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Encounters at the End of the World
It might not be maverick filmmaker Werner Herzog chanting "drill, baby, drill," but a scene of marine biologists frenziedly reaming the ice-layer above the Ross Sea, using something like a 16-foot-long auger, is certainly emblematic of Herzog's audacious career. This astounding scene, fraught with tension, wonder and mystery, sums up a view of the rapturous absurdity of human life often found in Herzog's films. Who are these wild people violently thrusting into Mother Nature with an unquenchable need to understand something they'll never get? And who is Werner Herzog to coolly bulldoze us into the ice with beautiful scenes and dangerous ideas so stunning we might never fully grasp them either?
Herzog was so entranced by the underwater photography of his friend Henry Kaiser - shots taken under the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica, that he set out to discover just what was going on in the true 'land down under.' Herzog wondered; "who were the people I was going to meet ... at the end of the world? What were their dreams?" In his own fashion - by the seat of his pants if you will, no studio backing - he finds out in this documentary, combining truly stunning imagery from both above and below the ice and capricious yet thoughtful interviews of the highly educated misfits who've sort-of settled there at the bottom of the planet. The resultant documentary is one of the most engrossing, transporting ones you'll ever see. Filled with haunting images and beautiful music, it's a polar version of Koyaanisqatsi - with a sense of humor and a much more abiding attitude.
Gently prodding with camera and interview, Herzog, Kaiser and director of photography Peter Zeitlinger allow a possible thesis to manifest itself. This remotest of regions, in which the only direction you can really travel is North, might just be the locus where dreams manifest as reality, and reality as dreams; and perhaps the savagery and stillness of the landscape is the only remaining place to come to an understanding. But a possible central question is; what is the difference between needing to understand and wanting to understand? The quasi-ontological quests of those at the pole are first hinted at by Kaiser's underwater photography, where air-bubbles under ice (for instance) become psychedelic mercury lightshows, or unimaginable discs with five spindly legs stagger about like aliens. Above, in the world of frigid oxygen, Zeitlinger captures things as they might be; seals lounge in the Austral sun like rotund vacationers, while scientists become seals themselves - ears to the ice listening for other seals' unearthly calls.
Herzog initiates then furthers his own universal quest with an admixture of self-deprecation, absurdist questioning and quiet persistence. Marveling at the constant activity of McMurdo Station, (base for pretty much all human action on the continent) the director bemoans the presence of "abominations such as an aerobics studio," while briefly profiling Frosty Boy, the oddly addictive ice-cream machine. But when he and Zeitlinger team up to interview the collection of PhDs either studying ocean life or running heavy machinery, that's when the unseen comes to light. Cameras linger long after questions cease, allowing subjects time to behave unprompted, in effect becoming the selves they aren't prompted to reveal. Herzog struggles to elicit responses from a penguin biologist more accustomed to feathered friends than humans, asking like a goofy naïf about gay penguins. The priceless moment reveals as much about Herzog's bemused view of the world as it does about humankind's need to parse out our universe.
In this frozen, tragically finite space of superlatives trumping superlatives, where the sun doesn't set for five solid months, things too ridiculous to contemplate do a little frottage with conceptual thinking and discoveries that conflate science and the divine. Herzog has found those dreams, and they are unimaginable.
Discovery Films 2 DVD Set seems to concede to rental outlets and Netflix, cramming a feature-length set of extras on disc one with the movie itself, while stranding a 66 minute interview segment by itself on disc two. Why mention this configuration in the video section you ask? Because, although the 1.78:1 images (enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs) are mostly quite sharp, with beautiful detail and rich colors, (blue and white anyway) one wonders to what heights the picture could have soared if allowed to have the disc all to itself. That said, all the subtle gradations of blue are handled pretty well, posterizing is kept to a bare, almost imperceptible minimum. A little aliasing pops up once in a while, during sequences with lots of motion, but I'm unprepared to say if these bits weren't filmed with different, less-snazzy cameras, which may be the case. Overall, the movie is gorgeous and should satisfy all but the most discerning, teched-out videophiles.
The haunting, beautiful soundtrack, full of luscious choral works and Kaiser and David Lindley's avant-guitar compositions sounds awesome. Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 Audio tracks sport a great mix between interview audio levels and music. Dynamic range is wide, with resonant, warm bass frequencies and prickly plectrum plucking in the higher registers.
Disc One boasts most of the extras, starting with a Feature Length Commentary Track dominated by Herzog, but with plenty of interjections, and back-and-forth between Kaiser and Zeitlinger, too. The trio expands upon subject matter, from specifics of interview subjects, to the ethos behind the film as a whole, with additional behind-the-scenes information. They pretty much cover all the bases you'd hope to hear about in a commentary, and speaking of hearing, what film geek doesn't love to hear Herzog's wonderful accent? Zeitlinger's no slouch in the accent department either. Under The Ice lies 35 additional minutes of Kaiser's entrancing, otherworldly underwater photography, with more Kaiser/ Lindley guitar work of an even more adventurous (read: sometimes grating) variety. Above The Ice you'll find Herzog and Zeitlinger burning footage from helicopter as they realize they have three hours to kill after having gotten all the footage they thought they needed. More music, more beauty, and phantom imagery of the 'copter's rotors (or other things intruding in the frame occasionally) are the only things making it apparent why this footage didn't make the cut. An 18 minute Dive Locker Interview: Werner Herzog Talks with Rob Robbins and Henry Kaiser gets into the serious nitty-gritty of Antarctic diving - for scuba enthusiasts mostly. South Pole Exorcism is 11 minutes of lo-fi footage featuring a weird, goofy attempt to exorcise a piece of equipment 'made by engineers,' which means the Pole residents felt it needed a little help to work properly. Seals and Men is three minutes of pretty self-explanatory footage backed by Lindley's guitar. The Theatrical Trailer caps off disc one.
Disc Two contains a 66 minute segment wherein Jonathan Demme Interviews Werner Herzog. Serious film fans and scholars, as well as Herzog (or Demme) devotees will absolutely love it.
Gorgeous, thought provoking, and at-times hilarious, Encounters is a must-see for movie fans of all stripes. The director even staunchly refuses to make a 'fuzzy penguin feature,' which should please cynics in the audience. This rides the line between Highly Recommended and being in the Collector's Series, if only because as a documentary it might not be to everyone's taste, and because I would have liked to see those extras mostly moved to the second disc. Encounters at the End of the World gives you as much as you're looking for; it's an engrossing entertainment, a stunning work of beauty, and as serious a meditation of life on Earth as you're likely to see these days.