Friday, March 14, 2014

Encounters at the End of the World

Encounters at the End of the World (2007)
Dir. Werner Herzog

In what might be best termed a Werner Herzog Mondo documentary, our intrepid Teutonic connoisseur of the world’s more offbeat sideshows travels to the final frontier (Antarctica, not space. Probably saving that for the sequel.) Why? Well, a friend of his sent him some footage of under-ice scuba diving, so he figured he’d charter a plane and head South as far as you can go, just kind of check it out, see what’s what.

The charm of the film is its surprising cheerfulness, a welcome break from the unremitting grimness of INTO THE ABYSS and the quiet reverence of CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS. There’s lots of big ideas in here, but they’re nicely balanced by Herzog’s obvious glee at going on an Antarctic adventure and meeting the other strange souls that have been drawn by the same sense of wanderlust. It’s a little unfocused, a little whimsical, and maybe even a little satirical? Certainly, it seems like Herzog is aware that speculating on the potential for insanity in penguins is not a normal thing to do. Does he also see the inherent hilarity in the training required for those who venture into the punishing wilderness, which resembles a conga line of blind people wearing buckets emblazoned with cartoon faces over their heads? I genuinely have no idea, but the movie has a lightness to it which suggests that at least he’s having fun, whatever that means to a guy like Herzog.

Great, now Buckethead's gonna have to sue.

At the very least, there’s significantly more of Herzog’s inscrutable personality here than you find in some of his heavier documentaries. He narrates the whole way through, sometimes expounding upon the beauty and majesty of what he’s seeing, sometimes cheekily expressing his disdain for man-made conveniences, sometimes just sort of free associating, sometimes (I think?) poking fun at himself, other filmmakers (he warns us against expecting cute footage of “fluffy penguins”) and the other weirdos he’s interviewing. In one interview, he cuts a lady’s mic off and starts telling her story himself, over top of footage of her talking. “Basically what she said is…”

It all seems sort of off-the-cusp and even chatty, just a kind of visual journal for Herzog’s Antarctic vacation. But gradually it becomes clear that there’s a little more going on here, subtle tendrils of theme which wind through and gradually ferment into some kind of subterranean implication. The title has a double meaning, obviously; Antarctica is the furthest South you can go and hence literally the “end” of the world, but the title also suggests something a bit more troubling. For all the fun he’s clearly having on and under the ice, Herzog is also aware that Antarctica is the most visible symbol of climate change and the planet’s uncertain future, and as such may also symbolize the literal “end” of the world as we know it. There’s an unspoken suggestion that the philosophical, adaptive oddballs he encounters at the South Pole may represent a new strain of humanity living in a much harsher future climate, and forced to survive without the comforts that we’ve become accustomed to over the course of the last century or two. And Herzog, for one, seems pretty OK with that. He’s always been a restless guy, an obsessive explorer of peculiar experiences. And maybe he figures it’s about time the rest of mankind got onboard, too. If this funny, strange, lyrical film is any indication, it’s gonna be a pretty great ride.

I probably need to get a tattoo of this scene.

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