Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Underrated Movie #18: Encounters at the End of the World

Over the hump of Recent Movies Week!

Title: Encounters at the End of the World
Year: 2007
Director: Werner Herzog
Writer: Werner Herzog

The Story: A zany and thoughtful documentary about the people who choose to spend half the year living at McMurdo base in frozen Antarctica.

How it Came to be Underrated: The theatrical market for documentaries has collapsed, but Herzog reminds people how entertaining a good doc can be.

Why It’s Great:

  1. You never have to guess what Herzog’s trying to do, he’s happy to explain: “The National Science Foundation had invited me to Antarctica, even though I left no doubt that I would not come up with another film about penguins. My questions about nature were different.” Paradoxically, Herzog has come to Antarctica to study human nature.
  2. Herzog told the NSF that, in Antarctica, he could explore the question, “Why is it that a sophisticated animal like a chimp does not utilize inferior creatures? He could straddle a goat and ride off into the sunset.” How do any of these interviews answer that question? Only Herzog knows for sure, but we’re all invited to guess.
  3. Over the years, Herzog has developed one of the most likable film personas this side of George Clooney. Narrating in the language of his adopted country, America, he happily tweaks the stereotype of the German fatalist. He occasionally lets us think we’re laughing at him, then slyly lets us know we’re actually laughing along with him.
  4. Many likable scientists get a chance to explain their otherworldly research projects. They’re oddballs, but we can understand them, because this is the only place they could go to do this work. But why would someone come here and just drive a truck? Luckily, Herzog is great at getting anybody and everybody to explain their personal philosophy: “My mind was ready for it,” one mystical driver explains “This place works almost as a… natural selection for the people that have this intention to… jump off the margins of the map, and we meet here, where all the lines of the map converge... Through them, the great cosmic dreams come into fruition.” A botanist puts it more bluntly: “If you take everybody who’s not tied down, they all fall off and land at the bottom of the planet.”

Underrated Compared To: There have been a lot of beautiful nature documentaries in recent years, but it takes a humanist like Herzog to show that, even here, there’s nothing more interesting than people.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Herzog has made a dozen docs, most of which are about people who find peace in extreme situations, whether ski jumping, or remaining behind on an erupting volcano, or getting to know grizzly bears. Individually, each doc is great, but the more of them you watch, the more they muliply in meaning.

How Available Is It?: On dvd or Watch Instantly.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Hands Of Steel!

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