Saturday, November 22, 2008

ON DVD : ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD

"It was this kind of image that made me want to film in Antarctica", director Werner Herzog says as we focus intently and fantastically on the first frame of his documentary Encounters at the End of the World. Under water, below six feet of frozen surface, the camera captures what looks like a stalactite of ice from a futuristic cave city. It was that type of free form, sci - fi influenced imagery that inspired Herzog to push his previous film, The Wild Blue Yonder, past the trappings of traditional documentary and into the realm of fictional narrative. (Both films use footage captured by scientific cinematographer Henry Kaiser from Herzog's trip to Antarctica.)

A charming personality trait of Werner Herzog has always been his unbounding curiosity. Indeed, the running theme of Encounters is a general inquiry of "why?". Why do good guys chase bad guys, why do ants enslave caterpillar larva, why don't monkeys ride goats?... and, why the South Pole? Over his career, Herzog's pushed creativity to the limits by filming in the unfriendliest of locations and working with the most uncooperative of actors (professional and non). It's as if Herzog can't be satisfied with the end product unless he had to test himself - or risk his life - to get there. He may not know "why" the researchers do what they do, but certainly he empathizes with their ambitions.

This philosophy's on display in a sequence where Herzog encounters a team of volcano divers. When they tell him an eruption can happen at any moment, the camera tilts down to capture an intimidating crater emitting clouds of smoke like puffs from the cigar of a fat assassin just waiting for that right time to pounce. It's frightening, and Herzog wants us to know that we know it.

Of course, there's always looming doubt when you take on a Werner Herzog "documentary". Previous fictional bents were obvious in films like Lessons of Darkness, but with Encounters at the End of the World the line is much less clear. Within the film, Herzog portrays the American Antarctic research town of McMurdo as a city of wild eccentrics. True, there's no questioning the unique makeup of a person who decides to make the South Pole home (temporarily or not), but one-by-one as Herzog's selection of interviewees grows, so does one's skepticism. This hits a peak when the crew wanders into an apparently vacant greenhouse and a young man appears like a spirit from the shadows. The man's experiences may be amazing and true, but heck if the whole moment didn't feel staged. (And are we really supposed to believe that woman fought alongside rebels in Uganda?!?).

But the most confounding element of Encounters may be Werner Herzog's narration. That voice of his is iconic, a steady road of concentration and precision that refuses to react to the visuals on screen. No matter the emotional ups and downs of what we're witnessing, Herzog remains level. Still, watching Encounters I couldn't help but detect a slight bitterness in his voice. What, for example, leads Herzog to reach the conclusion that "true human adventure" is dead and that we only witness perverted versions of it today in "absurd quests" that get chronicled in The Guinness Book of World Records. Herzog juxtaposes this opinion with the interview of a man training to become the first person to break a world record on every continent. The man wants to do this by pogoing across sections of Antarctica.

Herzog's treatment of the pogo man comes as a jolt. Here is a director that's always been fascinated with the bizarre and unordinary, yet he seems mildly irritated at the fruitless conquest of a man with a pogo stick. Are we to look back at the portrait of auction announcers in How much Wood would a Woodchuck chuck? with the thought that Herzog may have been smirking behind that camera? At sixty-six, has this beloved filmmaker become more aware of his mortality and thus less accepting of weirdo journeymen? It's unfair to saw, and, personally, I doubt it. One is bound to get a little cranky when trapped in the quiet, white, secluded madness of Antarctica. In fact, I'll bet once he set foot on some land that he could kick up again, Herzog admired the weightless and warmer ambitions of weirdos once again.

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