Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Encounters at the End of the World and Werner Herzog's Indomitable Spirit

Werner Herzog is film's Annie Dillard. Utterly wide-eyed, awed by every nook and cranny of creation, struck silent (though not always silent!) by the constant surprises of nature alongside the swaying heights of humanity. Both stare unflinching into the ugliness and terror of the natural world; both see the connections to human error, and to human horror. Both are modern swashbuckling adventurers, towering over their respective artistic mediums, over the ingratitude and comfort and metallic starkness of the industrial machine running our world. In rebellion against the humming whir of (assuming the earth to be) machinery, Herzog and Dillard love this world of ours. And, like Calvin and Hobbes in their farewell panel, their love moves them to say: "It's a magical world ... Let's go exploring!"

The great German auteur has been making movies for decades, transitioning back and forth between narrative and documentary features, and his particular brand of curiosity has become famous for its near-crazy willingness to step (quite literally) to the edge of human safety and sanity in order to see, to capture, to witness the thing he came for. His name gathered a bit more notoriety on a popular level in America in 2005 with his marvelous Grizzly Man -- only one of three documentaries he released that year!

This past year he released Encounters at the End of the World, a documentary set in Antarctica. Encounters is properly Herzogian in its character exactly because it continues to witness to his wonderful embodiment of openness toward -- indeed, radical welcome of and hope for -- happy accidents. Herzog's movies never end up being about what his (goofily serious, Germanly self-depracating) narration sets us up for at the beginning. We might think Grizzly Man is about a man who died living with and studying wild bears; instead it transforms into a movie about what it means to love, to live, to know or experience nature, to approach the terrifying and the beautiful. Herzog's telos is always shifting; better put, his telos is the shifting. Whatever stories, whatever characters, whatever images introduce themselves into his path -- that will be the focus now. The point is that the path is intended to find and to gather and to put into focus these scattered, tattered, strewn-about, glory-filled points of holy reference. Signs of the wonder of the universe, signposts on the way to life.

Encounters at the End of the World is just such a wandering way, and to be sure, Herzog finds his signs. Whether gazing at the alien underworld beneath the ice or peering over the edge of a volcanic cliff -- all scored to otherworldly, cosmically beautiful choirs and strings -- Werner Herzog's indomitable spirit proves, once again, a worthy leader through the dark and awesome wonders of the earth.

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