Encounters at the End of the World * * * * *
Directed by: Werner Herzog / 2008
Let's take a field trip to McMurdo Station…American Scientific Settlement…Antarctica…Earth.
As God’s children we should behave accordingly instead of exhausting our Mother Earth’s resources, like a mother whose fuse is shortened by a child’s heightened sense of not having any sense. But, what is “behave accordingly”? The word “behave” has two words in it, “be” and “have”. I sometimes just yearn to “be” and with peace of mind, like a child, but at the same time I have to play adult and sometimes that means I “have” to “have” my share and piece of mind. As humans it’s in our driving initiative to put everything under the microscope, to poke and to prod, to exploit, to show-off, to gain founders rights and an objective of intellectual gain. Rarely do we sit back and soak in the given. And will we truly be forgiven? Time will tell, at least in our relation to Earth’s perspective.
Werner Herzog approaches his film subjects like a carver of curiosities, Antarctica being one of his latest escapades, more appropriately ice capades, and it’s a wonder why it has taken Herzog this long to wander his wonders to the belly button of the world's belly. Well, because it's pregnant with life. It’s a thinker’s tank down there and on a surface of "moon-like" conditions as described by some of the inhabitants of America’s McMurdo Station, a scientific settlement nearly four times the size, and more Americanized, than even that of my actual Americanized home town. It wasn’t what I was expecting and neither was Herzog, as he wanted to get out of town and into iceberg exploration the minute he stepped off the plane. I don’t blame him. But, he stumbles on a story behind every door and behind every travel-worn face of these people. There is a line from the ‘90s comedy, “Tommy Boy”, that has always stuck with me and that is, “Your Dad could sell a ketchup popsicle to a woman in white gloves!”, and I think that if there was such a salesman, Herzog would be on the other end of the camera with white gloves on. He just has a knack for finding something in everything and everyone.
The residents of McMurdo all share a similar interest in what seems to be out of the box experiences, even when they’re in the box, so to speak, cut off from the rest of the world. Not to mention when they’re practicing survivor classes with bucket blinders over their heads to simulate a whiteout (one of my favorite scenes). The end of the world has pulled them in like a magnet. The end is their beginning, the bottom is their top. OK, you get it. Some have come to escape a dark past. Others have come due to their constant search of eccentric adventure or wonderment. Many are there for their love of the work (and ice cream, guitar concerts and science fiction) and to simply be in remote isolation. There are even some who have bags packed at all times, ready to move on if need be. But, all have truly lived more than I have and I’m oddly engaged to their inspiring tales and trials through travel. In fact, I found the filmed portions of the people of McMurdo just as captivating as its strange frozen surroundings, ice bergs, actively spitting volcanoes, seals that give off Pink Floyd-like recordings, two story naturally made ice sculptures that house toxic gases and water cathedrals with alien-like creatures under the Herzog coined “frozen sky” of the iced-over sea. Though, there is an odd juxtaposition of McMurdo’s curious, childlike play peoples and their drive to want to scientifically figure out Mother Earth. But, in the end these are still God’s children and even still, serve as a unique parallel to a lone, adamantly wandering penguin taking his own path. It’s a path we’d all want to aid motherly care package advice to, but he’s free to make that choice to poke and prod on his own path of choice.
As a documentarian you can say that Herzog too pokes and prods. Though, it rarely comes with the gusto for scientific documentation of film studies advance (well, maybe a bit of that and some intellectual studying), rather that simple yearning of child awe, spirit and artistry. Herzog has a wonder about him, at times eccentric, but always with a keen eye and brain even to squeeze something extra out of the ordinary and is careful not to draw a fine line between “normal” and “insane”. His camera is constantly looking for something mind-boggling, impressive, inspiring, worshipping, poignant and at times humorous. When someone speaks of their love for Antarctica and its “similar to the moon” likability, the camera tells what could be the rest of the story. As it captures the earth worked over by human dirt machines and “progress” taking place, one can’t help but visualize how the moon will look once we conquer and colonize it and beyond, leaving our inevitable travel tattoos (most likely after we come close to fully exhausting our Mother). And at the same time you can’t help but want to be a part of that in some strange way.
Just like the mysterious come and go of the dinosaurs, humans will too. We’re up to the plate and all signs appear that we’re down in the count. The doctor playing on Earth has good, bad and ugly to its game and maybe just maybe it can boost us to having better odds if we pay attention? Though, perhaps when future civilizations, maybe aliens, come to see who we were and what we were about, they’ll happen to find a complete box set of Werner Herzog curiosities and documentations on Earth (of course they’d have to have a device to make them work, but please humor for a little longer) sitting in a shrine right next to the detailed cast of a sturgeon also mysteriously found frozen in time at the end of the world.
While Mother Earth is busy speaking, are our busy bodies truly listening instead of putting stethoscopes, microscopes and tattoos to the tune of discovering, documenting, detailing…detaching and weaning off from the mystery and childlike wonderment? But, children are nothing more than little adults, naively wandering into a foreign playground to be the first to slide down the slide with a bucket over their heads. And you can bet your bucket that Werner Herzog will be at the bottom with a camera and curiosity