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    Encounters at the End of the World

    Continental drift

    Werner Herzog gathers stories and oddities from the Antarctic in the understated but interesting documentary "Encounters at the End of the World."


    To me, Werner Herzog is an acquired taste, and one worth acquiring. He seems to have two things going on — on one hand, an agile mind and an instinct for pulling drama from the obscure; on the other hand, a complete deadpan naivete. Sometimes he just turns on a camera and tells you plainly, in his own measured, accented monotone, what he's looking at. So what we get are vacation movies from a relentlessly low-key man who takes the most insane vacations.

    Directed by: Werner Herzog.
    Cinematography: Peter Zeitlinger.
    Edited by: Joe Bini.
    Music by: Henry Kaiser, David Lindley.

    Related links: Official site
    This stop: Antarctica.

    "The National Science Foundation invited me to Antarctica," he narrates, "even though I left no doubt that I would not come back with a movie about penguins."

    "Encounters at the End of the World" is about both the natural world of the Antarctic and the humans who, for one reason or another, came from all points north to be there.

    "This place works as a natural selection for all the people who are inclined to jump off the margin of the map — and we all meet here," one resident says of the roughly 1,000 people — scientists, technicians, builders and misfits — who live at McMurdo Station in the southern summer.

    There is no single point to be made in the movie — it's a scattershot survey of stuff that happens to be going on down there — but there are many interesting sights and sounds. For example, you have probably never heard what seals say underwater — a sound that one researcher compares aptly to Pink Floyd.

    Encounters at the End of the World  
    The star of the movie is probably the space between the ice and the ocean floor. A picture from under the ice is what Herzog says brought him there, and he portrays it as a "horrible, violent" realm that is also Ansel-Adams beautiful. Even diving into the frigid water is potentially deadly — not just because of the below-freezing temperature, but because any diver who can't find the ice hole he came down through will never come back up. Be mesmerized at your own risk.

    And fear not — despite the coy introduction, there will be penguins! Cute, adorable penguins! Waddling around, in tuxedos, hatching eggs! And yet, Herzog is not a seeker of the cute and loveable — he manages to find a touch of sadness even among the cuddliest of creatures, and when he does, that's where the camera turns. The deadpan narration, as always, betrays scant joy or sorrow.

    "Encounters at the End of the World" is not exactly filling — it's a menu of tasty dim sum that, maybe, adds up to a meal. As with so many Herzog movies, I don't think you'll notice if you miss it, but you definitely won't be sorry if you see it.

    JULY 4, 2008

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