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DVD Review: Encounters at the End of the World

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Before I get to the meat of my review, I have an anecdote I should get off my chest. When Werner Herzog's latest picture, Encounters At the End of the World, came to theaters, I was ecstatic. I loved his last documentary, Grizzly Man, and the previews seemed incredibly promising. Being in Vancouver, it was hard to find a theater that was playing it so I all but forgot about the film when I happened upon a low-rent theater on Granville Street advertising it in large block letters on the marquee. Of all the cinemas around, this was the one I'd least expect to be playing a Herzog documentary, but you don't look a gift horse in the mouth, and so I returned later that night for a showing.

Walking into the Granville 7, I began to sense something was amiss when a bored and disheveled teenager approached me at the gate. "Here's your 3-D glasses." Perplexed, I found my way to a comfortable but dirty seat several rows from the front, surprised at the full theater around me. The strangest thing was that the audience was predominantly made of children and their parents, very few college types and very few middle-aged men, who you'd think would be Herzog's bread and butter. The curtain came up, so to speak, and soon after I was looking at Brendan Fraser's face in a scene that was very action-oriented, very 3-D, and very much a part of the dismal action picture, Journey to the Center of the Earth. I got my money back, thank goodness, but for a few seconds I glimpsed a world where Werner Herzog made documentaries featuring Brendan Fraser, and nothing was good, and nothing was holy. I've been there, my friends, and I daresay I hope none of you ever have to see the things I saw in that moment.

So it was with marked hesitation that I agreed to review Encounters at the End of the World, fearing a repeat of that night's harrowing experiences. But as soon as the disc had found its way into my DVD player, my hesitancy drifted away on a cloud of existential glee. Unlike the remarkable Grizzly Man, Encounters is a much less focused film, and all the better for it. It is a film about the people of the Antarctic, most of whom are dedicated to traveling and in a constant state of preparedness.

Seeing as how it is a Herzog documentary, Encounters is biased towards nature and the environment, things which he addresses with awe and respect while treating humans as transient creatures with little permanence. It is such an odd perspective for a documentary to take, one which contributes to the fascination of Herzog acting as a narrative structure. He dictates where we go, for how long we dwell on which subjects, and what the core issues of the footage we're seeing are, placing it into context. Often Herzog's voice-over will cut in over a speaker to explain their point in a much more concise fashion, as Encounters has no time to spare.

As Herzog himself says early in the film, this is not “another film about penguins” and while he deals with the creatures, it is worth noting that he does not attempt to illustrate their adorable behavior, instead asking the penguin expert pointed questions about their sexuality and sanity. The photography is beautiful and desolate, capturing both the wonder and the wanton destruction of a land many of us still picture as a blank slate. Due to this false assumption, Herzog ventures out to find many different citizens of the South Pole, and has them expound upon their reasons for moving to the Antarctic, and their reasons for staying. Clearly Encounters is borne from a man who appreciates eccentricity as well as a healthy remove from other human beings. It is those people who have the hardest time conversing with other humans that Herzog finds so intriguing.

Given free rein, Werner Herzog is a true visionary, a renaissance man able to adapt to any and all situations. He is one of the few filmmakers whose documentaries strive for no amount of objectivity, as he seems to find it foolish to fake neutrality. Armed with the faith that anything he finds both out of the ordinary and intriguing will be found so by the public, Herzog sets out to document a vast world of possibilities, one inevitably tinted by his own views and perspective.

Encounters at the End of the World is a beautiful film, one which invites debate on its subject matter even as an observation is handed to us. It is Herzog's genius that allows him to realize that his audience will make up its own mind even if a different opinion is portrayed on screen. And for that we all owe endless thanks to him.

The two-disc DVD as a whole is packed full of worthwhile bonuses, including an interview of Herzog by Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs, Rachel Getting Married) at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York, as well as several short films, and a wonderful audio commentary. Each of these special features enhances the film itself, rather than diluting it as so many special features (outtakes and deleted scenes in particular) do.

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