Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Encounters at the End of the World

Dir. Werner Herzog

Viewed: From the Balcony

Sean starts us up the hill:

Herzog explained to his producers before embarking on a journey to Antarctica that they should not expect any footage of cute, fluffy penguins when he gets back. While there is a particular devastatingly funny scene involving a Herzogian penguin which I'll get too later -- Encounters is a look at the people who end up in Antarctica, the people who decide that this place at the bottom of world is where they want to spend at least a part of their life. It is in these scenes, talking with the employees of Antarctica, if you will, where the movie shines. In other scenes there is more of a sense of unfocused wandering, filling up time while searching for meaning, that can take the movie off its tracks. These few scenes do not take away from what is easily Herzog's funniest film and a unique view into a culture of people most wouldn't bother investigating.

After a lofty introduction regarding the questions Herzog has in his mind before embarking -- most memorably, why monkeys haven't evolved enough to use other animals to serve their purposes -- why doesn't a monkey hop on a donkey and ride into the sunset? Whether or not Herzog even comes close to touching on an answer to this question is up for debate, but shortly after arriving at a military base in Antarctica I think he successfully sets the theme for the rest of the movie. He quickly finds a man who he credits as Bulldozer Operator / Philosopher and when describing his thoughts on how he ended up moving dirt at the bottom of the world he quotes Whitman and looks at it as an almost obvious path for people who can't find footing in their native societies. Another interviewee describes the group of people down there as what falls to the bottom when you give the planet a shake.

These interviews are all priceless and benefit greatly from Herzog's legendary refusal to any sort of pre-production. When he indulges in the science, the underwater photography that inspired his trip and the scientists studying the native life on the continent, I felt like these subjects could be and probably already have been better dealt with by other nature documentaries. Herzog shines in studying the individual, the motivations behind a singular vision and this is why that "insane" penguin was so beautiful. It was like the thing knew Herzog had turned his camera onto him and so he decided to split from his pack and head for the mountains. How perfect was that? It summed up the essence of a Herzog protagonist perfectly and it was downright hilarious.

That's not to say some of that science and nature footage was completely wasted, those underwater images are amazing and the songs of the seals is a wonder to behold. But the time spent with the volcanologists, which seemed like a lot, didn't add up to much except for that spectacular climb through the steam tunnel -- which as wonderful as that two minutes might have been didn't justify the aimlessness of the rest of the time we spent with them.

Overall this is a great success for Herzog who even admitted to being a bit frightened by the prospect of failure when he embarked on this project. One of the great things about having Herzog do a project like you know that for as many glorious shots of gorgeous sunsets and striking landscapes you're also going to see the grime of the military base, the big patches of seal shit that you never see on National Geographic expeditions and you'll have an abundance of perfectly captured absurdities like people placing buckets with goofy faces painted on them to recreate being caught in a white-out. In fact I felt Errol Morris made a whole lot of sense when he'd asked Herzog after the film if it wasn't so much "Ecstatic Absurdity" he was after more than "Ecstatic Truth". Even Herzog smiled and felt there might be something to that.



I agree that the individual interviews were the highlight of the film, and that Herzog has definitely learned from Morris the value of "lingering" with the camera. But while most people I talked to seemed to think that Herzog was making a point about the weirdness of Antartica and the people that come there, I think that misses the point. In Herzog, everyone is weird.

The world we live in is weird, the people that try to explain it are weird, and the way in which we try to make sense of all this weirdness (science) may be the weirdest thing of all. How else to account for the single-celled creatures who may be considered intelligent, or the dedication to terrorizing seals, or laughing at penguins who are walking to their certain death?

All the time while we laugh at the stupid animals or the stupid people, Herzog is having the biggest laugh on us. How? Well, consider the themes of the movie: homo sapiens are not unique with regard to intelligence; the desolation of Antartica is both a reminder of our inglorious past and a vision of our post-industrial future; our time on this planet is limited; and, finally, that the world may be better off without us. And this is the man's "funniest movie"!

While the prime of Herzog's career consists of stories of people trying to exceed their boundaries (Fitzcaraldo, Aguire, The White Diamond) or survive where they don't belong (Grizzly Man, Strozsek, Cobre Verde), I think Herzog may be taking a more pessimistic, and possibly misanthropic, turn. Between Encounters and the limited-release The Wild Blue Yonder, Herzog seems to be less in awe at the lengths to which men (its always men) will try to transcend their limitations, and more derisive.

I think a lot of the people at the Wasserman Cinematheque at Brandeis may have come away from this screening thinking they saw a funny and interesting film about nature. They may even have told their friends about the silly penguin and the bucket-heads. What I'm guessing is that over cocktails and hors d'ouerves, they declined to explain the absurdity of even trying to exist in a world as meaningless as the one Herzog describes. That wouldn't make for good conversation.



While I know you've never met an overarching statement you didn't like, I think you forget to mention that Herzog is pretty weird too. And what are everyday people going to look like through the lens of a weirdo? I of course wouldn't have it any other way, but let's not make it seem like Herzog is looking at the world through clear, non-judgmental eyes without a skewed perspective and a deft hand at the editing table. In Herzog's world, everyone is weird -- do we live in Herzog's world, or does he live in ours? I believe it is the latter -- which is why his reports back from the battlefield are so great, he plays the part in us that is curious about the most minute, sees the absurdity in the things we take for granted and ends up championing (even if he doesn't mean to sometimes) the extreme visionaries.

You should change that "or" in describing Herzog's movies to an "and" because I think all those movies you mention fit fine in the other category as well -- this film fits into both as well. To say that recently Herzog as gotten more into doomsday mode is something that simply reflects the change in the environment, as it were. I'm sure in the upcoming years we'll be getting a whole lot of "end is near" entertainment like we already are on the Discovery, History and Learning channels on tv. The first of which I believe was ostensibly the producer of this project.

The only thing I think we'll disagree upon is the "meaningless" tag you want to put on his description of this world. You'd already stated that this world serves as a great window into our past and our future -- so I think right there you have you answer as to why people would be willing to try and survive here, for the same reason Herzog came, because even the most remote place on the planet has plenty to say. He was clearly disappointed when the weather for his trip was unexpectedly non-hostile and relatively pleasant, which was something that brought a laugh from the audience. Of course Herzog had preconceptions that he was hoping to get reinforced on this trip and I think he got something he didn't expect, a fairly boring, functioning society of misfits. Who knows how many hours of footage were shot and what ended up on the cutting room floor to make this project an interesting Herzog movie (would he have left out the penguin and the non-responsive penguin researcher if he'd had other material?).

Whether you take Herzog's musings as gospel or simply take Encounters at the End of the World as an interesting series of encounters with the people (and other living things) who live at the end of the world is obviously something that will vary from person to person. I'm sure if you're own world view is that of utter meaninglessness than you can read into film this as another of Herzog's wonderful reassurances to you through your day, other people may see it otherwise. But everyone will come away with a better understanding of Antarctica (something that Anne Curry's recent trips utterly and miserably fail at) having witnessed a wonderful deconstruction of that continent's inherent mystery and a look into what it does give us -- "a reminder of our inglorious past and a vision of our post-industrial future", unique views into our planet's highs and lows and the people who call it home.

A couple of tubes -- Paddy you may want to close your ears at around 4:45 of the first tube -- the second one follows up on Henry's last question from the first.

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