Big names in factual filmmaking are out and about in Telluride.
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3 Sep 2013 - 3:12 PM  UPDATED 16 Jan 2014 - 3:05 PM

I'm told this is an unusual year for documentary at the Telluride Film Festival, if only because there aren't that many of them in the program. Yet the streets (well, the street) are running with heavyweights: Ken Burns, who has introduced several screenings I have attended, is so ubiquitous one Telluride veteran rolled his eyes when I pointed him out across the aisle; Michael Moore is here to enjoy the films and, I'm guessing, the oxygen bar; Errol Morris, here with The Unknown Known, will throw an elbow for the last spot in line; and you can't toss a free chicken kebab without hitting Werner Herzog.

Herzog, here with his new film Death Row, is also being honoured with the opening of a new venue named after him. The 650-seat Werner Herzog theatre, built to accommodate the Telluride Film Festival's growing size, began as (and still is) a local hockey arena. It will be erected once a year, for the festival, a presumably massive undertaking already undertaken at least one other Telluride venue, the Galaxy theater, which is actually a school auditorium. It's a fitting tribute to Herzog, the make-it-work director, whose image is projected on the screen and the walls of the theatre that bears his name. (Clips from previous festivals, as far back as 1979, precede each festival screening, and the ever-quotable Herzog, a Telluride fixture, has been the star of a few.)

On the weekend Herzog was on hand, in his new theatre, for a screening of Death Row: Blaine Milam +Robert Fratta, stories that continue the examination of Texas's death penalty Herzog began with Into the Abyss. After being introduced by—you guessed it—Ken Burns, Herzog received a standing ovation before the film had begun. Death Row is broken into two TV-sized installments, one documenting the story of Blaine Milam, currently on death row for mutilating and murdering his girlfriend's 18-month-old daughter, the other telling the story of Robert Fratta, who was sentenced to death for conspiring to have his wife killed.

That this kind of story—murder most foul—holds inherent interest is something most network television executives figured out several decades ago. Prime time is filled with fiction and documentary versions of the same story—the names change but the fetishistic attention to grim detail remains the same. Herzog says with these films he “tried to elevate crime TV to another level.” He says they are unconcerned with the subject's guilt or innocence, and emphasize the fallacy of treating criminals as less than human because they treated their victims the same way.

Despite storytelling that often feels baggy and unfocused, and instincts that prove indulgent as often as they prove effective (Herzog continues to deepen his fondness for leaning on moments of silence until they blare, like a foghorn), moments of the director's cherished “ecstatic truth” cut through. Milam, only 22, was on meth and caught up in his girlfriend's obsession with demonic possession when the murder took place. Though the prosecutor mocks Milam's claims that the baby was “possessed,” he goes on to make essentially the same claim about Milam—he is inhuman, the prosecutor insists, and must be purged from the human race.

Herzog is, as ever, an apt reader of his subjects (both Milam and Fratta appear), if prone to drawing them into his signature, armchair psychologizing. Engrossing as these interviews are, the purpose of certain details (and the decision to ignore others) is often unclear. As a behavioural showcase, Death Row succeeds; as a stance against capital punishment, it feels too shaggy to build momentum, much less persuade. Herzog claimed that his lingering silences open, as a kind of courtesy, a space in which the viewer might develop her own ideas. Yet, for me anyway, they signaled a lack of trust in the viewer, who is capable of seeing, intuiting, and synthesising infinitely more than Herzog's horse-to-water technique suggests.

The director is now done with the death penalty, he says, and dreaming of lighter fare, of leaving documentary for a while. What about Eddie Murphy, he ventured, as “a failed alien, an alien who sucks.” I wondered if, like me, he had spent that morning watching Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer's exquisitely strange portrait of, well, an alien who sucks. I'm sure I'll see Herzog again before the festival is out. Maybe I'll ask.

Pictured: Werner and Lena Herzog at Telluride