Monday, June 23, 2008

The View from the Tank: Encounters at the End of the World (2008).

NEW FEATURE: From time-to-time, the world-famous Chanchow will be joining the OG's Movie Reviews. See her review below mine.

OCTOPUS GRIGORI: First, I did not cry. Werner Herzog's new documentary about the people who find themselves living in Antarctica had many moving, beautiful moments, but none that got me welled me up; apparently, it takes a movie like Kung Fu Panda to really get to me.

And it's not likely that Herzog would've wanted me to cry. His view of the world, on display in this movie, is deeply unsentimental, sometimes in a contemptuous, mocking way -- though the movie did offer many scenes that were clearly meant to move the viewer (often these scenes were accompanied by powerful choral music).

And the viewer cannot help but be moved by the outrageous beauty of what Herzog sees and hears in Antartica: massive icebergs the size of Maryland breaking free of the continental shelf, floating obstinately north, frightfully melting as they go; transparent jellyfish elegantly pulsing through the sea deep under the ice sheets of the Antarctic Ocean; the otherworldly, inorganic electronica-sounding beeps and squeals of seals communicating underwater; a man climbing down a fumarole ice cavern tunnel off the side of an active volcano; primitive single-celled organisms gathering particles from their surroundings to create branching extensions into the world around them. All of these things are beautiful, and any film that captures them cannot help but have a healthy share of magnificent beauty. At times, watching this, I was reminded of the BBC's Planet Earth series; that series continuously broke new ground in its ability to wow the viewer with fantastic shots of natural beauty.

But Herzog is not primarily interested in making a nature documentary. At least, that's what he tries to signal to us, in sharing his wise-ass proposals that he made the National Science Foundation when discussing his idea for the movie. Herzog purportedly told the NSF that he was not interested in the "usual" science questions, and had no interest in filming "puffy penguins". No, he supposedly told them that he was interested in questions such as why some ants enslave smaller insects to harvest sugar water from them, and why chimpanzees don't utilize and dominate inferior animals such as goats [cutting to shot showing an artist's rendition of a chimpanzee atop a goat looking out over a Southwestern American desert landscape]. I like the Herzog movies I've seen, but you get the sense that he is, to some degree, an insufferable know-it-all prick. And I could see how that part of his personality could grow more prominent living in Los Angeles, surrounded by Los Angelenos who find him so Continental and deep.

But I am not hating on him. Herzog's films are often about dreamers, and he tries to put this film into that category as well. He seems most interested in how the people he comes across in Antartica ended up there, and why. I did find his treatment of his interview subjects wildly uneven. He allows several of them to speak at length, maintaining a respectful silence. Other times, he cuts off the speaker mid-sentence with his own wise-ass question (almost inevitably meant to elicit knowing giggles from the audience that is thrilled with itself for being hip to Herzog), or with his own dubbed-in commentary in which he says something about the interviewee going on forever, their stories never ending, etc. All to the delight of the knowing Herzog audience. (We were at the L.A. Film Festival to see this; it was perhaps the most perfect audience in the world for this film, and this film seemed tailor-made for a premiere showing at a Film Festival.) I won't go into the cheapness of a documentary filmmaker making the subjects at his mercy look stupid, but that thought ran through my head.

Herzog captures many different people pursuing different goals in Antarctica (driving bulldozers, researching volcanoes, studying seals, discovering new single-celled species, searching for neutrinos). All of them are presented as dreamers of one type or another. Surprisingly, Herzog does rely on the somewhat predictable theme of wisdom being found in unlikely places: he frames his film with words from a worldly Russian bulldozer driver cum philosopher, who quotes Alan Watts to the effect that we, humans, are the eyes of the universe, and it is through our perception that the universe becomes conscious of itself, and its own beauty.

Herzog of course wants to leave us unsure of whether this is his "theme" -- one would think that someone who pointedly didn't want to film "puffy penguins" would not want to posit such an easily mocked, hippy-dippy Big Sur New Age spa theme, but that's what he gives us. This theme seems to be tied in with several other strands of Doomsdayism: the people in Antarctica are clearly very pessimistic about the future of humanity; many believe "Nature will regulate us." There is much talk about how the end is near [cut to shot of iceberg the size of Delaware chugging north]. And Nature may yet regulate us. Doubtless, the Doomsdayism appeals to Herzog's bleaker side, and he seeks to temper this theme with the Alan Watts blow-your-mindisms. Also, at times, Herzog's fundamental disinterest in the boring details of the research or science his subjects are conducting leads him to move to the easier (for liberal arts majors at the film festival) themes of religion or spirituality. The divers under the Antarctic ice refer to their underwater dives as going into "the Cathedral," the neutrino-seeking scientist is looking for "God particles," etc.

But even though I could feel myself nitpicking at Herzog's roving themes, his seemingly haphazard approach to interviewing everyone he came across and including everything that looked or sounded cool in this movie (which felt slightly long), I couldn't help but like this movie quite a bit. I almost felt as if I liked this movie quite a bit despite Herzog. The fascinating characters Herzog comes across, the setting, the scenery, and the astonishing beauty of the images and sounds captured made this movie impossible not to appreciate. It's definitely a movie you should see -- if simply because you will likely not see another movie like it.

Four tentacles (out of five).

CHANCHOW: If you're into nature, watch Planet Earth instead. (Actually, watch Planet Earth in any case.) If you're into seeing what kinds of people end up working in Antarctica ("PhDs washing dishes," as one linguist says) and also hearing Herzog mock them, then I guess you should see this movie. It wasn't bad. It just wasn't great. I checked my watch wondering when it would end.

Rating: 2-1/2 Chanchows (out of 5).


jose said...

are you going to give money?

jose said...

once you've deleted my previous comment please suffer this encouragement: that was a great movie review (better than Kung Fu Panda) and adding Chanchow to the mix made it great. more, please!

Kris said...

OG, I really enjoy these reviews. I'm tired of Herzog, particularly after Grizzly Man. I'm not sure I'll see this one. The heavy handedness gets tiring.

MK said...

"His view of the world, on display in this movie, is deeply unsentimental, sometimes in a contemptuous, mocking way."

As opposed to all his other movies?