ensuing death by lethal injection of one of the two teenage murderers in the state of Texas. There are many reasons why I was so affected by the film, and I watch a lot of documentaries, the first being that I related so much to the two teenagers who did the killings.

That might sound fairly ominous, but it's not really, as there are many kids who grow up fatherless and poor and don't commit crimes, but the potential to do so is much higher. The film begins with an interview eight days before the execution of the one, and ends with the pregnancy of the wife of the other killer, who was given life in prison because of the testimony of his father. The father was doing life in prison for murder as well, and is also an integral part of the story.

After recently going through my first foray into the second trial of a man who had been on death row for eleven years, working as an analyst and a coach, it was especially affecting. All trials where a person's life is at stake have similarities, and unfortunately, in the trial I worked on, the man was convicted a second time and sentenced to death. I'm trying to write about it but am still trying to wrap my mind around what I saw, experienced, and felt. Slowly, more of it is making sense, and as time passes, I'm sure I will be able to write more clearly about it.

Herzog, the filmmaker, doesn't focus on the trial, rather, he focuses more on the anatomy of the crime, and the way in which each of the characters were affected. He has an amazing sense of place, just as he did with Grizzly Man, he puts the viewer directly into the film by establishing a feel of the surroundings, patiently filming poignant parts of the town where these people where from , so that one can really understand that this could be your neighborhood, your friend, your acquaintance, or even members of your own family. His interview style is unwavering and fearless, in fact, each of these people you felt trusted him completely, from the daughter whose mother was killed, to the father of one of the killers. Even the sheriff who investigated the crime ten years before, had none of the resistance that law enforcement sometimes do in an interview like this. I'm remiss in not mentioning the interview of the Captain of the team that carried out so many of the executions in Texas, sometimes two a week, until he resigned after the execution of Karla Rae Tucker, the first woman to be executed in Texas since the Civil War. His testimony was powerful, coming from this huge man with the Texas accent, who was changed by that particular execution, and changed his view on capitol punishment, and this after doing it for ten years. He claims the execution of Karla Rae Tucker caused him an introduction to his real self, and as he says near the end of the film, "No one has the right to take another person's life, no matter the circumstances."

In this time of so much political upheaval and discord amongst people in our country, it always causes me to beg the question, "What can I do to make things better? How can I have an affect on my surroundings, my family, the people that I love? How can I extend that love beyond what I can merely touch and see with my own eyes?" Sometimes, it seems, we give up on each other so easily. I'm including myself in this scenario. I had a thought both on revolution and politics—it seems to me that when the circumstances are more dire, such as economy, jobs, values, debt, etc., the more prone we are to be divisive and dismissive of each other. Revolution arises when the circumstances become more dramatic, because the way one believes in the how to fix the problem becomes a separation that is more than one side can bear, as we've seen this in history many times before. When people are under duress or have lived their lives not wanting much and are suddenly confronted with the possibility of great physical loss, it is a game changer, they want to hold onto it. If you have lived a life without too much other than something to eat, clothes, and if you are lucky the love of a family, the duress turns more to resentment, mostly towards those who have always had those things, and how they can hold onto them.

It is impossible to know what life is really life when you have not had much from the very beginning. If your life has been tossed to and fro from a genesis of poverty, crime, mental illness, death, disease, addiction, etc., it is a struggle just to hold onto life, let alone become a CEO of a big company. It just isn't in the cards for you, your life is going to be a struggle. There are always exceptions, and I know that, that often is a fluke, or an intervening person, who sees through all of the liabilities of a heart, and decides to evoke change. How many people do you know who will do that? There are less than one would suppose, although if one really stops to analize, there are too many people that need an intervener, more than those who have a heart to become that person.

In Werner Herzog's film, this is what I saw in these two boys. I'm not excusing the crimes that they committed, but I am looking at their lives and the great mountain of destruction that was built even before they were born. The one tried to take care of the other one, by taking him in to live with him in a camper. Before that, the boy was living in the trunk of an abandoned car. I think that was what was impressive about the film, that Werner Herzog gave something to this whole situation, and not just to the young man who would die eight days later, but to everyone involved. He gave the other boy's father a chance to seek some kind of redemption, and fight for his son's life, even when he had taken lives himself. See, this is the difference between liberalism and conservatism, I can hear the thoughts in my head right now between the folks who are angry as you read this and those who know what I am talking about. The answers are not easy. They are hard fought through the act of communication and compassion.

This morning, I was feeling extremely sorry for myself, mostly because I can see my own circumstances. I'm not sure right now how I am going to continue to feed and clothe myself. I'm not sure what my next project or direction will be, all I can do is struggle on and attempt to climb the ladder one rung at a time. But I did think that this man, Werner Herzog lifted my spirit with his art and his own compassion, because he told a story that not many people would tell. And, it is a hard story, a story with no real happy ending. But it is a story that is happening many times over in our country, day after day, year after year. That's why I believe in art, it has the power to comfort, and quite possibly for only one day, or, if its great art, it has the power to possibly change the trajectory of a life, or many lives. Politically, as someone who used to be an artist, (or possibly still is) how can I vote for someone who has a mandate to lesson its power? That's the real truth of it, I can't. Conservative politics will always stand on the other end of art, and the more revolutionary the art or the politics, the more both sides declare war. Of course if you are a businessman, or an investment banker, or a stock broker, you are probably going to stand for the fiscal mandates, but what if you are not? What if you believe in compassion for the poor and believe that all men are not created equal?

In my humble estimation, these two boys who killed three people should be locked up for the remainder of their lives. But the question that needs to be thought about continually, is how do we stop the circumstances that create lives that would do this, and do it when they were only teenagers. I told my older brother after I watched this film that those two boys could have just as easily have been us. And trust me, I know that not every kid who grows up in dire circumstances will go out and kill three people, but they will do other things, sometimes to themselves and to those around them. It is a film worth watching, and I know that for some this kind of material is not what you want to spend your Saturday morning doing, but it does make you think, and honestly, I think we fight with each other too much and think far to little about what our real problems are as a country.

As I've said before, I was one of those kids who fell through the cracks. While in elementary school, I was a model student in spite of an absent father and a mother struggling to raise my brother and me. I was thirteen when I started to get into trouble. As my adolescence progressed, I got into more and more trouble. I was a lot like the friends I had, the ones you have when you move often and go from school to school. You gravitate to the kids who are struggling just like you are. By the time I was a sophomore in high school, I was well on my way to either looking at a life in prison or dead. Many of the friends I grew up with have experienced both. I have to admit that the two things that saved me were books and gymnastics. I did gymnastics because it was dangerous, and I read books at my mother's urging. I started working in a restaurant when I was fifteen, and even though I was the kid with all the drugs, I worked hard, another characteristic I got from my family background.

I shuttered while watching this film, because so many of the same scenarios existed in my life growing up. In this film, these kids killed because they wanted to steal the red camaro that was in the rather affluent house of the woman that was killed. Something did go horribly wrong, obviously. Many of the kids I ran around with burglarized houses and had guns. I had my first gun when I was just fifteen. Thinking back, there were many situations I found myself in where this same sort of thing could have happened. We were the 'have nots', and although I wasn't as intent on being 'a have' as some of my friends were, I could see the resentment in many of them, and the way that a home life could work on a young mind. My very best friend,  (I'll call him Ned), was beaten by his father on a weekly basis, I saw what it did to him. When we parted as adults, he has spent the majority of his life as a dealer, a thug, and a criminal. Like these two boys, Ned and I spent many years taking care of each other. Although our criminal enterprises where not in the same class as my older brothers' friends were at that time, this could have happened to us. Many of my brother's friends were harder criminals, and many of them are dead. They were our role models. My brother escaped by his work ethic, and the love of cranes.

The film made me think of the fragile circumstances that exists for so many kids growing up between a life in prison or on death row. Sometimes, it requires the risky intervention on the part of someone who is actually living what Christ taught instead of talking about it. I think I gradually became a teacher because of what happened to me. I taught at the high school level for ten years. The last several years, I think the demise of my teaching was because my intervention became extreme. However, extreme circumstances takes extreme intervention. I recently had another student who is looking at a long prison term, he thought to contact me, and this is why. Perhaps by linking up with him again, I can extremely intervene, and hell, the truth of it, is that I was probably meant to be one of those pesky 'interveners'.


Gerry said...

Having studied crime my whole life I think it is about making lives important even those of people who are destructive to others, because often those people have grown up without opportunity and possibly the victim of crimes themselves until they no longer have the resistance to keep from becoming criminals too.
The important thing is to try to survive every set back, because there is no taking advantage of any opportunity unless you can get through the worst of circumstances to survive without doing something that will put you behind bars, for example, where you will not be able to do anything. Worse, you will survive but in a miserable limited fashion. I do think it is exhausting to keep looking for a way out of every dilemma without giving up life its self.

Anonymous said...

You're a beautiful soul..such eloquent insight on the the side of life most do not want to see, let alone experience first hand. There is no stronger faith, then the faith that emits from those who have nothing BUT faith. You cannot stroll hand in hand through pretty parks, under happy rainbows and truly know the unbelievable power of grace, faith and forgiveness. It is those who are chosen(yes, chosen)to stroll hand and hand with struggle, pain and dysfunction and burst forth out of the avenue of chaos that know how to live, give and create the art form of life. Eloquently written and definitely a reminder I needed to hear today.