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Werner Herzog's "On Death Row" Premieres Tonight

Werner Herzog premieres a four-part miniseries tonight (Friday, March 9) on Investigation Discovery at 10pm ET/PT. It's dark, and smart, and well worth your time -- as long as there are no kids in the room.

A Question of Retribution

On Death Row is the story of five death row inmates, as told through in-person interviews by Werner Herzog. Herzog seems fascinated by these people, who are almost by definition unreliable witnesses to their own lives. He treats them with respect, gently questioning them about their (often horrific) crimes. In the first episode, we are witness to a very strange story arc concerning James Barnes, an inmate in Florida: we start out thinking, "This guy may have repented," but after Herzog lets the man talk (and also talks to some family members), Barnes digs his own grave. It's a curious thing to see a person whose own death is certain -- even scheduled -- talk about death. These men and women are in a unique position to share their emotions regarding death, and Herzog is in an extraordinary position to sit there and speak with them.

A theme Herzog returns to repeatedly is the question of retribution, which is the central notion of capital punishment. While the series doesn't spend a lot of time directly dealing with politics, Herzog does make a point of asking various stakeholders (like Barnes's defense attorney, whose last name, bizarrely, is Burden) what the intent of the punishment is; Herzog clearly doesn't buy any arguments that the death penalty is a deterrent. But rather than argue with people or pursue his agenda, he lays out his position briefly (Herzog is against capital punishment), then lets the subjects talk. Watching the discomfort on the faces of everyone involved is wrenching, and is the heart of this series of hour-long films.

Progressive Disclosure

Any good drama withholds some information at the beginning, progressively disclosing it along the way. Herzog doles out details over the course of each hour, allowing the viewer to piece together the story of each inmate. I found myself repeatedly surprised by these stories, as they change the viewer's perception of the inmates as you go along -- things that seemed normal before become sinister, once you know more details of the person's story. In other words, if you watch the episode twice, the second time will be much creepier. Further, Herzog treats the inmates as human beings and relates to them, even sharing jokes on a few occasions. This is an emotionally interesting interaction, mainly because these exchanges are quickly followed by grisly details of murders.

In addition to the examination of death offered as the text of this documentary, there's a rich subtext here: this is in large part a study of psychopaths. We can see how the inmates think about their own crimes, and how they interact with Herzog, and we can glimpse their emotional lives (such as they are) through their attempts to interact with this gentle German man with a camera. Look carefully, but be aware that what you see will be disturbing. Also, note the care with which Herzog corrects his interview subjects when they prevaricate, and that he repeatedly points out that the people who are on death row have arrived there for a reason -- even if he disagrees with the fundamental premise of capital punishment.

Several of the inmates have been executed since they were interviewed for the series (and for Herzog's feature film Into the Abyss). These are not people who are caught up in endless death row legal limbo: they are facing imminent death by lethal injection.

Herzog Shooting in Texas

Florida and Texas as Creepy Deathscapes

I grew up in Florida, and the first episode is about a Florida man and his various murders. I remember them. I recognize the area of I-95 they show onscreen and mention as a dumping ground for a body, and I remember when much of this stuff happened. For those of you who haven't been to Florida, let me tell you: it's full of crazy stuff that's not about fun in the sun. Herzog does a great job of using Florida as a landscape, even though it's not available to the subject of the film (he's locked up behind a series of bars, such that he can barely even see a window). We see glimpses of Florida, but they are brief and suitably creepy.

One of Herzog's early questions for Barnes is about what Barnes can see of the outside world, and whether he misses it. Barnes talks about how he loves hearing the rain (a daily occurrence in the Florida summer), how he misses feeling the rain, and gives a date (now a decade past) when he last felt the rain. This is the kind of visceral detail anyone can relate to -- I miss the Florida rain too -- and it allows the viewer to engage at a physical level with what's going on onscreen.

Herzog returns to this question when interviewing a pair of Texas inmates -- he asks them, in classic Herzog fashion, about their dreams. Of course, they dream (or at least speak of dreams) that are set outside of prison. In that sense, this documentary speaks to the issue of geography and location: here we have people who are forced by circumstance to inhabit the four walls of a prison. Many of them yearn to escape (indeed, the Texas inmates have death sentences because they did escape, and killed a police officer while on the outside), but others are just marking time until death...which is another form of "escape" these inmates think about quite a lot.

The topic of Texas as another sun-drenched setting for murders comes up in later episodes. It's extremely reminiscent of Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line -- more on that in a bit.

James Barnes

Who Should and Should Not Watch This

Let me say this emphatically: keep all children away from this show. This is material for adults, and likely only adults who can handle graphic descriptions of murders and footage from real crime scenes. Now, there's not much shown onscreen that's particularly unusual (at least for true crime programming), but descriptions of murders are always terrible, and I found myself double-checking the deadbolt on my door after watching the first hour...and again after each subsequent hour.

Further, I imagine there's a segment of the viewing populace who would not want to see an interview with a murderer, simply because of what that person has done. If you fall into that category, I urge you to watch at least one episode of this series: it may not change your mind (that's not the point), but it will certainly engage you at a deep level.

Is This Film, TV, or What?

On Death Row occupies an odd space, as it's a documentary miniseries that's closely related to Herzog's recent (and acclaimed) cinematic documentary Into the Abyss. The films share footage, a theme, and lots of other material. This cross-pollination is a wonderful thing, frankly: the sheer quality of Werner Herzog's work elevates "true crime TV" to the level of serious documentary. Herzog was reportedly given serious creative control, and it shows.

What makes On Death Row different from Into the Abyss? Two things: first, it's on television, so it does have a few (surprisingly minor) affordances to the medium: pre-commercial bumpers by Paula Zahn that really should have been left out, but hey, it's true crime on TV; and bleeping curse words. Second, because each episode focuses on one or two interview subjects, Herzog can spend extra time on each inmate and his or her crimes -- details you might not spend as much time on in a documentary in the theater.

As a group, the On Death Row films complement Into the Abyss, and if you're up for a deep investigation of the topic (or you're a Herzog completist), you should watch all of them.

Further Viewing

Herzog is working in an area that overlaps the work of Errol Morris, specifically Morris's films The Thin Blue Line (about the nature of the justice system and the reliability of witnesses) and Mr. Death (about capital punishment, a man who makes equipment that kills people, and...some other stuff I won't spoil). You should go watch both of those, but be aware that Mr. Death is very upsetting. The Thin Blue Line is only upsetting in that it didn't win Best Documentary, because the Academy apparently didn't believe dramatic recreations could be used in documentary. (Oh, how things have changed in the past quarter century! And we have Morris to thank.) If you're curious about the interaction between Herzog and Morris, check out Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, about a bet the two made in the late 1970s.

Blogger disclosure: I was not specially compensated for this review. I requested and received a rough cut of the miniseries, after hearing that Herzog was working on a companion series to Into the Abyss. All photos above are courtesy of Investigation Discovery.

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15 Things You May Not Know About Close Encounters of the Third Kind
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We are not alone. Here are a few facts about Steven Spielberg’s 1977 UFO classic, on its 40th anniversary.

1. IT WAS INITIALLY A VERY DIFFERENT FILM.

Spielberg’s initial story outline involved UFOs and shady government dealings following the Watergate scandal, which became a script entitled “Watch the Skies.” The idea involved a police or military officer working on Project Blue Book, the Air Force’s official study into UFOs in the 1950s and 1960s, who would become the whistleblower on the government cover-up of aliens. There were numerous rewrites—Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schrader even took a crack at it, penning a political UFO thriller titled “Kingdom Come” that Spielberg and the movie studio rejected—before the story we know today emerged.

2. IT’S NAMED AFTER LEGITIMATE UFO RESEARCH.


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Spielberg partly based his idea on the research of Dr. J. Allen Hynek, a civilian scientific advisor to Project Blue Book who eventually admitted that 11 percent of the study’s findings about unidentified flying objects could not be explained using science.

The title (which is never specifically explained in the movie) is actually derived from Hynek’s own alien close encounter classification system: A close encounter of the first kind is sighting of a UFO; the second kind is physical evidence to prove the existence of an alien; and the third kind is actual contact with alien life forms.

3. THERE’S A CAMEO FROM THE GODFATHER OF UFO RESEARCH.

Hynek, who also served as a technical advisor on the movie, makes an uncredited cameo in the final scene of the movie. You can spot him pretty easily—he’s the goateed man smoking a pipe and wearing a powder blue suit who pushes through the crowd of scientists to get a better look at the aliens.

4. NOBODY WANTED THE STARRING ROLE.

Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
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The director first offered the part of Roy Neary to actor Steve McQueen, who turned it down because he said he couldn’t cry on cue, something he saw as essential to the character. Spielberg then went to Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman, and James Caan who all turned him down as well before asking his friend Richard Dreyfuss, who previously worked with Spielberg on Jaws, to take the part.

5. BUT IT WASN'T THE MOST DIFFICULT ROLE TO CAST.

Spielberg approached French actors like Lino Ventura, Yves Montand, and Jean-Louis Trintignant to play Claude Lacombe—who was based on famous UFO researcher Jacques Vallée—before settling on director and sometimes-actor François Truffaut. The initially skeptical Truffaut, who was nervous about appearing in a big budget Hollywood movie, accepted the role because he wanted to compile research for a book about acting (he never did write the book).

6. MERYL STREEP COULD HAVE PLAYED ROY'S WIFE.

Many actresses—including a then-unknown Yale Drama School grad named Meryl Streep—auditioned for the part of Roy’s wife Ronnie, but he ultimately cast actress Teri Garr because he saw her in a coffee commercial and loved the way she was able to convey a wide range of emotions in a 30-second clip.

7. THEY SHOT IN A DISUSED AIR FORCE HANGAR.


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Spielberg wanted to shoot in real suburban locations rather than studio backlots, but the production had trouble finding locations. The biggest question: Where could Spielberg shoot the climactic canyon sequence with the mothership?

The production looked for huge indoor enclosures that would allow for the massive scale of the scene, though they only found ones with center support dividers that spoiled the openness Spielberg wanted for the UFO runway. The only location producers found without center dividers was a 300 foot by 300 foot disused hangar that had been used for dirigibles during World War II at Brookley Air Force base in Mobile, Alabama.

8. THE TEAM BOUGHT A HOUSE FOR THE PRODUCTION—AND SOLD IT FOR A PROFIT.

The Nearys' house, which is located at 1613 Carlisle Drive East in Mobile, was actually purchased by the production for $35,000 so they could do whatever they wanted with the interiors. It was later sold for $50,000 after production wrapped, netting a $15,000 surplus that went back into the film’s budget.

9. THE MEMORABLE 5-NOTE TONES TOOK A LONG TIME TO FIGURE OUT

Composer John Williams worked with Spielberg to come up with the movie’s distinct five-note musical method of communication between humans and aliens—which Spielberg partly based on the Solfège system of musical education—a year before shooting began.

Williams initially wanted a seven-note sequence, but it was too long for the simple musical “greeting” Spielberg wanted. The composer enlisted a mathematician to calculate the number of five-note combinations they could potentially make from a 12-note scale. When that number proved to be somewhere upwards of 134,000 combinations, Williams created 100 distinct versions, and they simply whittled the combinations down one by one until they had a winner.

10. SPIELBERG USED TRICKS TO GET THE PERFORMANCE OUT OF HIS CHILD ACTOR.


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Cary Guffey, who plays little Barry Guiler, had never acted before, so Spielberg set up ways to coax a performance out of the 3-year-old. To get a shot of Guffey reacting to the aliens first approaching the Guiler house, Spielberg slowly unwrapped a present for the young actor just off camera, making him smile. Guffey even exclaims “Toys! Toys!” in the final take.

To get the boy to react to the aliens offscreen, Spielberg had Guffey walk up to his mark where—unbeknownst to the little actor—two crewmembers were dressed as a gorilla and a clown standing behind cardboard blinds. When Guffey entered the kitchen, Spielberg dropped the first blind revealing the clown to scare him, and then dropped the other blind to reveal the gorilla, which scared him even more. The gorilla then took off his mask, revealing the film’s makeup man, Bob Westmoreland, who Guffey recognized, causing him to laugh and smile in the final take.

11. THE MOVIE NEARLY FEATURED VERY EARLY CGI.

Spielberg originally toyed with the idea of using computer generated images to create the aliens and their ships, even going so far as to have animator Colin Cantwell create a CGI test of three UFOs floating over a stadium. The single-shot test, which took three weeks to complete and was one of the first computer generated images ever created for a film, proved to be unfeasible for the whole movie—so the idea was dropped.

12. THERE WERE SOME UNORTHODOX IDEAS FOR CREATING THE ALIENS.

Spielberg wanted the aliens to be non-human beings that glided instead of walked, and he had a weird idea to pull it off: An orangutan dressed in a specially-made suit. For a screen test, the production team outfitted an orangutan in grey spandex and strapped it into roller skates. The orangutan immediately took off the skates and crawled to its owner, so a full test couldn’t be completed, and the team scrapped the idea. The majority of the small aliens in the final movie were played by local elementary school girls from Mobile in specially made grey suits and masks who were heavily backlit to create the final alien silhouette effect.

13. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS FEATURES A PRECURSOR TO E.T.


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To create the alien who bids farewell using the musical hand signals at the end of the film, Spielberg enlisted the help of Italian special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi, who designed a fully articulated steel, aluminum, and fiberglass animatronic puppet that Spielberg nicknamed “Puck.” Puck’s expressions were based on photos of Guffey. The puppet was operated by a crew of seven puppeteers, with Spielberg himself controlling the final articulation before the alien leaves to go to the mothership.

Puck would help inspire E.T. after Spielberg asked himself, “What if this little guy didn’t get back on the mothership?” Rambaldi would also go on to design the character of E.T.

14. SPIELBERG BET AGAINST HIS OWN MOVIE—AND REALLY CASHED IN.

Spielberg and his buddy George Lucas both had new movies coming out in 1977; Lucas’s was a little movie called Star Wars. Lucas thought his ramshackle space movie wouldn’t make back its budget, and he knew his friend’s new movie would break box office records just like Jaws had done, so he offered Spielberg a friendly wager. Both agreed to give the other 2.5 percent of the profits of their respective films. Lucas grossly underestimated his movie, which went on to become the second highest grossing movie of all time if adjusted for inflation (in comparison, Close Encounters is #71). The difference ended up being $40 million.

15. SPIELBERG DIDN'T LIKE THE VERSION THAT WAS INITIALLY RELEASED.

Spielberg wanted to release Close Encounters in the summer of 1978, which would have given him ample time to edit the film and finish its special effects—but Columbia Pictures, which was going through major financial troubles, insisted he have it ready for a November 1977 release, leaving the director with a final cut on a movie he didn’t feel was completely ready. 

Three years later, the company allowed Spielberg to “finish” the movie under one condition: That he show the inside of the mothership, which would give the studio’s marketing department an angle to sell this new version. The director capitulated, adding new scenes and cutting others to create a “Special Edition.” The director was unhappy with the scene, though, and later cut it for the Collector's Edition home video release.

ADDITIONAL SOURCES:Blu-ray special features; Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg’s Classic FilmClose Encounters of the Third Kind Diary.

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What Happens to Films Selected for Preservation by the Library of Congress?
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On Wednesday morning, the Library of Congress announced its latest slate of movies selected for permanent safekeeping in the National Film Registry. As always, the picks varied widely. The National Film Registry’s class of 2017 includes Dumbo (1941), The Goonies (1985), Die Hard (1988), Field of Dreams (1989), and Titanic (1997), plus the home movies of a Mexican-American family of life in Corpus Christi, Texas in the 1920s.

Originally established in 1988, the National Film Preservation Act tasks the board with selecting American films that are “culturally, historically, or aesthetically" significant. They can pick up to 25 per year, and the movies must be at least 10 years old. The National Film Preservation Board is made up of representatives from a number of industry organizations, including the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Directors Guild of America, and the National Society of Film Critics. With the new selections, there are 725 films in the registry.

Selection for the registry is an honor, of course, but what does it mean beyond that? How does the Library of Congress, the U.S. legislature’s storage agency for documents and media, go about preserving movies?

According to Steve Leggett, program coordinator for the National Film Preservation Board, selection implores the Library of Congress to get the best possible copy of the film in its original format and store it in their vaults at the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper, Virginia. This ensures the film will be available to future generations.

For Hollywood movies, the process is usually pretty easy. “We simply ask the studio to donate a copy,” Leggett told Mental Floss in 2015. In some cases, that isn’t even necessary. The Library of Congress has more than 1 million films on file, many of them sent by studios or filmmakers for the sake of copyright registry. When the original Star Wars was selected in 1989, Leggett says, congressional librarians simply checked that the 35 millimeter print submitted with Lucasfilm’s copyright application was in good shape. It was, so no further action was needed.

For older and more esoteric selections like newsreels, silent films, documentaries, and early technical achievements in filmmaking, Leggett says the library often seeks out a copy from the community of preservationists. Universities, private foundations, and hobbyists that preserve old films might get a call from the Library of Congress if they have a good copy of a National Film Registry selection. In rare cases, the library will barter for the film, using redundant materials on its shelves. Other times, it will make a copy or pay the archivist to make a new 35 millimeter copy for them. The Culpeper facility stores nitrate prints, the original film stock for many early movies, in specialty lockers because the material is highly volatile and flammable.

Silent films can be tricky because studios often released, revised, and then re-released versions of the film. When one is selected, Library of Congress archivists collect as many aspects and versions of the film as they can, which might mean contacting several studios and archivists.

Of particular challenge in 2015 was the induction of Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, William Greaves’s quasi-documentary of his 1968 theatrical project staged in Central Park. The film was screened often through the years, as Greaves gained a cult following. It was released on DVD in 2006, but the National Film Preservation Act specified that the library should seek a copy in the original format, which it didn’t have. Leggett said Greaves’s 1968 original cut was “lost,” but the library worked with the late filmmaker's estate to create a new 35 millimeter version that resembled it.

The Audio-Visual Conservation Center itself, buried on a mountainside, has storage space controlled to stay cool and dry. “A film could survive for hundreds of years there,” Leggett says. He admits the audiovisual center wouldn’t survive a nuclear strike—in the event of World War III, the world might lose its best copy of Buster Keaton’s The General—“but it did survive an earthquake with all materials intact.”

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