Continuous reports from the 2007 New Yorker Festival, by the Emdashes staff and special guest correspondents.
“Is there such a thing as insanity among penguins?” Werner Herzog poses this question to a taciturn biologist seated before an Antarctic field full of the flightless birds. Before the perplexed scientist can fully answer, Herzog cuts to a shot of a lone penguin who suddenly decides to make a dash for the distant mountains. As the shot widens to reveal a desolate, white world dotted by a mad penguin, Herzog, in his familiar solemn narration, asks “But why?” and then informs us that this penguin is certain to meet death.
The scene, from Herzog’s newest film, Encounters at the End of the World, invoked both wonder and laughter from the audience during Saturday night’s screening. Sitting in the row in front of the director, I turned to register the reaction of the German genius to the round of gasps and chuckles. I was curious to see if he would be put off by the reaction. Indeed, the edges of Werner’s lips crept ever so slightly up into a smile.
Billed as a documentary about Antarctica, Encounters is certainly unlike anything else I have ever seen about the frozen continent. Neither a homage to the wonders of the outdoors nor a call to arms to protect our endangered environment, it’s ultimately a dark and existential film. It’s vintage Herzog, who is ever interested in the people who choose to put themselves in the middle of the brutal, unpredictable chaos we call nature. In many ways it picks up where Grizzly Man left off, but instead of focusing on a bear-lover who answered the call of the wild, Herzog spends time with the scientists and lab techs, the fork lifters and mechanics who call Antarctica home.
All the characters, including Herzog, seem to share a Wanderlust. But Herzog is out to debunk the myth of Antarctica as an unspoiled, pristine frontier. Instead he proclaims “the end of adventure.” For an artist who has focused so much energy on studying explorers, the film exudes a deep sense of loss. While the film is something of an elegy, it’s not depressing. In fact, it’s mesmerizing, because Herzog is one of the few artists who can make a compelling film that, to me, is also a profound philosophical discourse.
What is perhaps most surprising is that Herzog’s newest masterpiece will be shown on the Discovery Channel. I am curious to know how it will translate to the small screen, possibly disrupted by commercial breaks. I only wish I could see people’s reactions when they turn on the tube to catch a rerun of Cash Cab or Dirty Jobs, but instead see an extended shot of a man crawling through an ice tunnel and hear an ominous, heavily accented voice state, without a trace of alarm, that “the end of human life is assured.”
March of the Penguins this certainly is not.
More on the film and the post-screening discussion to come. —Toby Gardner
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