Herzog’s curious ‘encounters’


Film Review: Encounters at the End of the World

Directed by Werner Herzog

Documentary, 2008 

Encounters at the End of the World is the type of film that will garner two different types of viewer. The first might see the film as nothing more than yet another nature documentary set in the frigid Antarctica continent. The film provides these folks a fix of scientific explanations pertaining to ice samples and global warming, stunning shots of the continent’s vast emptiness and it a glimpse into the unknown below the ice. There are even a handful of penguin shots thrown in for the obligatory post March of the Penguins ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs.’ 

The more observant filmgoer will see Encounters for what it really is, a documentary not so much about Antarctica but one that questions why mankind yearns to explore this planet taking some literally to the end of the earth. Herzog is interested in learning more about what drives living souls to travel into the unknown. 

For anyone familiar with the films of Werner Herzog, Encounters is any ways the film the auteur was destined to make. Herzog has always been fascinated by man’s perilous pursuit of enlightenment and as a filmmaker he has tested his own curiosities surrounding this world of ours. In Aguirre Wrath of God the protagonist (one of many daunting performances by Herzog muse Klaus Kinski) is on a suicide mission through the Amazonian jungles towards the mythical golden city of El Dorado. Fitzcarraldo documents the fictional account of a man’s dream of bringing the opera to the jungles of Peru and focuses on the mountain (literally pulling a riverboat up a steep hill) he climbs to bring his vision to life.

It is Herzog’s interest in mankind’s obsessive curiosity of the planet that draws him to Antarctica. In the introduction to Encounters Herzog narrates, “The National Science Foundation had invited me to Antarctica even though I left no doubt that I would not come up with another film about penguins. My questions about nature, I let them know, are different.” 

Encounters is about the people who live, visit and work in Antarctica. It is a common misconception that the only souls crazy enough to make the trek to the desolate continent are research scientists. What’s most striking about Encounters is that while many of the inhabitants of the few camps set up in Antarctica are there for the pursuit of scientific answers there are just as many average Joe’s simply there to catch a glimpse of the end of the earth. 

Along the way Herzog encounters a linguist working in a greenhouse, working on the continent simply to get away from a world where every minute a spoken language becomes extinct. There’s the former banker and ex-Peace Corps volunteer who now drives a mammoth snow bus that would seem right at home in a Mad Max film. The eccentric world traveler who can tuck herself into a small carry-on suitcase seems to be at the camp merely to quench a never-ending thirst to explore every end of the globe. What’s striking about Encounters is that for every stunning underwater scene or shot of the picturesque Antarctic skyline there is an equally fascinating interview with the people who call this place home. The “full time travelers and part time workers” as one inhabitant describes his peers. 

The trick of Encounters is that for the casual viewer the film is nothing more than a look at the natural wonders of Antarctica, with a timely message about global warming thrown in for political leverage. A closer look uncovers a film that is as much an ode to the world traveler as it is a nature documentary. 

For many of the people Herzog encounters along the way Antarctica is the last stop on what might be a seemingly endless tour of the planet. A possibly mentally scarred Balkan mechanic has a packed backpack, inflatable raft, and tent ready if a desire to explore arises.

Then there’s the film’s one penguin scene in which Herzog ties man’s internal desire to explore with the natural world. Rather than focus his time on the masse march of the penguins Herzog’s camera lingers on a lone penguin headed towards the far off horizon, a path sure to end in death. Why does this penguin walk alone into the unknown? A scientist posits that the penguin might have a chemical imbalance and does not realize its actions. It’s clear that Herzog believes that the penguin’s motives are more complex and relatable.

Encounters at the End of the World is one of the most unexpected and dazzling documentaries to see this year. Herzog has long had a unique, often poetic way of looking at the world that, when fleshed on in film, is unforgettable. His views of the continent’s natural wonders–the mesmerizing underwater scenes, the unforgettable sunset shots–and his discovery of the arctic region’s scientific offerings–new marine species, patterns in ice melt and an intriguing active volcano–feed the traditional documentarian mindset.  For some Encounters will be nothing more than another nature film in the wake of Planet Earth. And that’s okay. For others it will be the spiritual catalyst needed to awake the inner explorer in all of us.

 

 

 

 

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Once Upon a Time…


Many artists have tackled the leap from music video filmmaking to full-length features, with few successfully making the change. Music videos, like film shorts, carry the luxury of not relying on solid narrative but rather focusing almost solely on stunning visuals.


Take your pick of some of the greats–Spike Jonze, Mark Romanek, Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Ferris, David Fincher, Jonathan Glazer, Michel Gondry, to name a few–all made sly transitions from artistic music shorts to acclaimed feature films by bringing along their unique artistic visions and pairing it with good, old fashioned story telling. Then there’s Tarsem Singh (most commonly referred to simply as Tarsem), the Indian born music video and commercial director whose second film, a sophisticated, beautifully imagined but ultimately flawed fairy tale called The Fall, is currently enjoying a limited release, two years after it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival.


Tarsem jumped on the scene after directing the award winning video for R.E.M.’s hit single, “Losing My Religion” in 1991. You might remember it as the video in which Michael Stipe waves his hands a lot while an emotionless Peter Buck somberly strums a mandolin. Actually this video and many other commercials helmed by Tarsem, feature a unique style of lighting, set and costume design, and an overall artistic vision seldom see in music videos.


The director made his feature debut back in 2000 with the visually stunning but mediocre psychological thriller, The Cell.The film starred a still up and coming Jennifer Lopez and Vince Vaughn and benefited from eye-opening and highly imaginative effects but was ultimately weighed down by an uninspired script.


The Fall is a film that took a little over four years to make and was filmed in 28 different countries damn near spanning the globe, including India, Argentina, Indonesia, China, Egypt, South Africa, Romania, and the Czech Republic, among others. Much of the film was financed by Tarsem himself and above all seems to be a personal dream project that the director has been conjuring up in his imagination for a long time. Unfortunately the film, like its predecessor, excels in its stunning visual beauty but falls short due to shoddy acting by a cast of no-name players and dialogue that at times is laughable.


It’s a shame that The Fall managed to get bogged down in something as trivial as the script but then again, therein lies the fine line between visually acute music video directors and feature filmmakers–story and substance must be as important as what the viewer sees. The Fall had the potential to be one of the great modern day fairy tales, a wonderful genre that has almost become extinct amongst the slew of Hollywood blockbusters, remakes and super hero adaptations.


ImageTarsem no doubt envisioned The Fall as an extravagant way to transport audiences into the tender imagination of a child–the stuff that the best fairy tales are made of. Technically set “once upon a time” in Los Angeles during World War I, The Fall tells a story of a stunt man whose heart (woman) and body (accident) are broken. Stuck in a hospital bed he finds comfort telling a wild tall tale of bandits and magic to an innocent little Romanian girl who unfolds the story in her mind and for the viewers delight.


The story itself is a bit simple, albeit predictable, dealing with fairy tale staples like revenge, love, an evil emperor, and a slew of colorful heroes. Told in the classic “an you were there, and you were there,” Wizard of Oz manner, The Fall is undoubtedly the result of one filmmaker’s nostalgic love of escaping to dazzling worlds via the magic of motion pictures. It has everything going for it and carries the potential to be one the great modern day fairy tales had the director focused more attention on the dialogue and laughable cast.


Watching The Fall is a treat for the eyes and it brings up memories of countless other memorable fairy tales that no matter how they age never cease to electrify the imagination. There are the classics such as, The Wizard of Oz or Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride to more recent greats like Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s City of Lost Children, Guillermo Del Toro’sPan’s Labyrinth, and Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (or the equally great Howl’s Moving Castle).


Then there are the early films of Terry Gilliam, particularly Time Bandits and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, which it’s safe to say influenced Tarsem in terms of brining to life mature tall tales. Gilliam was one of the pioneers of the adult themed fairy tale with films that were eye opening for adults and children alike while maintaining a link to realities of modern life.


Visually The Fall showcases our planet’s natural beauty in an entirely authentic manner, without the reliance of computer generated background effects. It’s no wonder the film took a whopping four years to complete. Watching the film is as much about trekking the globe in search of the perfect panoramic shot, the perfect temple, the perfect island, the perfect mountain, you name it, as it is about watching the fairy tale unfold.


Certain shots and sets pay homage to surrealists like Dalí or naturalists like Winslow Homer, while the costume work is reminiscent of the old Hollywood big budget epics. Finally the pristine cinematography of the natural surroundings brings to mind naturalist films such as Baraka, Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy, and most recently BBC’s Planet Earth mini series, not to mention filmmakers such as Werner Herzog and Terrence Malick.


Coming from a man who spent most of his career dolling up Nike and Levis ads or encouraging Michael Stipe to wiggle for the camera, The Fall is an impressive sophomore release for a director who is just shy of becoming one of the more visually brilliant filmmakers working today. With his third film, an intriguing sounding thriller called The Unforgettable slated for a 2011 release, Tarsem is a promising filmmaker to keep an eye on.


Side note: While The Fall is hardly a flawless film it is definitely worth seeing and deserves to be experienced on the big screen. Like most small films with limited releases it will not be around for long.

Films You May Have Missed in 2007

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 So it’s the end of the year and you know what that means, the inevitable swarm of Top Ten lists. Whether it be a magazine, newspaper, or website, it seems anyone and everyone dealing with popular culture sums up the year with a series of rankings. For the most part, these lists are predictable and unanimous. In the music arena there is Kanye’s Graduation heading off against The Boss’ Magic or indie sensation, Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible versus internet music marketing savvy Radiohead who kind of unleashed In Rainbows this year (this album may also be on next year’s lists…). In the realm of cinema, people can’t stop talking about the Coen’s haunting return to form in No Country For Old Men or Oscar hopeful George Clooney’s “proof that I’m more than just a pretty face” legal drama vehicle, Michael Clayton.
 
Now I could follow suit and provide a short-list of this year’s highlights and award season shoe-ins but it would be more of the same. I’ve always been interested in shedding light on the films that for some reason or another fail to make the lists and are worthy of some attention. The following are ten films, in no particular order, that most people may have missed this year.

Film:

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
It’s easy to see why this film had a short life in the theaters and failed to garner any major attention. This is not the suave, ultra charming Brad Pitt that most moviegoers are used. This is why it’s also one of his best performances. This film has been labeled a Western when in reality it’s about an early form of stardom in American history and the obsession and corruption that comes with it. Pitt’s performance is full of detailed nuances that bring both a sense of melancholy and fear to his take on the legendary James. The cinematography by one Roger Deakins (also behind No Country For Old Men) is some of most richly toned and distinctive in recent years and Casey Affleck’s take on the Coward is one of the finest performances this year (seriously, he’s ten times the actor his brother is). Still very few people actually saw this in the theaters, which is a shame since its also one of the most visually stunning films you’ll see this year completely worthy of the $9 admission ticket.

The Lookout

This little indie film from last spring featured yet another scene stealing performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, arguably one of the better young actors working today (sorry Shia Lebouf). This small town bank heist sleeper is one part Fargo, one part Simple Plan, with a little Memento thrown in the pot and features a scene stealing performance by Jeff Daniels, one of this generation’s most underused actors.

Sunshine

Danny Boyle is by far one of the most unique and diverse filmmakers working today who–and I know people will find fault in this comment–is likening his career to that of Stanley Kubrick. Allow me explain. Similar to Kubrick, Boyle continues to change his style up with every film. Trainspotting put him on the map with the same grittiness and eye opening themes and imagery as A Clockwork Orange28 Days Later was his foray into horror, helping to reinvent the zombie genre for this generation (Kubrick’s The Shining remains one of the finest thrillers out there), and Millions showed he could do a children’s story (Kubrick’s A.I. would have been a similar venture). Sunshine, Boyle’s sci-fi epic holds many comparisons to 2001: A Space Odyssey–beautiful special effects, moving score, and a things fall apart in space storyline–but is also an extremely unique film with a fairly believable premise, which also serves as scathing social commentary to that inconvenient truth that Gore was on about.

28 Weeks Later
Speaking of 28 Days Later, this surprisingly good sequel to Boyle’s instant classic zombie nightmare film featured one of the best opening chase scenes of any scary movie in recent years, had a fairly original and unique storyline for a sequel and above all was as frightening as its predecessor. Still this film had a short run in the theaters but should not be missed if you’re up for a good old-fashioned scare.

Zodiac
During the rush of Award season hopefuls it’s easy to forget the films that were released earlier in the year. David Fincher has long been a master of the modern thriller but Zodiac was proof that he also had a knack for crafting a realistic investigation flick, in the same vein as All the President’s Men. Add a stellar performance by the always-great Robert Downey Jr. and you have a forgotten slow burner from last spring that should be sought out on DVD.

Into the Wild

Sean Penn’s faithful adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s book of the same name may be my favorite film this year. Perhaps its because I’ve always loved a good road movie, or maybe I just have a certain level of admiration for the character of Christopher McCandless who in the early 90s set off on a major walkabout of the America’s heartland. Penn has always had a knack for directing (seriously seek his little seen 2001 film The Pledge that featured Jack Nicholson’s best role of the decade) and his young star Emile Hirsch joins the ranks of Gordon-Levitt as one of the best young actors working today.

Paris, Je T’aime

It’s hard to make a bad film about the beauty and magic of the city of Paris and sure enough this collection of vignettes from a crew of international filmmakers doesn’t disappoint. Sure some film shorts are better than others but overall this is a beautiful and at times surreal look at the city of love. Highlight segments: “Quais de Seine” Gurinder Chadha’s (Bend It Like Beckham) lovely boy meets girl story, which is sure to bring a smile to your face and the Coen Brothers’ brilliant use of Steve Buscemi as a confused and unlucky American tourist.

Lucky Miles

This instant classic from Down Under has yet to get a wide release but was one of the gems I was lucky enough to see at Chicago’s International Film Festival earlier this fall. In true indie fashion this film relies on a clever often-funny storyline, great performances by extreme unknowns and an important social commentary floating just under the surface. It’s also a film that should be seen fresh without any prior knowledge of the plot so I’ll leave it at that.

No End In Sight

Forget Sicko. If you see one documentary this year your time should go towards this scathing look at the Iraq war. Told by the people behind the downward spiral of our presence in Iraq, this film will/should make even the staunchest of conservatives second-guess our current administration.
Rescue Dawn
Werner Herzog is one of cinema’s best-kept secrets. He’s a natural filmmaker who isn’t afraid to tackle some of the toughest and most fascinating tales and has a unique adoration for natural surroundings. Dawn joins the ranks of The Great EscapeThe Deer Hunter,Escape from Alcatraz and even The Pianist as one of the finest escape/survival films out there and is also a fascinating look at the pre-stages of the Vietnam war. Funnyman character actor Steve Zahn delivers a career best dramatic performance and Christian Bale proves that even though he stars as everyone’s favorite caped crusader, he still has time for thought provoking and challenging roles.