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Saturday, July 19, 2008

Encounters with Werner Herzog

As a staff--well partial staff, Dan's on Vakay and Elizabeth was hard at work on the Fall Workshops--and with one our board members Ashley Epting we headed over to Landmark Midtown Art Cinema to catch Encounters at the End of the World.

Of Herzog's work, I've only seen Rescue Dawn. Herzog is another one of those directors who I know I need to see more of his catalog. But just from those two films, it's obvious that Herzog is interested in not only man's physical relationship with his environment, but man's psychological connection as well. It raises the question of do men adapt to their surroundings, or do men find surroundings that allow the most prominent aspects of their personality to thrive?

As expected, Herzog encounters scientists who are studying everything from the constantly changing nature of Antarctica's landscape to the life cycle of penguins and seals. Yet, he also has run ins with the support staff, who interestingly, have degrees and backgrounds almost as diverse as the actual scientists themselves. A heavy machinery operator is a philosopher, a former banker drives a 67,000 lb bus and a linguist runs the greenhouse.

What the banker, philosopher and linguist all have in common is that they're adventurers on some level. People who crave the new. At least, that's what they say. Herzog hints that for some, they're running away from the overwhelming confines of civilization. He then flips that and hints that many of the hallmarks of civilization are replicated in the wild. When a penguin becomes disoriented and wanders off towards the mountains, where it will surely die, it's obvious from both Herzog's narration and what he's shown us before, that he's linking the behavior of the people he's interviewing with their environment.

At one point, Herzog interviews a man from Eastern Europe who escaped in the days when Communism was still in effect. It's been several decades, and the man is still always prepared to escape. His always packed bag includes a tent, cooking utensils and a portable raft. When the man tries to recount how he escaped Eastern Europe all those years ago, he can't find the words and is on the verge of tears. Herzog tells him he doesn't have to continue and the man looks grateful when Herzog lets him off the hook.

As with Rescue Dawn, Herzog demonstrates a sense of humor that I would personally label Kubrickian. Like Kubrick, Herzog likes finding the absurd and the contradictory in humans. Although, since this is a documentary, Herzog can more directly point to and comment on that absurdity. In voiceover, he cuts into the linguist's story about how he wound up in Antarctica saying that the linguist's story was too long and complicated. And Herzog asks the question of why smaller creatures like ants are much like humans and keep insects to milk, but chimps, who are closely related to humans don't. He then cuts to a watercolor image of a chimp looking stoically at the sunset. As he pulls back, he reveals that the chimp is sitting on the back of a goat, as if the chimp was a cowboy.

Gabe, who has seen quite a few Herzogs, calls him misanthropic. Since I haven't seen enough of his work, I can't quite say if I agree or disagree. But, I have to say so far, I don't find Herzog so. He seems to be like Kubrick, who apparently can come off as cold, calculating and a bit anti-human on film, but in person is described as child like in his ability to revel in any and every topic that man is connected to.

I'll probably never get around to it, but I'd love to watch Rescue Dawn and then Full Metal Jacket just to see what interesting connections come up. I have sneaking suspcion I'll find two films and two filmmakers that compliment each other on multiple levels.

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