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Not another film about penguins

…however, in a film filled with Werner Herzog’s typically absurd observations, perhaps the funniest (both funny-haha and funny-weird) were those that had to do with penguins. ‘Deranged’ penguins, no less. In one of the many loosely-connected sequences in Encounters at the End of the World, Herzog trains his camera on a lone penguin who resolutely refuses to follow the herd (flock?) and stalks (or, rather, waddles) away from the coastline towards the centre of the continent towards certain death. Was it deranged? Suicidal? Is there such a thing as insanity in penguins, he wonders.

And that penguin may not be the only one (possibly) ‘deranged’ in Antarctica.

Well, the Beatles did it...

The people who find themselves drawn to life in Antarctica do, indeed, seem to have something in common with that penguin… And they have something in common with the sorts of people that Herzog is frequently fascinated with: loners who are obsessed, who may seem a bit ‘off’ because of that obsession, and who often seem to be oblivious about their ‘offness’. They are poets, linguists, philosophers, and probably a few of them are even fugitives from the law. They are thoroughly fascinating, often delightful, sometimes a little bizarre. Kind of like Herzog, himself.

Herzog again stretches the boundaries of the definition of “documentary” with this new film. He is not above creating sequences for effect–to bring out what he calls the ‘ecstatic truth’ that underlies it. So, for instance, after a conversation with scientists who tell Herzog about the sound of the ice and the creatures below it, he films the three of them lying prone under the ever-sunny sky, ears pressed to the ice, listening. A total setup, he has admitted in interviews. He says they’d’ve never done that on their own. And he admits, chagrinned, that he made them lie there so long one of the scientist’s ears became frozen to the ice. Oops.

His voiceover narration is unlike anyone else’s. Herzog speaks in his German-accented monotone, often making the type of absurd observation that makes the viewer’s brow furrow (and this viewer frequently burst into laughter), and he says it all matter-of-factly. I mean, he asks the biologist whose life’s work is studying penguins if there is such a thing as a gay penguin. Can they possibly be ‘deranged’? And then we get the sequence that features that lone possibly suicidal, possibly deranged penguin setting off into the sunset towards a lonely death by starvation. As he waddles past the biologist (the penguin, I mean–not Herzog), the scientist looks into the camera and shrugs. He cannot impede this animal’s progress–that is a rule he set for himself. He is only there to observe. All the while, Herzog’s words echo in my head… ‘deranged’, ‘suicidal’. As the penguin waddles away from the camera.

After my disappointment with last year’s Rescue Dawn (and I seem to have little company in that) and my frustration with this film’s predecessor, The Wild Blue Yonder, I am relieved to say that I thoroughly enjoyed Encounters at the End of the World.

Plus, there’s that whole monkeys-riding-goats thang.
why not?

Look for it on Discovery Channel.

→ originally published 2007-09-16


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