16 July 2008

Close Encounters at the End of the World

I have to admit, I kind of adore Werner Herzog. He's such a lovably strange goofball, I can't help it. But the man has a unique vision, and one that he manages to convey brilliantly in his films. His movies are these fascinating reveries on civilization and what it means to be human, with gorgeous footage and an almost childlike awe of the material. There's a downside to this, namely, that he's got severe tunnel vision - whatever the subject of the film, you only hear about the stuff that Herzog finds interesting. There's no pretense of actually depicting something essential about the subject, it's more about how it fits into his overall worldview. Close Encounters at the End of the World, which documents his explorations of Antarctica, is no different. I actually had the good fortune to watch the movie with a group of scientists, some of whom have in fact done research in Antarctica and know many of the people depicted in the film personally, and they were somewhat annoyed at the way it was portrayed, and how Herzog completely ignored multiple important aspects of the world there. But despite their irritation, I think even they acknowledged that it was an interesting and entertaining film.

At the start of the movie, Herzog (who narrates the entire film) explains that he did said from the get-go that he was not going to make a movie about penguins (though he can't resist giving them some airtime). Instead, he came to seek the answers to several questions. Why do humans enslave and torture other humans? Why do they set out to explore the wild frontiers of their world? Why do ants enslave wood lice? Why don't apes enslave anybody? I would have LOVED to read his grant application. I can't believe the NSF funded him. But anyhow, it's a fitting start to the film, which is a somewhat rambling meditation about Antarctica and the people who live there. While he doesn't exactly illuminate the scientific research they're doing, or even, really, what it's like to live there, and the people he picks are clearly the oddest ones he could finds, the movie is nonetheless fascinating. The footage is gorgeous - especially the scenes of scuba divers under the ice, and the creatures they find down there. Absolutely amazing. 

And while Herzog is an oddball and his questions are totally bizarre, they're also kind of lovely. "Do penguins ever go insane?" I was amazed by how merciless he was about focusing only on his own interests in this film, and especially by how brutal he was to the subjects when they ceased to interest him (a sudden voice over interrupts a woman's monologue to say that "She went on and on"). At the same time, I was occasionally grateful - she really WAS going on and on - though at times, I was also frustrated. It was strange, whenever he asked people how they ended up in Antarctica (which is a damn good question, I think), you ended up with a kind of description of their life beforehand, and then an abrupt end, with no actual description of the relevant transition ("so I was in Guatemala being chased by guys with machetes... and now I'm in Antarctica!").

My only real beef with the film was the music, which was somewhat over the top and rather distracting. Especially the final track, which was some kind of religious hymn in a Slavic language. It might have sounded neat if you couldn't understand it, but meanwhile I'm listening to this strange voice droning on about God and it was seriously getting on my nerves.

Still though, it's a lovely movie. Definitely worth watching.

No comments: