Friday, July 18, 2008

Encounters at the End of the World (2008)

I love and admire Werner Herzog - he can kind of do anything. Given the opportunity to make a film about Antarctica, he set off without any particular person or place to document and had three weeks to come back with enough footage to make into a finished film, and sure enough, he did it. The secret is, he knows what kinds of questions to ask, what kind of oddities to explore, and most importantly, how to be open to what's around him.

For example, when interviewing a rather taciturn penguin expert (and obviously irritated at having to shoot footage of penguins in the first place) Herzog asks if penguins can be gay; a few minutes later, he asks if they can be insane or deranged after having to live within penguin society. We then see, amid the packs of penguins dutifully walking to their feeding ground, one lone penguin seemingly driven by perversity to start walking into the center of the continent, towards mountains miles and miles away, far from any food or water. The penguin is heading, implacably, towards its own death and the scientists inform Herzog that if they were to pick up the penguin and try to redirect it, it would just turn around again on its original heading. The juxtaposition of images - cuddly, awkward creature and immense continent of doom - is amazing, and something you only can find when you know what to look for as a filmmaker, and are interested in peeling off the usual layer of eco-sentimentality from the science documentary genre.

This isn't to say that it's a revisionist documentary, as we still get lots of staggeringly beautiful landscapes of Antarctica's icebergs, volcanoes, and (best of all) underwater realms, resembling an alien planet. Herzog combines his interest in these kind of huge, oceanic vistas with his interest in eccentric human behavior, and he finds plenty of that as well, as McMurdo Station is apparently one of the key collection points for inspired dreamers and weirdoes in the world. Ironically even Herzog finds his fill of globe-trotting eccentrics and their stories, as one woman, telling her life story, gets the dry voiceover commentary, "Her story goes on forever."

Ultimately Herzog's project isn't about the crazy people in a research station or the pretty landscapes, but about the two together, the figure in the landscape, from a distanced perspective - he asks the question if humankind will be able to survive itself and its own insistence on heading towards destruction, not with melodrama or hope, but just as a question of fact, yes or no, and whatever conclusions we draw - and what emotions we feel - are ours alone.



Sam Juliano said...

I must evince complete agreement with you here, and this is a most accomplished piece for sure. I love that 'lone penguin' reference, and agree that it was one of the film's most haunting segments. I also agree that Herzog resists any revisionist leanings---he is a naturalist by nature--and of course documentaries by their every intent and structure always in the end veer in that direction.
ENCOUNTERS for me was the best doc I've seen this year so far, and from your review I can see you are in that territory too.
Passionate assessment here---one of the bestter reviews I've read on the film. said...

Good review Jeff...but I think you missed the point on that lone penguin thing. There's no proof that what Herzog is saying about the penguin taking off alone to the mountains is true. In fact, the way it's cut, the penguins direction is unclear and they just cut to the mountains as Herzog talks. I think the whole scene was him pulling our legs and making fun of MARCH OF THE PENGUINS to boot.

In fact, I'm willing to bet that over 50% of what Herzog *says* in the film is bullshit...which makes the whole thing even more awesome.

Sam Juliano said...

I completely disagree with the previous poster on the "lone penguin" thing. Nearly all of the written reviews on the film have corroborated Jeff's observations. They can't all be wrong.

Jeff McMahon said...

Sam, I don't really think that 'everyone agrees' is the best way to argue a point.

My theory on the 'lone penguin' scene is that the other lone penguin in the movie - the one who appears in the area where they've been following the underwater biologist and his dives - was filmed first, and then after that Herzog interviewed the penguin expert and had the idea to ask about deranged penguins and to seek out other ones wandering away from the pack.

Also, while I know that Herzog has fudged 'facts' in his previous documentaries, it seems pretty believable that the 'lone penguin walking towards the mountains' is indeed doing just that, since all the others seem to be following a pretty set course.

Even if that isn't the case, strip it of all allegorical meaning and the image by itself is pretty compelling - the creature, cute and slightly awkward, driven forward by instincts it can't understand.

Sam Juliano said...

I argued my point in corroboration of your review in my first "comment." I did not deem that redundancy was the way to go in the follow-up, so I took a different tact, informing Don that your interpretation was by and large the one that was roundly accepted in critical circles.
Having said that though, it is far more reassuring to have a general concensus on some analytical interpretation than it does to stand alone.

Jeff McMahon said...

Sam, I don't really see an argument in your earlier post, just agreement that it was an evocative moment. And again, I don't think general agreement is a proper substitute for defending or making a point.

I appreciate your thoughts though. said...

My bad...I should read other critics assessments before making up my own mind. Thanks, Sam.


Sam Juliano said...

Don: I have it both ways. I read other critics' assessments and then I make up my own mind.

Jeff, I agree that it is not a proper substitute, however you must understand something. When Don said that he thought you "missed the point" I laughed to myself, having read dozens of reviews and saw that virtually the entire critical establishment saw the interpretation the way you did. I made it a point of bringing this out. I have no issue with Don and I have no issue with you--I just thought some supplemental information might enrich the friendly difference of opinion.

nick plowman said...

I am really hoping I get to see this soon, it really does sound fantastic.