“The National Science Foundation invited me even though I made it clear I would not be making another movie about penguins.” Thus begins the narration of German director Werner Herzog in his documentary “Encounters at the End of the World.”
He definitely approached his portrait of Antarctica with a “’March of the Penguins,’ somebody’s already been there, done that” attitude. Much more interesting to Herzog was the question: What sort of people choose to live in such a harsh and frigid environment five months out of the year? Well, he found plenty.
Before I get to the people though, I must say he was unsuccessful. Penguins did find a way to slip into the movie. A few are shown heading from the breeding grounds to the sea, the two places they naturally should be. One penguin though – Herzog thinks it’s deranged – stops as if pondering the meaning of life.
The penguin turns ninety degrees and heads toward the mountains. Its posture with wings spread, the music playing over the scene, and the sheer solitude of that lone creature becoming a tiny speck as it journeys toward certain death all work together to create one of the cinema’s most mesmerizing moments.
So, what sorts of people choose to spend time in Antarctica? As it turns out, all sorts. The common denominator seems to be if you aren’t tied down you’ll tend to fall to the bottom of the Earth. And there’s no place farther down than Antarctica.
Herzog himself is the cinema’s greatest professional drifter. He’s the guy who spent a year in South America dragging a ship up and down a mountain between two rivers in “Fitzcarraldo.” Not a model ship, mind you, but a real, full sized steamer ship. I figure it was inevitable that he tumble down to the South Pole some day.
Then there’s Peter Gorham, a physicist from the University of Hawaii. He finds himself at the bottom of the world studying neutrinos. When Herzog asks: “What’s a neutrino?” Gorham gives him a mini-lecture on metaphysics that sounds like Obi Wan Kenobi. I don’t know what Herzog anticipated Gorham to say, but he probably didn’t expect neutrinos to be the Force that surrounds us and binds us.
Also memorable is Samuel Bowser, a scuba diving cell biologist from San Diego. We first meet him in a contemplative moment, considering the meaning of life as deeply as that deranged penguin. He’s at a crossroads, having done everything he set out to do, and today’s dive beneath the ice will be his last. He goes out with a bang and celebrates by performing an open air electric guitar concert for an audience of, well, none.
Of course, Antarctica is the ultimate locale for those who just want to be alone and marine ecologist David Ainley proves a perfect Garbo. He’s spent 20 years in solitude studying penguins and the only way Herzog can get him to talk is to ask him questions like: “Is it true that penguins can be gay?” Maybe his wayward penguin heading for the mountains just wanted to be left alone as well.
“Encounters at the End of the World” has not been rated by the MPAA. If it had been, I predict either a G or PG. It’s a clean movie with lots of gorgeous footage of scuba diving under the ice, of peering into volcanoes, and, yes, of penguins.
The movie shows at the Grand Theatres on Thursday, February 18 at 3:00 and 5:30 as part of the Cinema 100 Film Society series. Tickets are available at the door.