World-renowned filmmakers visit campus

October 26, 2007

Last Monday, world-renowned filmmaker Werner Herzog screened his latest documentary, Encounters at the End of the World, on campus, followed the next day by a conversation between Herzog and fellow documentary filmmaker Errol Morris.
In his first film since the critically acclaimed Grizzlyman, Encounters chronicled Herzogs experiences in Antarctica, searching for what he calls a deeper stratum of truth. As a guest of the National Science Institute, Herzog traveled to Antarctica with a plethora of opportunities that would prove to make an unforgettable adventure to a continent characterized by its absurd and striking inhabitants.

The film details Herzogs experiences with a diving team, and records extensively trained divers delving beneath many feet of ice to take samples. There he encounters such characters as scientists Sam Bauser and Jan Pavlovski who Herzog watches as they celebrate the discovery of three new species with an outdoor guitar concert.

He also visits seal and penguin researchers who bear the cold weather to gather information about species that are able, not only to survive, but thrive in such harsh and extreme weather conditions.

Maybe the most fascinating researchers Herzog meets are those investigating an active volcano, Mount Erebus. At this station, Herzog interviews a variety of scientists, one of whom, Clive Oppenheimer, grimly insinuates that the recurrence of catastrophic events will assuredly be an end to human life.

Despite this bleak prediction from Oppenheimer, Encounters is rife with comedic interludes, including a large group training for disasters wearing buckets on their heads. Shots of penguins also provide comic relief, especially a sequence focusing on a rogue penguin headed away from his companions, on a mission towards the mountains.

Despite the industrial nature of base settlement McMurdo, the viewer is able to escape this feeling with the stunningly beautiful scenes shot under the ice- or, as Herzog calls it, the frozen sky.

The filmmaker credits musician and trained diver Henry Kaiser for these aesthetically staggering shots. According to the filmmaker himself, he is searching for something that gives up moments of ecstatic truths. With these awe-inspiring scenes, the audience is able to escape to a world that many dream of in science fiction films and stories. With Kaisers help, Herzog is able to show the audience a world more comparable to a fantasy world created by Tim Burton than reality.

With these shots, Encounters develops a motif of the abnormal that pervades all life at the bottom of the world. These alien-esque and strange creatures mirror the
varied and atypical people that Herzog encounters throughout the entirety of his adventure. Herzog echoed this idea in a discussion after the screening, claiming that he wanted to juggle with imagination.

At McMurdo, Herzog stumbles upon people as eclectic as they are passionate.

Some warn of global warming;

others are philosophers working a tractor and looking for inspiration, and some, like Karen Joyce, are just looking for adventure at the end of the world.

Herzog said he traveled to the desolate continent with few expectations about the content of the film. The film reflects this unassuming attitude that he hopes to achieve.

The following day, Herzog reunited on stage with another innovative and prominent documentary filmmaker, Errol Morris, best know for his film The Thin Blue Line.

Introduced as old friends, the two icons seemed to converse naturally. Both filmmakers articulated an immense amount of respect for the others work.
The discussion began with the filmmakers discussing their varying techniques, and impressions of modern film. Morris expressed distaste for many Hollywood films, remarking that they are put together on some grotesque assembly line, yet continued with a sentiment of hope for the industry, explaining that movies that represent a diversion are a good thing.

Both filmmakers spoke of their desire to make films that break this cookie-cutter mold, hopefully documenting what Morris referred to as ecstatic absurdity, which he defined as things that you can capture on film that make you question reality.”
Interestingly, the discussion did not focus on Herzogs most recent work, but instead on Grizzlyman. This documentary provides an in-depth and extensive look at Timothy Treadwell, a man who lived in the Alaskan wilderness amongst grizzly bears.

Since Treadwell is not longer living, to achieve this character study, Herzog said he had to step into [Treadwell's] mind and explore the hours of film that the victim had left behind.

The two friends also reminisced about their trip to visit infamous serial killer Edmund Kemper in prison in Vacaville, California. Both men discussed their amazement at this opportunity to spend time with such a brutal killer, yet Herzog made some surprising observances about him, claiming that despite Kempers massive stature, he had a Mozart soul. This ability to read obscure people is reflected in much of Herzogs work.

A question from the audience led the men to discuss the way in which these documentary films develop, whether with a planned narrative, or organically. Both men responded similarly, explaining that films such as Encounters, or Morriss upcoming work on the Abu Graib scandal depend on a narrative and spontaneity, and that successful documentaries demand both elements.

A question from an audience member directed the conversation back to Grizzlyman.
Despite Herzogs lengthy study of Timothy Treadwell, the two men never met, as Treadwell was mauled to death;

audio evidence exists of this incident. The audience questioned Herzogs decision to leave this audio evidence out of the film.

Herzog defended this decision, pointing to taste and empathy as deciding factors in this decision. He went on to say that he would have removed himself from the project had the producers insisted on including this audio clip.

Despite the lengthy discussion, it was always clear that the two men were old friends, as they laughed and reminisced throughout, each providing astute insight into the others work.

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