Thursday, September 25, 2008

Encounters At The End Of The World

Werner Herzog's latest documentary asks a lot of questions such as, "Why don't chimpanzees, intelligent as they are, ride around on goats as a means of transportation?" and "Do penguins go insane?"

Unfortunately, neither of those questions are answered by the end of Encounters (though he does show some compelling evidence toward the latter). What Herzog does provide are amusing, brief portraits of some of the unique people who decide to spend a portion of their lives on the most inhospitable continent on Earth. He also profiles Antarctica itself, above and below the ice.

The various places he visits and people he talks to are interesting. It's always great to see scientists who love their work, and some of the people in this film describe the objects of their study in beautifully poetic language. This is good because the images of the movie, while fine, can't really compete with the likes of Planet Earth, which is all about the picture. Herzog's movie is about the curious stories Antarctica spawns, both past, present, and future. Or rather the stories spawned by the people who are drawn to the continent, for whatever reason.

Most of the people Herzog talks to live in a research outpost, which is essentially a small town that contains such "abominations" as a bowling alley and ATM. Herzog describes the look of the place as that of a small mining town, which is pretty accurate. I was surprised that something that industrious existed on Antarctica. I had imagined that everything there was still rickety shacks and small tents desperately staked down in the middle of impossible snow storms. I hoped that's what it was, anyway.

The fragments of the movie don't always feel like a cohesive whole, such as one diversion where Herzog ponders the soft serve ice cream machine at the outpost's local diner. Herzog seems to get lost in his own whimsical musings about everything. But that's also why some of the movie is so interesting. When shown a single celled organism from under the ice that uses pseudopods to selectively gather grains of sand to form a shell around itself, Herzog wonders if this could be considered an intelligent act. The scientist admits that it has actually been up for debate, and says himself that it is "almost art". Looking at the magnified images its almost easy to believe that it is.

Overall I enjoyed the movie, with its seemingly random diversions and answerless questions. It doesn't really seem to be about much except that there is this very strange place on Earth, and there are some very strange people that go there. That's good enough for me.

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