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Monday, July 21, 2008

More Encounters With Werner Herzog

It is a total misreading of the sequence that Bill Jirsa (the linguist) does not care that possibly during our conversation a language has died.

I had to cut him off and summarize his travails with academia, as this was a highly complex story which went on and on for about forty minutes. The next following sequence with the computer expert and traveler Karen Joyce I had to cut short as well, and give only some taste of her way of exploring the world, as she went on non-stop for about two hours - without ever making a full stop or a comma in her tales. There was literally no chance during editing to ever get out of her most wonderful stories. I love both of them dearly, and they have forgiven me that my film's total running time had to be under two hours.

No one is a phony in my film. They are most fascinating human beings, and I wish I could have them as friends forever, even though our encounters were so brief.

Read Roger Ebert's Journal and Werner Herzog's Full Comment

There's a discussion on Roger Ebert's online journal prompted by Herzog's Encounters at the End of The World between Ebert and art critic Daniel Quiles.

What the discussion reminds me of is how easily it is to read more--or more accurately, what we want to read--into a film and filmmaker than is there. Take this bit from Quiles writings:

In "Encounters," it is the highly skilled masters of their languages (the scientists) who are idealized, while the professional adventurers of McMurdo, who labor in miserable conditions at high salaries to fund globetrotting excursions for the rest of the year, are bores and phonys, akin to the buffoon running around the world breaking Guinness Book records.

Hearkening back to the Kubrick connection I made in a previous post, it would be easy to see the horrific demise of Private Pyle in Full Metal Jacket as a damning of the Marine's training. The entire first half is so disturbing that a cousin once recounted sneaking into the film as kid and having to literally vomit at the end when Private Joker kills the sniper.

Reading into the film that Kubrick is anti-war or pro-peace would be, and is, too simplistic. Otherwise my cousin's reaction--who at 13 had already seen his share of war films, and in 1987 would have had no emotional connection to the Vietnam War Era--wouldn't have been so extreme.

Herzog's own comments just reaffirms my belief that Herzog isn't as dismissive of people as many would think. As a filmmaker, he's going for a level of complexity that goes beyond what most documentaries, at least in the modern context, dare to go for.

Even as he packs Encounters with amazing images of exotic wildlife, he's not romanticizing nature or trying to attribute human traits. What traits he does link between humans and animals in the wild are traits shared by all life. And as he's interviewing people, Herzog appears to be looking at his subjects with a level of objectivity that forces us to really think about what they are saying. Again, not assigning some traits to the scientists and then to the laborers, but finding traits tha both share in common.

He allows contradiction to enter the discussion. Note where Herzog cuts off the discussion with the Guiness Book "buffon." Herzog only cuts after the man mentions how beautiful and desolate Antarctica is. The man's quest for inane records (like rolling the farthest) maybe silly, but even he's able to see Antarctica as more than just another place to break a world record. Although the topic of discussions are different, in many ways, he's no different than the Eastern European who, by always carrying his emergency pack, has never escaped Eastern Europe. They're both ironic figures.

The danger as a viewer is to allow our own biases, or reading, to elevate some subjects above others and to look for what seperates a linguist from a Guinness world record holder, than to find what connects them. Even if that connection may lead us to make some disturbing revelations.

1 comment:

James Hussein Dixon said...

Just stumbled upon this consideration of my post from the summer on the Ebert blog. I had wanted to note that Ebert, who I respect greatly and whose columns I have admired for years, had posted an email that I had sent to him personally. Had I known that my words would immediately appear publicly and that they would in fact find the eyes of Herzog himself, I would have softened my tone a bit.

My interest was indeed in the interruption created by the voiceovers in the few cases that Herzog used them -over- the voices of the characters. To me this seemed like a break from such other recent films as Grizzly Man and The White Diamond, in which the very thread of the main character's speech seemed to carry the film and open onto a profound empathy.

My reading-- and admiration-- for Encounters at the End of the World is that the Antarctic scientists, service workers, and animals are united through the languages they use to communicate and make sense of the world around them. To me Herzog seemed to have a particular fascination with the almost devotional focus of the scientists toward this end, while -some- of the professional adventurers at McMurdo seemed, well, a bit lost. So I was thinking about the tragic quality of their adventuring (an adventure caused by the death of a language, and one's own career, a neverending adventure that has ironically become homogeneous, a man so "ready for adventure" that he is perpetually on the run) in relation to earlier Herzog characters like Fitzcarraldo.

Anyway. Just to clarify.

D. Quiles