Last Updated: July 24, 2008By Tags:

(BY SAÏDEH PAKRAVAN) In The Gods Must Be Crazy Xi the little bushman travels to the end of the world so he can drop off the edge the coke bottle that has brought strife into his Kalahari desert hut village. The end of the world is that mythical space which, if we could reach it, would give us the new life we all crave, the one where mistakes would be forgotten and achievement no longer out of reach. Werner Herzog, dreamer emeritus, finds his end of the world in a place so extraordinary that you’d think it can only have sprung from this creator’s vivid imagination, yet it is a reality: the Antarctica, the South Pole, so much more remote and inaccessible than its polar opposite, so vast that the mind boggles when you run the numbers. Take the iceberg that someone describes in Herzog’s film, Encounters at the End of the World. It is not only bigger than the one that sank the Titanic, not only bigger than the Titanic itself, but bigger than the country that built the Titanic. One expanse of ice is, we’re told, larger than North America. And so on. So what did Herzog find at the end of the world? One single day that stretches into six months, minuscule under-ice fauna scarier than any science fiction monster—so active, with such developed survival skills that, as another scientist says, were there not such a difference in scale between them and the neoprene-clad humans who jump through holes in the ice to study them, they would wrap their tentacles around the intruders and with their powerful mandibles tear them apart at once. But mostly, what you find at the end of the world, are professional dreamers. In one conversation, Herzog, whose voice we hear throughout but whom you don’t see, is talking to a truck driver who says that when you fall off the edge of the world as he has, there is a kinship with the other people who landed there, outside maps. These are the encounters of the title, an entire collection of wackos who also happen to be dedicated and extremely knowledgeable people in the fields of glaciology, microbiology, vulcanology, DNA sequencing, and so on. Never mind that they also drive buses, maintain the frosty-ice machine, grow hothouse tomatoes, strum acoustic guitar or paint desert scenery. The film is fascinating throughout. In one scene, three scientists lie face down, listening to the seals chanting under the ice, a sound as haunting as the song of whales or, as someone puts it, Pink Floyd. In a beautiful metaphor, a lone penguin determinedly waddles out toward mountains several thousand miles distant. It wouldn’t be fair to Herzog to imagine that he set out to make a documentary on the South Pole. As in other recent films, he blurs the line between imagining, creating, and seeing. The adventure, both travel and trip, should be fulfilling for the viewer. Yet at the end, before the screen goes dark, as we watch a marvelously intricate, delicately colored creature with transparent tentacles and light pink umbrella float by, we find ourselves strangely unsatisfied. Maybe too much discovery channel. Maybe too many musings in Herzog’s German-accented off voice. But Encounter is still an important film, not least because Herzog makes us more aware of how narrow our vision of the world is, reduced to the cities where we live to the work/home commute, the entertainment, problems, and dramas that fill our days while in such a remote part of the world, an entire continent is made of the stuff of dreams, those dreams that pushed forward the great explorers of yore, the Shackletons and the Amundsens. And above all remains the nagging thought that once these extraordinarily large masses of ice start breaking loose because of our stupidity and because we never made provisions to protect our wondrous world, once the masses start drifting north, once they melt, nothing will be left of what we have known, of our cities, of our daily commute, of us. The question then is will all the minuscule under-ice creatures adapt, will they take foot on whatever solid ground remains, will they evolve into beings that several hundreds of thousands of years hence will yet produce a Mozart or a Shakespeare?

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