Encounters at the End of the World, Dir: Werner Herzog, Now Playing at the Film Forum
There’s no two ways about it: Werner Herzog has become an old poot. A Wagnerian, Nietzschian old poot, but an old poot nonetheless. Werner rails—old poot-like—against ‘tree-huggers and whale huggers’ and describes as ‘an abomination’ the fact that workers living in the no nighttime summer of the McMurdo Center in Anarctica practice yoga and aerobics. He sounds like Grandpa on The Simpsons.
Herzog finds boring New Age bullshitters among the McMurdo workers, lets them start talking and cuts them right off, voiceovering his disdain for their dull, self-serving stories. In parallel cuts, he lets almost equally boring but more self-consciously Wagnerianly philosophical bullshitters spout their horsehit proverbs or insights into science fiction. From the non-old poot viewpoint, it’s tough to tell them apart.
Encounters at the End of the World is, simply, a travelogue in the old poot style. Garsh darn, lookit this place—ain’t it somethin’? Basic ugly shots of amazing sights accompanied by the most obvious voice-over, juxtaposed with luminescent shots of even more amazing sights accompanied by the most obvious music. This is not the travelogue we’ve come to expect from ol’ Werner. Fata Morgana, a dreamlike series of disconnected images of African mysteries, had not a syllable of voiceover, never mind the aggressive old pooty pronouncements Herzog has come to prefer. Lessons of Darkness desperately needed voice-over, but Herzog remained silent, trusting to the considerable poetry of his images to keep us enthralled. His position seems to have been: look beneath the surface of what I show, and find the universal metaphor I’ve unearthed for you there. Herzog now seems to have left the metaphor business. It’s as if his pending mortality has him so freaked that he cannot believe the world exists without his commentary.
Silence would become the old poot. Here, jabbering away as he descends into literalism, Herzog’s insights into McMurdo and Anarctica are just not that insightful. They are, for anyone with a passing knowledge of the place, cliches of the lowest, most obvious order. That Werner states them with his classically incontrovertible Herzogian didacticism only makes him seem more past it, more pootish.
And while he voices deep displeasure at the New Age—whatever the hell that might mean today—he’s deeply vested in New Age tropes. Someone Herzog dubs a philosopher tells us all about the universal consciousness, while another postulates on how awful life must be for a parasitc worm that lives in a sea urchin’s anus. “A terrible way to spend your life,” this philosopher declaims, pootishly. Pardon me, but how does he know? Maybe a sea urchin’s anus is the Carlyle Hotel of sea-creature anuses; maybe parasitic worms have struggled on the evolutionary ladder for eons working up to the sea urchin’s anus. Maybe the worms’ daddies are as proud as Pontius Pilate…such assertions would seem a random, silly bit of anthropomorphic nonsense if Herzog didn’t provoke similar hypotheses from everyone he interviews.
Sitting high above an endless penguin rookery, and finally getting to talk to Dr. Penguin himself, the foremost expert in the world and everything—a guy Herzog desribes as ‘taciturn’ and unreachable—Herzog asks: are there gay penguins? Mr. Taciturn gives Herzog far more reasonable answers than he deserves. Later, Herzog captures the astonishing sight of an unstoppable penguin determined to march away from the sea, toward the impenetrable 10,000 foot peaks of the interior. As the penguin waddles off at high speed, Herzog feels the need to tell us the bird is heading for ‘certain doom.’
Happily, things turn hypnotic when the camera descends below the Antarctic ice. The world underneath– enormous billowing jellyfish, bizarre translucent, eyeless creatures, clams squirting themselves across a dark brown ocean floor, unearthly light filtering through the ice—makes the picture. He tells us the divers call this “going into the cathedral.” In case we miss the point, celestial music of all forms—orchestral, didgeridoos, massed voice chorales—leaves little room for interpretation. Likewise, when snowmobiles race across the ice we get fast-picking banjo and guitar. When the wind howls ominously, the soundtrack is all deep slide blues. It’s totally Ken Burns.
The book to read on McMurdo is Big Dead Place: Inside the Strange and Menacing World of Antarctica by Nicholas Johnson and Erik Sønneland. They describe McMurdo as Herzog finds it: a brutally industrial, purely functional urban sprawl in the midst of exquisite, killing emptiness populated by seasonal loonies trapped in an unyielding hierarchy of task. The laborers are beneath the skilled workers who are beneath management who are beneath the scientists and everybody has to obey the bureaucrats back in Denver. Nothing matters more than not running out of ice cream substitute. In Big Dead Place, the authors know how to translate the claustrophobia of living in an artificial world into a metaphor for any urban landscape. For Herzog, the inhabitants are a moiling hive of idiosyncratic personalities, some of whom occasionally appear to know what they’re talking about. Some play excruciating guitar solos atop house trailers while others drop down into the cathedral.
But when they do, it’s not Herzog who films them. One of several disquieting aspects of Encounters is that the raison d’etre for the film seems to lie in another of Herzog’s devil’s bargains. Most of the material for Grizzly Man lay under the legal control of the dead protagonist’s girlfriend. Herzog gave her more screen time and apparent approval than she warranted. There was also a clear sense that he tailored his portrait of the Grizzly Man to suit her specs so he could use the once-in-a-lifetime footage the dead guy amassed. Here, Herzog states that his friend Henry Kaiser shot the underwater sequences. Kaiser is also listed as one of the film’s producers. The slapdash nature of the film suggests a hasty trip south by Herzog to find something with which to bookend what Kaiser provided. It’s shocking how prosaic Herzog’s imagery can be—what a banal film it is, given the beauty of the place.
The travelogue goes like this, as many do: Grandpa came to town, found what amused and repelled him and looked no further. Maybe the angry old pootish tone of his narration derives from being trapped in the editing room and realizing that—maybe for the first time—he could no longer work his old magic.
ContributorDavid N. Meyer
David N. Meyer's Spring Semester cinema studies course at The New School begins January 26, The Desperate Horizon: Road Movies, Westerns, and the American Landscape.