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Review: Encounters at the End of the World

06/01/2010

Plot

Werner Herzog and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger travel to Antarctica to find out what it is that people do there.

Who Will Enjoy This Movie

Werner Herzog fans, even those who may have not seen any of his documentaries before will find more than enough Herzog-ian moments to enjoy this movie. Compared to other documentaries, this film does not have any clear message that it imposes upon the viewer, having more in common with a travelogue than journalism. In someways it shares similaries with Ichikawa Kon’s Tokyo Olympiad in the way that the camera serves as a non-judgmental viewer.

Who Will Not Enjoy This Movie

The documentaries of Werner Herzog are like the anti-thesis of the Michael Moore camp of documentaries. Herzog does not need to tell the viewer what to think because Herzog realizes that what can be shown through a camera in the span of two hours amounts to no more than a small fragment of the whole picture. Similarly Herzog’s film is not plotted in the way that many documentaries are such as King of Kong or March of the Penguins, nor is it set around some preplanned event like Gimme Shelter or Capturing the Friedmans. As a Result some viewers may find themselves wondering what Herzog is trying to say by the end of the film.

A Closer Look

To me, film documentaries have long been mis-represented. Many documentaries, by virtue of inherent nature of the genre, pivot on a fundamental lie: that what the viewer sees is the truth. In other words, by means of utilizing the term ‘documentary’,  a filmmaker is able to create the illusion that a) the camera sees all, b) that there lies in the filmed event a narrative with a beginning and an end, and finally c) that like a novel, through this narrative some meaning that we might call the ‘truth’ of the event can be derived. These three illusions constitute the great lie of the documentary and they stand in direct contrast to three truths about documentary filmmaking: the limitation of the camera, the effect of filming on a subject, the suggestive power that lies in editing. So when a filmmaker focuses on say some problem (social, historical, economic) or some event (a concert, a sporting event, an election) one of the first choices that must be made is how to find balance between the three truths and the three illusions of documentary filmmaking. The filmmaker may try to make some generalized comment about either the thing or people being filmed or what the thing or people being filmed suggest in a broader context. In fact, this is often what happens. In this sense, anyone expecting something more than entertainment, will always disappointed. For me, I feel the lie, and it hurts.

Herzog’s film Encounters at the End of the World, and for that matter many of his other documentaries seem to acknowledge the lie of the documentary and in some ways, go on to incorporate that lie into the subject of the documentary. Herzog does this in Encounters at the End of the World in a number of ways. First he places himself in the documentary, not as the voice of truth, but as a participant in the events. He is not some detached outsider unaware of his own involvement, he is there experiencing, reacting and interacting with his environment. At one point Herzog, riding on a snowmobile over a frozen bay, comments that it is incredible to think that just six feet below him lies vast arctic waters. Then when meeting with a penguin specialist, Herzog juxtaposes what he has heard about the man prior to meeting him with what he actually experienced while filming the subsequent interview. But this juxtaposition is not to claim that one opinion is closer to the ‘truth’, but rather to show that there lies value in the varied experiences of those who have gathered in Antarctica. That the experiences, opinions, goals and dreams of those on this southern continent are all part of a greater ‘truth’. And in a way this is one of the things that Encounters at the End of the World impresses upon the viewer. That while there is only one Antarctica that lies on a map, there are many Antarcticas that exist in the individuals that have visited it. In an interview at the end of the film with a local philosopher/forklift operator, the interviewee talks about how he was once impressed by the words of American Philosopher Alan Watts: “We are the witness through which the universe becomes conscious of its own magnificence”. Perhaps meaning in the context of this film, that the act of looking, searching and learning  in and of it self is a kind of testament to the beauty of the natural world.  That we as humans, equally a part of nature as the penguins that we study, are unique in the sense that we have this ability to ‘turn the camera on ourselves’. That perhaps the act of looking has its own magnificence.

I wrote recently that the essence of Art with a capital ‘A’ lies in a works ability to use the inherent properties of a medium to express an idea. I might go further to say that true Art uses that medium in a reflexive manner to show the assets and limitations of the medium itself. In a sense, Films about Films, Paintings about Paintings. Herzogs film is to me, in a similar way, equally about the people in the antarctic as it is about the act of looking. The people living and working in Antarctica are for the most part scientists looking for clues suggesting the natural laws that bind us. And is not Herzog too doing a similar thing? Is not Herzog, as a filmmaker, someone who wants to know why, who wants to see why we as humans have a lust for knowledge and experience? Though for other reasons I am weary to call Herzog’s film a work of Art, I do feel that it is not just visually stimulating and thought provoking, but an example of the best of what the film documentary genre has to offer. Jean Luc Godard once said that he never felt the need to comment on other filmmaker’s work that he didn’t like.  That to praise what is praise worthy and ignore what falls short is by far the stronger statement. In that spirit, I can only offer my highest praises for Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World.

Alternate Headlines

Positive Review: Antarctica: Encounters of the Herzog Kind

Negative Review: Another year, another Penguin movie, same old Herzog

About The Movie

Directed By: Werner Herzog

Cinematography: Peter Zeitlinger

Released By: THINKFilm 2008

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 06/01/2010 11:36 pm

    The documentaries of Werner Herzog are like the anti-thesis of the Roger Moore camp of documentaries

    Whatever, dude, Moonraker was totally realistic!

    Good point about documentaries, though, and I agree. The only point I would make in response is that as people, we seem to have this limitation that it’s difficult to remember things that aren’t organized and put in context by some story.

    Even in watching this movie, you are presented with a disorganized but rich and interesting set of data. Then the narrative you constructed about it wasn’t about Antarctica, but rather about Werner Herzog and the documentary as a work of art and your own view of movie-making. My point is, even the struggle against imposing a narrative becomes a narrative, simply because that’s the way our minds work.

    I’m not really trying to make a case here in favor of stories, I’m more saying that, whether we like it or not, we understand the world via stories.

    • tincolor permalink*
      06/01/2010 11:51 pm

      Dang, you got me. Even as I was typing Roger Moore I knew something wasn’t right…

      I agree with you, but to say something is the whole picture or the truth of the matter is different that saying what you have to offer is no more than one out of many possible perspectives. To me it comes down to an issue of presentation.

      I’ve got no beef with zero-G love making, but if you expect me to believe that a sports car can drive under water!

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