Monday, February 23, 2009

Encounters At The End Of The World

This is a rare year in which I actually managed to watch one of the nominees for Best Documentary before the Oscars broadcast. It was "Encounters At The End of The World," Werner Herzog's documentary about the people and fauna that live at the South Pole.

The film is probably best known for the underwater footage showing the odd, alien life forms that live out their lives essentially trapped under ice. The ice lets in quite a bit of light, so this footage is shot with an other-worldly glow. But, it should be mentioned that all of this footage was shot by avant-guitarist Henry Kaiser, whose day job is doing this sort of diving for bio research. Herzog has used this footage elsewhere in his work, but it is always worth seeing

The majority of the movie will be familiar to anyone who has seen one of Herzog's documentaries. Herzog narrates in his inimitable German accent, and is not shy about inserting himself into the story. He interviews the eccentric researchers and wanderers who are drawn to the US research outpost at the South Pole. Everyone Herzog talks to is highly intelligent and many have a touch of whimsy about them. Back in the States, they are undoubtedly Phd's and lecturers, moving quietly through the nation's university system. But at the Pole, they push themselves to the absolute extreme just to do research on seal milk. And, some of these folks also show signs of darker edges. A penguin researcher Herzog talks to seems to go slightly mad as he talks to Herzog, for example.

Although Herzog's work often touches on the environment, he is no Green. His great theme is that nature is too wild and untamable for humans to ever truly conquor. At one point he gripes about Western Greens who fight to save every silly little snail on the planet, but allow human languages to disappear without a trace.

However, Herzog has also caught the apocalypse bug that has taken hold among Greens and scientists. Everyone Herzog talks to in the movie believes that the world is coming to an end through global warming. After watching these highly intelligent people living in extreme conditions, it's not hard to see why they would start to think apocalyptic thoughts like this. Not sure if I'm convinced this should provide the basis for the "Green Economy" that we supposedly need to invest in.

of course, this movie didn't win an Oscar. For one thing, it grows progressively downbeat as the film goes on and the assorted researchers start to get a little nuts. And, Herzog's theme that nature is essentially untamable and inimicable to humans is not a message the typical America Green wants to hear.

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