19 July 2008

HEART OF ICE

There are many types of people in the world, but the two I'm concerned about right now are these: those who hear about a new Werner Herzog film and immediately clear space at the top of the year-end Best Of lists, and those who, unaccountably, do not. I'm shamelessly one of the former; yet even I think that after the proficiently pedestrian Rescue Dawn, the mad German needs to do something to prove himself.

And he very nearly does just that with Encounters at the End of the World, a documentary about the scientists living and working in Antarctica produced for Discovery Channel Films (I am undecided which is more shocking: that after he freaked them out with his final cut of Grizzly Man, Discovery would be willing to work with him a second time; or that he would be willing to work with Discovery a second time). Right at the start, the director/narrator basically admits that this is going to be a less-crazy version of The Wild Blue Yonder (not, of course, in as may words), and "less-crazy" is pretty much the best way to describe the film; less crazy than most of the filmmaker's notorious attempts to capture the limits of human endurance on celluloid.

One of the best-known of the director's many quotes about his art, and perhaps the most important thing he has ever said, goes like this:
"We comprehend that nuclear power is a real danger for mankind, that over-crowding of the planet is the greatest danger of all. We have understood that the destruction of the environment is another enormous danger. But I truly believe that the lack of adequate imagery is a danger of the same magnitude. It is as serious a defect as being without memory. What have we done to our images? What have we done to our embarrassed landscapes? I have said this before and will repeat it again as long as I am able to talk: if we do not develop adequate images we will die out like dinosaurs."
The creation of new images is at the center of most of Herzog's best work in the last 25 years or so, and in Encounters we find him not trying merely to create new "adequate" images, but in fact to replace popular, "inadequate" ones: the film is absolutely a self-conscious attempt to counteract the penguinification of Antarctica in films like March of the Penguins and Happy Feet. Oh, Encounters surely does feature a penguin; an obstinate fellow who marches off to his solitary doom, frozen and alone in the wastes. Put that in you pipe and smoke it, George Miller.

Herzog's focus is instead, characteristically, on the kinds of people who would willingly throw themselves into the most unforgiving environment on the surface of the Earth, and what effect they have on their environment. The encounters of the title are his brief visits with these individuals; the rest of the title cuts two ways. First, that Antarctica is the last place that human beings reached and settled, hence "the end of the world"; second, that as a result of the things he finds in Antarctica and the things people tell him there, Herzog grows convinced that we as a species have nearly run our course, and that we are at the beginning of "the end of the world" even now. In favor of this argument, he points out that even at the farthest corner of the world from the "natural" range of human expansion, our species has created a more-or-less suburban habitat in McMurdo Station, which the director compares to a mining camp, full of "abominations" like yoga classes and a soft-serve ice cream machine (and the longer you think about how the social center of an Antarctic research station is the soft-serve ice cream parlor, the stranger it becomes). It's a bit grim, is the film.

But also a bit funny: Herzog has been reading destruction and depravity into everything for so long that even (especially) he seems to have a good sense of humor about it, leading to such moments as his inquiry of a socially-awkward penguin scholar, "Can penguins go insane?" That's a quintessentially Herzog question, and he knows it, and it's one of many moments in the film where his essential liveliness breaks the wall of fatalism that he seems obliged to construct. Too, the film is a bit inspiring: perhaps because the film was co-financed by the National Science Foundation and the director was obligated to include something about science in it, and perhaps because he honestly felt moved by the search for knowledge that motivates every person he found in Antarctica, but there's only rarely been a film that captures the sense of wonder that scientific discovery can and ought to inspire in all of us.

But most of all, Herzog being Herzog, it is a visually marvelous film, moving from divers under the permanent shelf of ice - shades of the director's The Wild Blue Yonder, with less craziness and it must be admitted, less inspiration - to one of the world's three volcanoes where magma is exposed to the open air, to the contents of a time capsule located directly under the geographic South Pole. And more besides; though I expect the director views his efforts as failure, for my reckoning he's done just what he set out to do: he has found new images of Antarctica. On the Discovery Channel's dime, he's fashioned a film in two parts, both a visual tone poem and a paean to human eccentricity, and if it's not to the level of his best films, at least it's a strong return to form for one of our most vital filmmakers.

9/10

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