Monday, May 12, 2008

IFFB Closing Night 2008: Encounters at the End of the World

I love Werner Herzog. I've previously described him as my favorite crazy person and as an utterly fantastic deadpan comedian, but I also love that he's got this adventurous spirit as well. He commits strange, unpredictable cinema. Even though he can tell a story with the best of them - last year's Rescue Dawn is a rock-solid narrative in addition to being visually arresting - but so many of his films seem to come from him getting an idea and seeing where it takes him. There may not be a story in going to Antarctica, but he's sure he can find interesting things to show the audience.

And with that, we pretty much reach the end of IFFB. I'm still waiting on a list of credits for Twelve (if you're making a movie in English, why wouldn't you put as much as you could in the IMDB as soon as possible?), and I've got a screener for another movie that played the festival. As usual, it was a ton of fun. It's amazing how fast and big the festival has grown in just a few years.

Encounters at the End of the World

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 29 April 2008 at Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

A couple years ago, Werner Herzog made a peculiar little film called The Wild Blue Yonder, with Brad Dourif as an alien who has been marooned on Earth for some time. Herzog used photography taken under the ice shelves of Antarctica to create the alien's apparently unearthly home, and it was effective enough to make the audience wonder why some movies spend tens of millions of dollars on special effects. Now Herzog has gone to Antarctica himself, looking for and sometimes finding a land as strange as those where his fictional films have been set.

Herzog is unimpressed with McMurdo Base when he arrives; it has all the visual charm of a run-down mining community. He was expecting something like a frontier town, perhaps, something completely unlike the conventional world, but instead he finds "abominations" such as an aerobics center, yoga classes, and even an ATM machine. He is, as might be imagined, quite happy to get away from the base and visit some of the smaller camps where people are doing nifty science and there are interesting things to aim his camera at.

And there are amazing sights to see. He came in part on the suggestion of a friend who is a master diver, so the camera goes under the Ross ice shelf to see the strange creatures living there, including armored starfish with long, fleshy tentacles that would look quite at home in a science fiction film. We spend time on the lip of an active volcano, one of only three in the world with an exposed magma pool. There are penguins, of course, but also great seals, and the perfectly preserved cabin from Shackleton's doomed expedition. There are people with buckets on their heads to train for white-out conditions, and even the tightly-packed cargo plane from New Zealand excites Herzog's curiosity.

The encounters of the title aren't just with the local wildlife, of course; we also meet the people who live and work in Antarctica. Many are brilliant, among the best in the world in their chosen fields. Others tell tales of hitchhiking across Africa and South America, professional wanderers who may have come to Antarctica because they've been everywhere else. It's clear that ordinary people don't come to this place, and Herzog presents them in all their eccentricity. Herzog walks an interesting line with his cast of characters; the easy routes might be fetishizing their oddness or mocking them as freaks, but we're allowed to see them as singular folks who have found their way to the environment that best suits them. We get a lot of laughs at their expense; the scene of a half-dozen men, likely experts in their fields, wearing buckets on their heads and utterly failing to follow a rope back to their shed is brilliant comedy. There's always respect for their abilities, though, even if it is sometimes so specialized that Herzog has to ask if he's just witnessed a big moment.

All this talk of peculiar characters would be complete without mentioning director and narrator Werner Herzog himself as one of them. Herzog is a man who knows his reputation, and he doesn't shy away from playing on it. As weird a guy as he might actually be, I sort of doubt that his proposal to the National Science Foundation referenced The Lone Ranger, ants keeping other insects as slaves, and why chimpanzees don't ride goats. It makes a fantastic bit of narration for the beginning, and his dry, deadpan way of saying it combined with his reputation makes it seem possible. He transitions from one scene to another by stating that his interview subject's story seemed to go on forever. He asks questions of the penguin expert that the G-rated March of the Penguins overlooked. He idly muses on what an alien civilization would think of Earth if they found these installations.

Herzog portrays himself as a bit of a nut, but in some ways that serves as cover for the sort of pure, far-ranging curiosity that led him to join these scientists for a few weeks. Almost every detail can catch his eye, from the labels on the cans still sitting in the Shackleton cabin's shelf to a penguin wandering away from its flock, and he usually has something funny and interesting to say about it. As is usually the case with Herzog, what we see on screen is entrancing. He captures the strange and bizarre, but also makes interview segments interesting, veering into random subjects or holding a shot a second longer than usual to point out how odd the previous answer was rather than just letting it stand. Even the shots of McMurdo under his disgusted narration are hard to peel one's eyes from.

Very few of us are ever going to get to Antarctica, so Herzog's film is a delight just from the perspective of seeing new and different things. The documenting of its unusual community that makes it even more special; we're able to feel a kinship with them while still admiring what a different sort of person is drawn to that hostile, far-off land.

Also on EFC.

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