Thursday, May 07, 2009

Culture Shock 05.07.09: Finding madness at the bottom of the world

When Werner Herzog told the National Science Foundation he wanted to make a documentary in Antarctica, he warned them in advance. This was not going to be a heartwarming movie about marching penguins.

Nevertheless, the most arresting scene in "Encounters at the End of the World" does involve a penguin.

On a rocky outcropping at the bottom of the world, Herzog interviews a researcher who has spent so much time among the penguins that he barely speaks to humans. Desperate to get the researcher to talk, Herzog asks questions about penguin sex habits. The researcher seems skeptical about reports of gay penguins. Then Herzog asks if there is such a thing as madness among penguins. Do any penguins ever get so fed up with their colony that they simply go insane?

The researcher says he has never seen a penguin bashing its head against a rock, but sometimes penguins become disoriented and end up in places they shouldn't be.

Then, as if on cue, a penguin demonstrates the madness Herzog is seeking.

The lone penguin refuses to follow the others to the water to feed and refuses to return to the colony. After a few minutes, it finally turns and waddles toward the mountains, located far into the bleak, icy continent's interior. Herzog tells us that when a penguin sets out like this, nothing will stop it. It will press on until it meets its fate, which is certain death.

No marching penguins. No penguins with happy feet. It is this one penguin, which Herzog describes as "deranged," that captures Herzog's interest and, one suspects, his heart as well. If the famed German filmmaker has a soft spot for anything, it's suicidal madness. He's a romantic, albeit one with a dark outlook on life.

His earlier documentary, 2005's "Grizzly Man," covers similar terrain. Herzog tells the story of Timothy Treadwell, using, in part, Treadwell's own movie footage, left behind after his death in 2003. Treadwell's derangement, if you want to call it that, cost him his life.

Over the course of 13 summers, Treadwell, an environmentalist and activist, lived among the grizzly bears of Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska. He clashed frequently with the National Park Service, which cited him numerous times for reckless behavior. In 2003, Treadwell and his girlfriend were mauled to death and eaten by at least one bear.

Treadwell thought he was protecting the bears from humans, when in reality he needed protection from the bears. For Herzog, that is a kind of madness.

Unlike Treadwell, the scientists and support staff in "Encounters at the End of the World" are professionals with a regard for safety and a respect for the dangers the remote, untamed continent presents. Working near an active volcano or underwater beneath several feet of solid ice, they find those dangers impossible to ignore.

After seeing some of the small but monstrous predators that lurk in the Antarctic's waters, Herzog speculates that it must have been similar terrors that drove our ancestors millions of years ago to evolve to live on land. Fish evolved into amphibians and escaped the ferocious depths.

But for Herzog, that was only a temporary reprieve, and humanity's eventual end can't be prevented by combating climate change or embracing New Age, environmentalist philosophies. Herzog is nothing but dismissive of people he deems to be "tree huggers." He takes a longer view.

The vast majority of all of the species that have ever lived on Earth — more than 99 percent of them, in fact — are extinct. Those are pretty long odds against us not eventually going the way of the dinosaurs.

Yet, as depressing as this all sounds, there is something captivating about Herzog's fatalism. In spite of it all, he thinks people's hopes and dreams matter, and he is fascinated by the odd assortment of dreamers who come each summer to live in one of the world's most hostile environments — people, like that penguin, who just want to get away from it all, no matter the cost. If that is derangement, Herzog seems to sympathize.

"Encounters at the End of the World" is now available on DVD.

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