Thursday, July 10, 2008

Otherness versus other people: the dual nature of Werner Herzog's strange, haunting Encounters

The delivery of fresh, wakeful images as an antidote to the world’s endless avalanche of worn, numbing ones has been a guiding promise throughout Werner Herzog’s career, a prolific filmography going back 46 years now. Thus Herzog’s acceptance of The Discovery Channel’s offer to make a film in Antarctica was surely spurred in part by the vast, inhospitable continent’s own promise of abundant, beguiling strangeness. It seemed inevitable. Peruvian jungles, African deserts, Bavarian highlands, outer space, or the South Pole: the landscapes where the unusually determined—and usually highly eccentric—few dare to traipse has always been Herzog’s creative habitat, the places with the strongest current of vision, apparition and mirage.

Indeed, in the opening moments of Encounters at the End of the World Herzog confesses that it was seeing some especially evocative Antarctic underwater photography, taken by his producer Henry Kaiser, that made him want to go. So while Herzog’s bold, observant, opinionated, probing and often dryly hilarious narration is, as always, a highlight, the sequences which unveil the grandest spectacles of the seemingly alien world of Antarctica—coral looming like nicotine thunderheads, jellyfish resembling free-floating atomic explosions—are precisely the ones that leave Herzog speechless, his silent wonder providing all the more space for us to attempt to absorb and grapple with what we see. Not to mention what we hear, like those seal calls that one scientist, at a loss for more empirical points of comparison, simply describes as sounding like Pink Floyd.

(A personal favourite moment: three parka-enveloped scientists silently pressing their ears to the ice floor to listen to seal calls, looking like participants in a Beckett play. Herzog lingers on this, milking it for deadpan comedy.)

Yet the richest source of fascination plumbed in
Encounters at the End of the World is, perhaps surprisingly, not the otherness of Antarctica but other people. When Herzog and his crew of one arrive at McMurdo Station, an international encampment of ugly prefab buildings and circling Caterpillars, and are forced to wait some days before they’re able to venture into the white wilderness, they turn inward rather than out, wandering through various dorms and laboratories, meeting the 1000 or so people residing therein: a Colorado banker who joined the Peace Corps in Guatemala and now drives “Ivan” the Terra Bus; a European philosopher who had Homer read to him before he learned to read; a Chicano plumber whose bizarre finger lengths indicate Aztec royal family ancestry; a linguist now working on a continent with no languages. In McMurdo, freaks are the norm. So well-suited are they for the director’s interests it’s almost as though these people are auditioning for Herzog, the preparation for which consumes a lifetime. To paraphrase one of these subjects, it’s as though everyone who wants to fall off the map finds themselves sinking to the bottom of the world, to the point where all lines converge.

In Grizzly Man, his last documentary, Herzog was charged with constructing a portrait of a dead man through the editing together of the dead man’s own video footage, an act of cinematographic archeology that gave Herzog plenty of room to editorialize, drawing lines that convey where the exploratory sensibilities of Herzog and the self-styled bear activist Timothy Treadwell met and parted. In Encounters at the End of the World, Herzog is less inclined to steer the conversation, letting his subjects dictate the themes, a major one of course being the title’s allusions to human extinction, directing our attention to the astonishing manifestations of global warming visible to anyone who lives among the polar ice shelves.

There is one key figure for whom Herzog does however attempt to speak for, a lone penguin fleeing inexplicably from the safety of his brothers, heading straight toward a distant mountain range where only certain death awaits. Why does he do it? Herzog wonders, regarding the penguin’s seemingly suicidal impulse in a way that’s at once comical, philosophical and sad. Herzog reveres the penguin’s mystery and keeps conjecture to a minimum, but it’s parallel to our own species’ rushing toward apocalypse can hardly be missed.

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