Thursday, July 17, 2008

Earth's Imagined Corners

Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World

"Here at the actual pole of my existence,
Where all that I have done is meaningless,
Where I die or live by accident alone -

Where, living or dying, I am still alone;
Here where North, the night, the berg of death
Crowd me out of the ignorant darkness,
I see at last that all the knowledge

I wrung from the darkness - that the darkness flung me -
Is worthless as ignorance: nothing comes from nothing,
The darkness from the darkness. Pain comes from the darkness
And we call it wisdom. It is pain."

- Randall Jarrell, 90 North

If the line between eccentricity and genius is a thin one, no one walks it more consistently than Werner Herzog. Herzog's latest film, Encounters at the End of the World is half a travel video made by a cantankerous grand uncle, and half a sublime exploration of the human will to adventure whose sheer visual splendor reminds you why cinema is, after all, an art form.

Nominally, Herzog's setting here is Antarctica; in truth, though it is Herzog-land, a stark continent of consciousness through which people wander like stray thoughts come to life. Herzog understands, better than anyone, the true meaning of the word craft, and his work has a raw handtooled quality that stands in gruff contrast to the blank machine-like perfection of so much of what gets projected on our cinema screens. This roughness can be disconcerting, but it is precisely this edginess (in every sense of the term) that gives his films both their power and their poetry. Because Herzog is more concerned with letting the medium breathe than with taming it, his camera captures scenes of bizarre and haunted beauty; images whose very link to the world we live in seems tentative at best. Yet for all that there is something almost preternaturally clear-eyed about Herzog's vision, a directness of gaze so unflinching that even the icy barrenness of Antarctica cannot faze it.

In Encounters at the End of the World, moreover, Herzog has finally found the cast of his dreams. Here is a group of people who are, on the one hand, successful and respectable individuals - scholars, scientists, experts - people with PhDs in charge of important cutting-edge scientific research. Yet they are also, on the other hand, the ultimate outsiders: denizens of a freakish and alienated land that is equal parts utopia and dystopia, dreamers of a half-mythic otherworld that exists on the border of mysticism and intellectual curiosity. It is a world where philosophers operate bulldozers, where a journeyman plumber claims to be the true descendant of the Mayan kings, where scientists celebrate the discovery of three new species of single-cell organisms by playing electric guitars on the roof of a mobile lab parked in the middle of a frozen sea.

And Herzog is the perfect person to capture the idiosyncrasies of this magical yet marginal land, because as a crank among cranks he fits in perfectly. In fact, it is Herzog's very whimsicality that helps bring the more eccentric side of the people he films to life. When Herzog wants to tell you about a project to capture high-energy neutrinos, for example, he doesn't give you computer generated diagrams to explain what a neutrino is, accompanied by professional-sounding voice-overs, and followed by slickly edited soundbites from interviews with scientists that have been pruned to include only the relevant facts. Instead, he just thrusts his camera in the face of the project leader and asks, in his most embarassingly naive everyman voice: "What is a neutrino?" then lets the man in front of the camera talk for as long as he wants.

What you get, as a result, is not some polished lecture about neutrinos that you could have found in any textbook but a sustained clip of a man whose entire life is physics talking excitedly about what he loves, a clip in which he first struggles to describe what a neutrino is in the simplest layman terms, then talks about how he feels about neutrinos, the sense of wonder they excite in him, and ends up comparing neutrinos to a kind of invisible spirit that populates the Universe. There is much that is clumsy and even ridiculous about this speech, but for all that it is genuine and heartfelt in a way that no conventional documentary footage would be. It may not tell you very much about neutrinos, but it speaks volumes about the nature of mankind, and the strange, almost mystic motives that underlie our endless search for the truth.

This then, is Herzog's method - and his true genius. At the heart of Herzog's vision lies the knowledge that it is not our qualities that define us but our eccentricities, what makes us wierd is also what makes us unique. What Herzog is searching for, therefore, is not the representative but the idiosyncratic, not the central but the marginal, not the general but the defiantly particular. His is an art of outliers, and Encounters at the End of the World is a fine addition to that oeuvre. In some of the most spectacular shots in the film Herzog transmutes tiny details of the underwater world beneath the Antarctic ice (bubbles moving across the ice's surface, a luminous jellyfish, the minutiea of some plant) into images of glowing, transcendent beauty. These scenes are breathtaking, yet at the end of the day it is not them but Herzog's ability to find beauty in the plebian details of human life that makes him so fascinating a director.

Herzog begins his film by stating that he has no intention of making a film about fluffy penguins. It is ironic, therefore, that the most iconic shot of Encounters at the End of the World, the one that best captures the spirit, not only of this film, but of Herzog's work more generally, is one that involves a penguin. This is not some cutesy penguin living out its well-regimented family life as part of the flock, however. This is a penguin that, having grown disoriented on its trek to the sea, and having left its companions behind, is marching relentlessly inland, heading towards certain death in the heart of the continent with a deliberateness of purpose that is at odds not only with its lack of true direction but also with the clownishness of its walk and appearance. It is a chilling yet lyrical image, an image made even more heartbreaking by the sight of the scattered humans who watch it pass and do not try to stop it, partly because they are under strict orders not to interfere, and partly because they know that nothing can turn the penguin from its path, that no effort of theirs can shake it off its conviction that those distant mountains are where it needs to go.

It is precisely this kind of dislocation, this journey into a hinterland of doubt, this voyage towards unknown meanings through a great expanse of wilderness that Herzog's films are a testament to.


km said...

Great review, man.

Herzog begins his film by stating that he has no intention of making a film about fluffy penguins.

Cranky old bastard. I can almost hear him say "Ve haff no intentions of making a film about fluffy penguins. Instead this is a film about Man's Search For The Moral Absolute".

God bless Werner.

??! said...

I suspect one of your life's aims is to feature in a Werner film ;)

This sounds great though. Thanks for the heads-up.

km said...

I suspect one of your life's aims is to feature in a Werner film

??!: Like there's any other ambition worth holding.