Encounters at the End of the World
Bill Jirsa is a computer technician working for Raytheon in the United States Antarctic Program and was interviewed when Herzog came to the ice in the austral summer of 2006 by permission of NSF’s Writers and Artist’s Grant. Jirsa is a featured interviewee in Herzog’s documentary.This is an insightful and thorough review of Werner Herzog’s Antarctic documentary “Encounters at the End of the World”, as written by Bill Jirsa.
“While other documentaries have gone to this rarely seen part of the world, in Herzog’s hands it becomes about the magical underworld. The scientists [sic] are not boring nerds, but world travelers and poets. One man [Bill Jirsa] working is a trained linguist, living in a place where no language originates. Another man takes a break from his welding to explain his Apache royal heritage. A woman doing research [sic] relates tons of stories of near deaths in various countries, including going from city to city in a sewer pipe that was on the back of a truck, a free ride. Meanwhile the surroundings above and below the ice look like outer space, filled with new species found every day. Herzog takes Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and gives it existential balls. He comes to the conclusion that nature will not put up with humans forever, sooner or later taking the Earth back from us.” —Mike Plante, writing at Filmmaker Magazine blog
Documentaries of Antarctica tend to follow the accepted principles of documentaries about nature: equal parts pious and sentimental. If they chronicle the people, they do so with reverence for science and exploration. They report the drama of discovery with a dash of personal danger and two shakes of sacrifice for the nobility of human inquiry. For all the drama, they seldom delve deeply into the intellectual particulars that are the backdrop of the day-to-day tedium of science-that would be dull television. While PBS no longer maintains a monopoly on the format, it seems we can depend on a burgeoning list of cable outlets to add to the genre a beautifully produced, if formulaic hour of this sort annually.
About the wildlife, a typical Antarctic documentary parades before the lens charismatic megafauna and never fails to anthropomorphize: Circus tunes for the tuxedo-bound, clowning penguins, sinister scores for the menacing leopard seals. While we alternately fear them and fear for their extinction, the appropriate response is a concoction of wonder and respect (upon which we are often invited to attach our own favorite ideals: witness the sensation of March of the Penguins turning Emperor Penguins, briefly anyhow, into an icon of family values.)
About the environment (so stark and yet so beautiful!), the Antarctic documentary is obliged to the aesthetics of a Sierra Club calendar. The romantic notion of pristine environment dictates that the landscape is portrayed sans humanity. IMAX Antarctica, for example, strangely concedes a population without once allowing them to talk. The only speaking role is the narrator, whose awestruck, yet formal accent renders Mount Erebus with a rolled ‘r.’, Wilderness is a temple, the tone suggests. Although in 1991, the case for global warming was still couched in hypothetical consequences, the IMAX film is a primary example of the orthodoxy of the green documentary.
These principles have been the codified standards of nature documentaries since the rise of the conservation movement in the seventies. That’s when the old guard-Marlin Perkins, et al. looking like scholarly Hemingways in their khaki safari garb and broadcasting weekly episodes of men dominant among the kingdom of beasts-turned over the watch to Wild America, for example. (That sturdy PBS series and paean to modern ecology, was soaked in piety and sentimentality, with ideals as furry as Marty Stauffer, its hirsute host.) Forty years later, the hairstyles have changed again but the values guiding nature documentaries have not. (The late Steve Irwin, with the Discovery channel, resurrected the man vs beast format with an extreme-sports spin for the Mountain Dew generation, but even the Croc Hunter had a green heart.)
This formula endures because it works. It re-enforces what we want to believe about the wild nature. The romantic notions our culture maintains about the value of wilderness and wild nature do not always jibe with our relationship to it. But we read these values into our relationship to the place when we send people to Antarctica to study and explore, so the films we make about our experience here are testimonials to that purpose.
Particularly if you have weathered our mass culture’s most recent obsession with penguins from the Antarctic, it’s hard not to be titillated in the first five minutes of Encounters at the End of the World when Herzog, in the halting Bavarian accent that is instantly familiar to viewers of Grizzly Man, announces that this Antarctic documentary will not be about “fluffy penguins.” This maverick director has just confessed his filmmaking axiom: bugger the rules. Whatever its merits and foibles, Herzog’s contribution to the cinematic representation of the last continent is something new.
No doubt, Herzog fills his lens with images of sublime grandeur, but they are just as likely to hold in the foreground a clattering Caterpillar tractor raking over permafrost. Before the cathedral-like backdrop of the Transantarctic Mountains, a C-17 cargo jet, trailing a greasy plume of exhaust, lands on an ice runway. Researchers take a break from the noble quest for knowledge to watch campy science fiction movies by generator power or celebrate the discovery of a new species with a raucous outdoor blues jam under the midnight sun.
The piety in this film, at least the conventional brand, is gone. No misty-eyed reverie over sepia stills of Old Time Explorers. No preachy warnings about global warming. Penguins make an appearance, but only for a moment of speculation about homosexuality in the breeding colonies (touché family values) and then to linger on the plight of a straggler whose behavior Herzog interprets as “deranged.”
Probably one of my favorite documentaries of all time.