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A few things you should know about 'Encounters in the Natural World'
on 24 February 2010
This beautifully packaged box set contains three full length documentaries and two shorter features by the great German film director Werner Herzog.
This short piece concerns a Carribean island which was evacuated after rumblings from a volcano, which threatened to blow with the strength of five or six atomic bombs. Herzog and his crew went there after the evacuation to film absolutely eerie footage of a deserted town, with a sea full of dead snakes. They interview one of the residents who refused to leave. "Where should I go? Death waits forever, it is eternal."
This is Werner Herzog's tribute to Timothy Treadwell, the grizzly bear enthusiast who was torn apart and eaten by the creatures he loved in 2003. It consists mainly of footage shot by Treadwell himself in the wilds of Alaska. The film can be very tense to watch, especially the scenes near the start where Treadwell is touching the bears, and you are constantly waiting for them to knock the camera from his hand and decapitate him.
In some ways Treadwell reminds of the late Steve Irwin, both in his manic demenaour, and the fact that he died at the hands of the wildlife he sought to protect. He also reminds slightly in his mannerisms of the comedic actor Jim Carrey, making the footage shot just hours before his death seem all the more eerie.
One friend of Treadwell's has criticised this documentary for portraying Treadwell as a man with a death wish, while not focussing on the fact that he spent 35,000 hours living in direct contact with the bears before he was finally killed - an amazing feat. But the film is actually fairly even handed, and interviews both Treadwell's admirers and his unsparing critics (including one man who claims "he got what he was asking for"). Herzog himself defends Treadwell not as an ecologist but as a filmmaker, and truly some of the footage he captured moves into the realm of art.
The difference between Herzog and Treadwell is that Treadwell saw bears as his 'friends', whereas Herzog looks into the bear's eyes and sees "only the vast indifference of nature." Neither is quite right in my opinion. Treadwell was wrong in thinking the bears would ever consider him one of their own, yet Herzog ignores the research showing that cats are capable of friendship, and that magpies lay wreathes for their dead. Konrad Lorenz wrote movingly about swans and geese, who mate for life and show clear signs of mourning when their partner dies.
Although man can never 'return to nature' like Treadwell wished, and although the human and natural world are separate in many ways, they still intersect and interact. Both are necessary. Nature is necessary to man, so that he may know himself. And man himself is necessary - to shine the light of consciousness into the dark unconscious that is nature.
ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD
Full of odd questions ("Is there such a thing as insanity in penguins?"), Werner Herzog lands on the ice runway at McMurdo base in Antarctica for five months devoid of night. McMurdo looks like an ugly mining settlement (reminds me a bit of Norwegian Arctic towns like Alta and Hammerfest) but "as banal as it appears, it is filled with professional dreamers"...dreamers whose favourite food, funnily enough, is Frosty Boy Ice Cream.
The scientists see the ice as a dynamic entity, not the static monolithic environment many think when they hear the name 'Antarctica'. There are cracks in the ice that sound like ghostly footsteps, and seal calls which sound like Tangerine Dream. Life forms in the sea are "like science fiction creatures" as one scientist puts it. It is "a horribly, violent world" full of strange, Lovecraftian organisms, some of which seem to possess "borderline intelligence...almost art."
Some of the scientists Herzog interviews have a religious sense of awe in the face of their discoveries, while others seem almost braindead. "Yes, it's a truly wonderful moment when you increase the known biodiversity," one tells him, sounding about as excited as if he had just filed a report on the origins of sawdust. But another talks with spiritual and poetic insight of the sub-atomic particles called neutrinos.
The whole film, in fact, is full of surprising insights - for instance, that the British empire started to fail only after Shackleton had reached the South Pole. In other words, when no further expansion was possible. Strangely, in a film about uninhabited Antarctica, Herzog delivers a moving defence of the languages that are dying out around the world: "Tree huggers and whale huggers are acceptable, but no one embraces the last speakers of a language."
Herzog gets all apocalytic towards the end of the film, talking about the imminent demise of humanity, but whether or not one shares his pessimism, there is little reason not to watch this stunning documentary.
THE WHITE DIAMOND
Beginning with some great film footage of the early age of flight, including the explosion of the Hindenburg Zeppelin, this documentary then turns to modern day airship fanatic Dr. Graham Dorrington. It gradually emerges that Dorrington's friend Dieter Plage was killed flying a similar airship ten years earlier, and it is clear that Dorrington feels a certain degree of guilt over the death. Despite this, he persists in his quest to fly an airship over remote jungle in Guyana. The airship itself has a bit of a 'steampunk' look about it, and reminds me of Lee Scoresby's balloon in 'The Golden Compass'. With the help of this contraption, Dorrington aims to film the rainforest canopy - one the richest biospheres on earth.
The human element in this film is not so intense as with other Herzog documentaries, yet it does contain some amazing cinematography, such as the swifts flying madly into a waterfall, their secret kingdom. Perhaps the film would have been better if cut in length (it's not often you can say that about a Herzog film), or perhaps more footage of the rainforest canopy and less of the crew arguing. It's still worth watching, however.
THE FLYING DOCTORS OF EAST AFRICA
This is a short, straightforward film about doctors in East Africa. It isn't narrated by Herzog, and isn't terribly interesting (unless you find the brutal monotony of African tribal warfare enlightening). If you want to watch something of Herzog's set in Africa, 'Cobra Verde' would be far more worth your while (see my review of that on Amazon).
'La Soufriére' - 5 stars
'Grizzly Man' - 5 stars
'Encounters at the End of the World' - 4 stars
'The White Diamond' - 3 stars
'Flying Doctors of East Africa' - 2 stars