Planet Earth: Antarctica this ain’t, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. The key to enjoying Encounters at the End of the World is to resign yourself early on to the idea that what you’re watching is essentially the vacation slideshow of a privileged and eccentric world traveler. The traveler in question, director Werner Herzog, makes his way through Antarctica photographing everything from exposed magma in a volcano to seals and penguins to endless varieties of unexplained* sea life beneath the Ross ice shelf. Cool stuff, but it’s best just to enjoy them as isolated scenes, because for all of Herzog’s hard-boiled, existentialist voice overs, that’s basically what they are.
There’s no question that the dark prince of the documentary (you may remember him from 2005’s Grizzly Man, which I highly recommend if you haven’t seen it) has a singular voice, and he certainly spouts his share of classic one-liners here (I loaz za feelink of za sun on both my skin and my celluloid). The problem is not that he has an agenda – all good documentaries have some sort of axe to grind – it’s that as the film goes on, his agenda shifts so much from scene to scene that it begins to feel disorganized. The narrative arc gets lost and then there’s nothing pull you from scene to scene, so when he switches gears, you find yourself losing interest or wishing he’d elaborate on whatever crazy thing he just said.
Herzog traveled to Antarctica in order to make a documentary “about something other than fluffy penguins”, but as it turns out the film’s main subject seems to be nothing so much as Werner Herzog traveling to Antarctica. One minute he’s pondering why human beings seem to be the only animals on Earth with an innate desire to subjugate lower life forms (Vhy don’t munkees feel za need to ride arrround on goatz, foah example?), and the next he’s complaining about why “za twee huggaz and za vhale huggas in zair veirdness are acceptable, vhile no vone embraces za last speakerz uff a language.” At one point he says, “Everyone spoke about penguins. However, the questions I had about penguins were not so easily answered.” Herzog’s very next question? “I read somewhere that there are gay penguins.” See, one would think that would be the kind of thing that ends up on the cutting room floor.
My advice: don’t knock yourself out trying to reconcile all the disparate observations. As profound as they sound on first listening (and judging by all the glowing reviews, many were fooled), they’re mostly just Herzog’s off-the-cuff musings on whatever he happens to be filming or who he’s talking to at the time. As far as I could tell, the scenes are organized by simple chronology. The seal biologists, the scuba divers, the volcanologists, the glaciologist, the linguist, the penguin guy – their common thread is that they’re all in Antarctica and they all spark in Herzog some armchair gloom and doom flight of fancy. Most of Herzog’s subjects are there to do highly specialized scientific research. As interesting as some of them are, it becomes tiresome to hear Herzog boil down their work to whatever best suits his constant groping at profundity.
But although Herzog fails to make sense of much of the material**, the footage itself (more so than the people Herzog meets, who, although unique, begin to blur together after a while) is so visually unique that its failure of storytelling often doesn’t matter. Scuba diving under the ice shelf, hiking through frozen volcanic vents, the prog-rock-special-effect-sounding call of the Weddell Seal – it’s cool stuff that you’re not likely to see elsewhere. On the whole, Encounters is the kind of movie that’s well suited to DVD viewing. I wouldn’t recommend trying to watch it all in one sitting, but with a plasma screen and a fast forward button, it ain’t half bad. The real pity is that with sharper editing it could’ve been great.
*An explanation would’ve been nice.
**Other fun quotes: “Through our ears the universe is listening to itself,” says a heavy machine operator, and Herzog makes no attempt to translate or elaborate. “Za best description of hunger ist a description of bread. A poet said zat to me,” says Herzog to an Eastern bloc refugee.
I want more like this!
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