Encounters at the End of the World (2007): Anti-Koyaanisqatsi
19 January 2017
Herzog is one of few I trust to snap my eye open with just an image, he’s done it a few times by this point. When he won’t, he will still intrigue, invite me to swims unknown. He has powerful intuitions, will venture where the ground trembles with disorder. Once there, he s spontaneous enough to let that disorder climb up through the soles of the feet, blossom into insight and wisdom.
It’s a German kind of duende that colors his world; the urge or passion a singer cannot quite put to words and responds to with song. I may disagree with him on conclusions of that duende, about the cruelty of the cosmos and the futility of endeavor, but I trust him as explorer and soul.
He’s in Antarctica here, another desolate landscape outside of maps that beckons in a most primal way. It’s where Scotts and Shackletons wrecked themselves, and why. He enters as anyone else might these days; by plane, one more sleepy traveler among dozens.
Now if you know a bit about him, you will observe a few things.
He is pleased to find McMurdo base looking like a drab construction site with machinery tearing up the ground, confirming his views of a fundamentally wretched humanity that, even here, so far from anywhere else, fouls the earth. But in the midst of this, he also finds a forklift operator on the scene who very poetically describes his presence there as a desire to fall off the edge of the world. It’s why Herzog has been in most places.
He is also enormously pleased to find that all Antarctica newcomers must be drilled on white-out conditions by wearing buckets on their heads and having to stumble after each other while tethered to a rope. You can almost feel his exhilaration when they have to reach a certain point in this state but find themselves in a jumble in the opposite direction. How many of our own efforts to make sense of the world are like this?
He includes a tidbit about researchers studying seals, extracting milk from the mothers while claiming they want to be able to study the animals in their natural state. It mirrors Herzog’s own endeavor of perturbing to extract truth about it. He tickles us with these researchers; the milk is being collected for studies on weight-loss.
He has these researchers lay down with their ear pressed to the ice. There is a whole world down there that ebbs and calls. An oceanologist had previously explained that the Antarctica — standing in for a broader cosmos — is not a big, inert slab of ice as thought in Shackleton’s time but an organic entity that is rippling out change. He mentions icebergs the size of Texas that will one day head north.
Herzog finds an entry into that world below via divers, a world of fluorescent jellyfish undulating in eerie blue silence. This world is constant struggle, one of the divers confirms. The link is made to a precarious humanity, perched on the outer layer of unfriendly chaos, this time via sci-fi movies.
So far we haven’t had ecstatic truth of the kind which he favors. But Herzog eventually finds it. It’s a powerful image: a disoriented penguin heading inland all by himself towards certain death.
Yes, Herzog has constructed along the way, intruded upon the subject, made it a point to include the bits we have while omitting others. You can imagine that he has had to sift through a lot of otherwise unexciting footage. He has staged most of what you’ll see. You can tell how well he has (or not) by noting that he first encountered the lone, intrepid penguin and then went back to set it up by filming the exchange where he asks the penguin researcher about insanity among penguins. It couldn’t have taken place the other way.
I would disagree in parts, for example with the temerity of the physicist who explains on camera about neutrinos as coming from some other dimension. It’s up to us anyway to choose how to perceive ourselves and our struggle, the universe neither cares nor doesn’t. It simply provides the building blocks and vistas.
But he’s a trusted explorer with good intuitions and here’s why. This isn’t the natural world of Koyannisqatsi, fundamentally pure and being imbalanced by us. Herzog finds a world with disorder and transience built right in, and welcomes the fact. He’s more spiritual than he would admit.