04 August 2008

The end

For Encounters at the end of the world, Werner Herzog and a cameraman were sent to Antarctica by the National Science Foundation to make a documentary. He tells us he told them he wouldn’t be making yet another documentary about penguins. Instead, he has different questions of nature: why do men wear masks and feathers, and feel compelled to always chase the bad guy; why do ants keep slaves; and why don’t chaimpanzess ride gazelles off into the sunset?

The resulting film was obviously made with tight time pressures. A lot of the interviewees seem very unrehearsed. Herzog seems to have filmed them straight away, just after meeting them. You can see his direction: ‘say such and such, and then slowly look over there’. If they go on for too long, he cuts them off and summarises what they’re saying (or meant to say) in a voiceover. A travel story bore gets interrupted with ‘Her story goes on forever.’

The usual artist in Antarctica thing is to play up its pristine beauty, but Herzog doesn’t. Anyone who’s read a lot of science fiction will recognise McMurdo Base. It is what bases on the Moon and Mars will look like: drab prefabs, large earthmoving equipment, piles of stuff just dumped somewhere convenient, the occasional figure heavily wrapped in protective clothing, and dirt everywhere. It’s not pretty.

The science fiction theme runs throughout. One researcher describes the neutrinos he’s looking for as ‘belonging to a different universe’. One scientist describes underwater life in terms of science fiction monsters. Herzog asks in response if mammals colonised the land to escape the horror. The same scientist shows 50s science fiction doomsday films to the researchers, and when he gets suited up to go diving its very much like an astronaut putting on the many layers of a space suit. Herzog’s narration of a great sequence in tunnels under the South Pole turns it into a tale of alien archaeologists from the future discovering the last relics of humanity – a frozen sturgeon and some plastic flowers.

There are lots of other treats as well.

I was meant to go to the Patti Smith doco on Sunday as well, but it clashed with Doctor Who. Still, Herzog was the perfect finish. It was easily the best film I saw.


stephen said...

Still, Herzog was [...] easily the best film I saw

and isn't that so often the case.

Rose said...

I have just heard through a reliable tendril of the grapevine that David Lynch and Herzog are collaborating on a film together. Oh my.

visitors since 29 March 2004.