Jun 9, 2008

On Encounters at the End of the World

Working on commission from the National Science Foundation and lured north otherworldly deep sea images taken by friend and producer Henry Kaiser, many of which are reminiscent of The Wild Blue Yonder and The White Diamond, Werner Herzog set off to see just what’s going on among the thousand or so people who live in Antarctica, where five months out of the year the sun shines all the time. In his newest documentary, perhaps his most effecting and urgent in quite a while, Herzog, the cinema’s consummate chronicler of nature’s cruelty and sumptuous beauty, finds some of the world’s most gifted scientists huddled together in Antarctica’s McMurdo Station, watching closely as the natural world begins to come apart. Its getting warmer there too and Mr. Herzog, who has never shirked from asking the big, tough, existential and metaphysical questions that lesser artists shy away from, takes us on a journey into the heavy hearts of men and women who can see that, as the ice melts under their feet, as species after species continue to slide into oblivion, any assurances human beings have of their perpetuation on this planet are bordering on vanity.

Herzog encounters eccentrics from all walks of life, people who’ve traveled across continents in sewage drains, hitch hiked across great swaths of sub Saharan Africa after being held hostage; clearly, its takes a certain intestinal fortitude, a mettle and adventuresome spirit to travel to this place. Physicists, biologists, ecologists study the giant mass of ice and land and its natural inhabitants with vigor and a bit of melancholy. Herzog dwells on these people with a palpable empathy and a legitimate sense of intrigue, not just into the wealth of knowledge they provide but into the spaces of their emotional lives. Surely the creatures found in the ocean depths below these epic masses of ice are unlike anything you’ve seen, creating visions of science fictions horror thrillers and garden variety 50 B monster movies that haunt both our imagination and that of Herzog’s subjects, but what becomes clear as this essential doc wears on, one which puts a human face of the hard science one can find in An Inconvenient Truth, is how fragile our technologically dependent existence is compared to theirs.

Herzog is a world treasure, but he is often pigeonholed as some kind of wild and crazy maverick (fair enough), but in some way, Encounters at the End of the World seems to be a conscious attempt on his part to deconstruct the myth of adventurism that so much early Antarctic exploration (and western expansion in general and well, modern popular cinema) has always thrived on. This man, of all men, doesn’t think of himself as an adventurer – What was left to find in the natural world after Shackleton, Scott, Henson and co. ventured here? He’s always been drawn to men who find themselves on the extremes on human behavior and natural existence, be they Deiter Dengler or Klaus Kinski. Yet here, he finds analogous individuals who are nothing if not professionals charged with bearing witness to extinction, perhaps the most treacherous adventure of all. Now we know all too well that those masses of ice, on which so much of civilization still depends, are not static, but living and, perhaps, like all of us, dying.