Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Meeg at the Movies: Austral Travels with Werner

During my prolonged blogging hiatus, I managed to catch Encounters at the End of World, Werner Herzog's new documentary (produced by the Discovery Channel just like Grizzly Man) chronicling his travels in Antarctica.

At the beginning of the film, Herzog tells us how he was inspired to take on this project after watching video footage of divers exploring the frigid waters beneath the Ross Ice Shelf. As we watch him take off, he also assures us this is not going to be another movie about "fluffy penguins" (burn!). I think that Herzog is in many ways the ideal director to take us on this guided tour of the Antarctic: his previous films often betray a fascination with nature, but he also has a poetic and philosophical inclination which keep the film from being bogged down by the dull rigors of science.

Werner starts his journey in McMurdo Station which is home base for American scientists doing research in Antarctica and, with a population of around 1,000 people during the summer, the largest settlement on the continent. He likens McMurdo to an ugly mining town, and we're told that life for its inhabitants is made slightly more bearable thanks to such comforts as the soft-serve ice cream machine. From here, after going through a humorous obligatory course on survival in the Antarctic wilderness, we're ready to set off and explore the wonders of this southernmost continent.

We see such sights as the massive Mount Erebus, one of only four volcanoes in the world where one can find a permanent lake of lava (two of the others are in Africa, and we're told that due to civil unrest it's actually easier for scientists to travel to Antarctica to study Erebus). And, in a clear highlight of the film, we get a closer look at the frighteningly beautiful, otherworldly environment of the Ross Sea hidden below the ice shelf which the divers refer to as "the Cathedral". A surprising variety of species inhabit these subzero waters, and the viewer is truly immersed in the experience as the camera explores this world with only evocative music accompanying us on the soundtrack. These scenes alone are worth the price of a rental.

But Herzog is also interested in getting to know the characters, the scientists and support staff, who have chosen to come here to the end of the Earth. He learns that those divers/scientists studying life in the Ross Sea like to spend their free time watching apocalyptic '50s horror movies like Them! The support staff seems to be made up of extreme world travellers who as if by fate converge here at the bottom of the globe. The most memorable of these personalities include a Native American plumber who shows us the long plump fingers which attest to the fact that he's descended from Aztec royalty, as well as a young linguist who has given up his profession and now works in a greenhouse (leading Herzog to muse that at least tree huggers lament the extinction of a species but no one seems to mourn the death of a language).

These oddball interviews break up the more informative segments where Herzog checks in with different scientists actively engaged in research across the continent to see what they're working on. There is a geologist who is studying the giant icebergs which break free from the Ross Ice Shelf and make their way into more northerly waters (B-15 was larger than the island of Jamaica!). He tells us that far from being a static monolith Antarctica is "alive" and the increasingly large and ominous icebergs it's been sending our way are its reaction to global warming. Then there are the physicists who are studying subatomic particles called neutrinos and who've come to Antarctica to do it because of the lack of manmade electromagnetic interference. When Herzog does come across a biologist studying penguins, he asks whether it's true that some penguins are gay (yeah, and there are also penguin polygamists and penguin prostitutes) and whether penguins go insane. To this latter question, the biologist answers that insane might not be the right word but there are definitely penguins who become disoriented: then we see one such penguin who, rather than making his way to the sea with the rest of his tribe, sets off alone for the mountains of the Antarctic interior and certain death.

A lot of these scientists seem to blithely accept that human civilization will one day come to an end, which leads us into the portion of the film where Herzog at his most philosophical asks us to imagine Antarctica as another kind of "End of the World": as climate change progresses perhaps humanity may make its last stand here – one of the last places where it still gets cold.

The only criticism anyone can really level at Encounters is that maybe Herzog should have edited its content down more as some would say its segments aren't very cohesive or that it drags on in parts. I saw one online review where the critic suggested that Herzog should have just focused his camera on one expedition, telling the story of the "Cathedral" and the deep-sea diver who was taking his last dive. Not only does this suggestion sound more like all those documentaries that I have no desire to see (Man on a Wire immediately comes to mind for some reason), but also what a poorer film that would be! Part of what makes Herzog a unique director, in my opinion, is his awareness that sometimes the real life footage his camera captures is as interesting (if not more so) than the story he's trying to tell. I think for example of the lingering shot in Aguirre of the Amazon river swollen with muddy, turgid waters. There's no way another director would have held the shot for that long (it doesn't advance the plot), and yet it's one of the most memorable scenes in the movie!

Anyway, I would disagree with those who called Encounters boring or over long or disorganized, but I will recommend you watch it on a rainy day or a lazy Saturday. If you're like me, you'll go into it not knowing much about our southernmost continent, and you'll finish the movie smarter with some spectacular images stuck in your head together with some deep new insight into our planet.

Images taken from Encounters website.

1 comment:

Josie said...

i wanna know more about penquin 'tutes