Wednesday, June 11, 2008

At world's end with Werner Herzog

It's been almost eight months since I've seen Encounters at the End of the World, and to this day its images live in my memory. Amazing underwater sequences; pleasantly absurd interactions with Antartica's resident culture of researchers, scientists, and poets; and the haunting sight of a single penguin briskly waddling away from the group to "certain death." All of these moments and more have taken on their own life in my mind, strung together by the occasional voice of Werner Herzog, who lends his perspective to the encounters that he and his camera operater have on the dwindling ice block at the bottom of the world.

The film opens in New York and Los Angeles today, and in honor of its release, I have included excerpts from the piece I wrote when I saw the film late last year. Framed and presented in this form, they constitute a brief review of the film:

"In Encounters at the End of the World, [Herzog] travels to the most remote location of this planet to observe the people who inhabit it. The film is comprised of a series of interviews with various scientisits, divers, and "dreamers", as Herzog calls them. He is not merely attempting to observe and gain insight into the desolate ice world and the planet, but also to understand what motivates the people who have elected to live there and study it. Herzog seems to believe that while human beings and nature cannot connect or live together in harmony, they constantly intersect, inevitably so, even in the the most far-off land, where people require the best of minds and technological access to survive at all. This tense relationship fueled his last documentary, Grizzly Man (2005), and while he isn't exploring life and death and the harsh collision of humans and nature, Herzog is nonetheless searching for something in his probing of the Antartic culture, wildlife, aquatic life, and the glaciers that move about the ice-cold waters.

By observing the idiosyncrasies and odditities of the continent's residents, Herzog captures both the beauty and absurdity of what they do. He uses voiceover to frame his questions and thoughts, some of which are practical and humorous, others more subliminal. Regarding Antartica and its residents, Herzog wants to understand their unique motivations, as he paints them as dreamers (as I mentioned above). But he also uses the voiceover to interject his own very estranged thoughts (i.e., distanced from their thoughts and thought-processes) in the form of hilarious observations such as "Her story goes on forever", which typically cut off the person talking. However, these hilarious moments are often times genuine, whether they're honest feelings of his or simply elongated takes of a given individual after she or he is finished talking; It's esepcially interesting to see how uncomfortable people become when they've said what they wanted to say but the camera keeps rolling, as if its stalking them. But these bits of humorous discomfort are never outwardly mocking of the interviewees. In fact, Herzog often finds real humanity in all of persons with whom he speaks in the most mundane or comedic of times. Whether he's enamored, bored, or "searching for something to talk about", Herzog often finds life in the simplest of ways.

He juxtaposes his encounters with the people of Antartica with some of the most awesome cinematic sequences of underwater footage. Throughout the film's 99 minutes, there are several long sequences underwater in which the camera follows divers down to explore the chilly depths underneath the ice. There is nothing overtly flashy about the images, yet they exude a real sense of discovery, as if the viewer is among the privelaged few to be able to see that which rests underneath the ice, which is a whole other world. We can observe this world, shoot it on film, and try to explain it with science, math, or language, but such attempts ultimately fail. Sometimes sounds and images stand for themselves. As is typical of Herzog's films, Encounters at the End of the World finds sublimity in the most seemingly mundane of ways; in patches of air traveling between the ocean and the ice that sits on top of it, in lone penguins who "walk to certain death", and in the ramblings of its many interviewees. The most outwardly poetic moments are those underwater, where the sea life seems almost alien in that it resembles nothing we have categorized into a species or form of life. Underneath the ice in Antartica, life eludes the human capacity to understand it. And in these sequences, whether underwater or in ice caves, Herzog rarely interjects with his own voice, except when observing peoples' strange ways of trying to connect with it. (Buried in a tunnel of ice is a frozen fish and strings of popcorn!)

With all his wanderings about this world "off the map" with no real understanding it, Herzog finds great clarity in balancing "Profound Moments" with seemingly pointless ones. He is utterly fascinated by everything, prompting him to contribute his own thoughts about it. After seeing the film and reflecting on its rather free-flowing tendencies and sensibilities, think I now understand a bit more why Herzog enjoys making documentaries, even though he keeps the term "documentary" at a distance. There are things so wonderfully strange and strangely wonderful about this film, which is more an exploration of a foreign land and culture. No "narrative" film or talking heads" documentary" could ever broach the eccentricities of the people interviewed and observed in this people, and no amount of creative framing or special effects could yield the kind of strange, almot too gloroius for words images of the lost world underneath the glaciers. With this style of documentary, Herzog can frame his own narrative and present this world as he sees it. He is the true master of this cinematic universe, and I must admit that it's a universe I love to lose myself in. In this universe, Herzog dives into different places of our shared world --or collective unconscious-- to observe how each of us interpret the very same matter and sensory perceptions differently, crafting our own worlds in the process.

Encounters at the End of the World is yet another attempt to explore ecstatic truth in one of the endless amounts of ways one can. It reminds of the true elusiveness that is cinema, which itself is a tool for experiencing ecstatic truth. It is a medium rich with possibility. Only with cinema can a filmmaker foster such a world in such a unique way so as to offer insight into how humans construct their own narratives and fancy their own worlds. It is a medium of many media, itself the true convergence of technologies and artistic perspectives developed and progressed over thousands of years to shape our consciousness, individually and collectively.

If I do happen to miss tonight's conversation with Herzog, I won't feel like I've missed on on something once in a lifetime. I say that because watching his films is itself a sort of personal experience with the filmmaker, like a conversation wherein I am constantly engaged in his thoughts and observations, which in turn provoke my own, which may thus inspire me to approach the film in a different or unique way. I find some version of this pattern occuring each time I watch a Herzog film, whether that's a narrative film or a documentary. But the greatness of his body of work is in the way in which he makes films collapses these broad frameworks that turn the cinematic experience into a process of structuring and categorizing."

Some of the concepts referenced in these passage correspond to thoughts on ecstatic truth, which I discussed earlier in the piece. (Here's the whole article.) Reading this review again, the images and sounds stand out to me even more. I don't want to create any false notions about the dramatic aspirations of this movie, because they are nowhere near those of Herzog's Grizzly Man; He is after something very different here, or so it seems. There is a profound absence of direction in this movie, which, guided by Herzog's thought processes and strange observations on his adventure, makes for an equally compelling, albeit very different kind of experience than than the more somber Grizzly Man, or some of his other documentaries. That said, Encounters at the End of the World is in some ways the movie that Herzog has been making his whole career. Centering on themes of the interrelations of humanity, nature, and technology, the film is full of those Herzogian moments of simple profundity manifesting in its interviews and underwater compositions. We learn that his preoccupations haven't change; only his manner of exploring them.


Ed Howard said...

I'm really excited for this one. It's in New York for just a week, so I'm gonna go see it either this weekend or early next week. Really looking forward to it.

I'm not sure what to make of the bizarre news that Herzog's next film is going to be a remake of Bad Lieutenant with Nic Cage, though.

Ted Pigeon said...

I had no idea it would only be playing for a week in NY. Do you know why?

As for Herzog's Bad Lieutenant, I can't say I've seen the original, but I applaud him for making the movie he wants to make, even if it's a bit unexpected. As with any Herzog movie, I'm looking forward to it.

Ed Howard said...

Ah, I was wrong, it's actually two weeks, at Film Forum. Who knows, maybe if it's another Grizzly Man-sized hit it'll eventually show up in the small town arts theater that's 5 minutes away from me, but rather than take that chance and wait I'll be heading into the city.

Yea, I'm not saying I'm not kinda curious about the remake, and I'll probably still see it, but it does sound suspiciously like Herzog trying to pay the bills before making more personal projects -- not that there's anything wrong with that if that's the case.

Ted Pigeon said...

Regarding your last point: It's funny you should mention that. When Rescue Dawn came out, many critics and cinephiles said the same thing about it. I'm guessing that's because its ending felt like a Hollywood triumph story, with swelling music, smiles, and applause.

For me, Rescue Dawn was one of the best films of 2007. Just because the ending dipped into Hollywood tradition doesn't suddenly make the film bad, or bring it down. It maybe didn't ring emotionally true with the rest of the narrative, but it far from ruins a film.

I found the film overally to very much be a Herzog film. He has always expressed an admiration for good studio films, so I rather like the fact that he's willing to play in some Hollywood conventions a little bit. It doesn't compromise the integrity of his filmmaking one bit; it actually makes his films more interesting to analyze, I think.