4 Stars Movies

Werner Herzog Visits the End of Adventure in Encounters at the End of the World

In 2007, the National Science Foundation invited legendary filmmaker and documentarian Werner Herzog to make a film about Antarctica. With only seven weeks to plan and shoot, and with an austere crew of exactly two (Herzog himself and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger), he produced the stunningly beautiful film Encounters at the End of the World.

Right away, Herzog declares he is not a “tree-hugger” or “whale-hugger.” Instead, he wonders why civilization is more concerned about endangered species than it is about its own disappearing languages and cultures. He made it clear to his sponsors that he had no interest in making “another penguin movie,” of course a backhanded reference to the smash hit documentary March of the Penguins. For a brief period around 2005, it seemed everyone was obsessed with the peculiar lifecycle of penguins, finding in them metaphors for everything from the sanctity of marriage to evidence of homosexuality in nature. But it turns out even Herzog couldn’t resist the pathos inherent in the penguin lifestyle. He became fascinated by the regular occurrence of individual penguins becoming disoriented, and determinedly marching off alone to certain starvation and death. His camera catches one obliviously scooting off towards the mountains, away from the relative safety of the ocean and his comrades.

Encounters at the End of the World Henry Kaiser
Some of the otherworldly underwater footage by Henry Kaiser the inspired Herzog to investigate Antarctica

But Herzog is interested more in the humans that migrate to Anarctica. As is his custom, he narrates the film himself and openly wonders whom he will find there. Some of the unusual characters he encounters are a philosopher operating a forklift, a humanitarian driving a bus (the continent’s single largest vehicle), a linguist tending plants on a continent with no languages, and a journeyman plumber descended from Aztec royalty. Most Herzog-ian of all is an Eastern European man unable to speak of his traumatic escape from “behind the iron curtain.” He keeps a large backpack full of survival gear, everything he would need should he have to leave at any moment. He puts it as being “in search of adventure,” but it seems he has left many places before he came to this one, so he is most likely doing more escaping than adventuring. He is not unlike Dieter Dengler, the subject of Herzog’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997), who keeps a cache of foodstuffs in his home long after escaping a Laotian prison camp in 1966.

Werner Herzog and Peter Zeitlinger in Encounters at the End of the World
Werner Herzog & Peter Zeitlinger

Antarctica represents “the end of adventure.” There are no more “white spaces on the map.” But most of the people Herzog finds there are scientists, making it clear that there are many discoveries left to be made. Of interest to Herzog is not only the research itself, but why it is being conducted in one of the most inhospitable places on earth. Zoologists study naturally tame seals, especially enjoying their truly bizarre underwater communication that one likens to Pink Floyd.

Geologists flock to Mount Erebus, one of the the earth’s only three stable open volcanos, whose “lava lake” is essentially the Earth’s exposed mantle. The world’s only two other open volcanoes are both located in politically unstable countries, it being preferable for scientists to risk being pelted by exploding bombs of molten rock in subzero temperatures than to be shot by bullets in hotter climes.

In a separate experiment, The University of Hawaii is attempting to detect neutrinos. These subatomic particles are omnipresent in abundance, but are almost impossible to observe directly. The reason to come to Antarctica is to escape the distorting background radiation of civilization, a metaphor if I’ve ever heard one.

Herzog dedicated Encounters at the End of the World to critic and longtime advocate Roger Ebert. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary, his only nomination to date. How the Academy could overlook the sublime and haunting Grizzly Man (2005) is beyond belief.

2 Stars Movies

Is George Miller’s Happy Feet about bootyshaking or overfishing?

Happy Feet is a tough one to try to reduce to a single stars-out-of-five rating. It possesses two extreme split personalities, its lack of integration calling into question its integrity. Was there a struggle behind the scenes between a studio wanting another cookie-cutter cartoon animal kid flick vs. a filmmaker envisioning something of substance?

The first film totally embodies the worst cliches of the contemporary CGI animated film: dancing, singing animals talking the kind of stereotypical enthnic jive that would be condemned as racism in a live-action film. People laugh at Robin Williams’ “let me ‘splain something to joo” Mexican schtick in Happy Feet, but feel queasy about Ahmed Best’s gay rastafarian routine as Jar-Jar Binks in Star Wars Episode I. The cuteness of seeing anthropomorphized penguins shimmying to contemporary pop hits wears off fast, yet takes up at least half the film, sorely testing the patience of any adults forced to be in the audience (in my case, it was a free work junket).

The second film is more in keeping with director George Miller’s track record with Babe: Pig in the City. A surprisingly dark and edgy film, the sequel to Babe was a stealth “real movie” that appealed to adults as much as kids, having more in common with City of Lost Children and Brazil than Charlotte’s Web. After seemingly endless, I say endless, musical routines, Happy Feet slowly begins to reveal its true nature as an ecological parable. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for turning kids into ecowarriors, but many childrens’ films have managed to blend life lessons more fully into the narrative; Toy Story II is about engaging with life, love and friends now as opposed to worrying about the future or pining for the past; Iron Giant is about breaking the cycle of violence; Happy Feet is about… either bootyshaking or overfishing. I’m not sure, and neither is the film itself.

2 Stars Movies

Eight Below

More dogs! Fewer people! In fact, how about no people at all? Then this two-plus hour slog could be transformed into a nice hour of lovely nature photography and cute fluffy pups fighting adversity.

I hope Disney makes it clear this is a PG film not for the really little ones, for there’s a scene in there that scared the bejeezus out of a room full of seasoned adults. But it is often too cute; most notably in the scene where the dogs suddenly begin “talking” to each other. And the lovable canines remain plump and well-groomed despite starving in the tundra for 3 months.

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