Palatable: Encounters at the End of the World

Encounters at the End of the World (2007)
Directed and written by Werner Herzog
Produced by Randall M. Boyd, Henry Kaiser, Tree Wright, Julian P. Hobbs, Andrea Meditch, Erik Nelson, Phil Fairclough, Dave Harding
Starring Werner Herzog, Samuel S. Bowser, David Ainley, Clive Oppenheimer, William McIntosh, Olav T. Oftedal, Regina Eisert, Libor Zicha, Kevin Emery, David R. Pacheco Jr., Jan Pawlowski, Peter Gorham
For mundivagant Herzog, Earth’s final, frigid frontier was an inevitable destination nearly a century after explorers Roald Amundsen, then Robert Falcon Scott planted their respective Norwegian and British flags at that desolate destination. This documentary’s finest sights are transcendent for meditative shots of chaste polar landscapes and watery wonders, but it’s too often derailed when Herzog’s narration or worst subjects digress absurdly. Vintage footage of the terminal impasse that stymied Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition and destroyed his ship Endurance, and the subsequent hardship of his crew’s grueling passage to South Georgia Island is cleverly juxtaposed with that of a humongous omnibus driven for the convenience of passengers at McMurdo Sound by one Scott Rowland, who relates one of his adventures in Guatemala. Rowland and McMurdo station’s forklift operator Stefan Pashov are two of numerous roving professionals who seem to constitute a majority of Ross Island’s population; the latter fancifully proposes that zetetics are by commonalities impelled to convergence at their southernmost post. In the austral summer’s five months of constant daylight, the station’s industrial hideosity contrasts with the stark beauty of Ross Island and the Ross Sea. To escape it and its amenities (dully comfortable residential quarters, a bowling alley, an aerobic studio) that repulse him, Herzog departs for several field camps after one Kevin Emery mandatorily trains him and other newcomers in the rudimentary construction of snowy trenches and igloos (wherein trainees are required to sleep overnight) and cooperative navigation via lifeline in conditions where visibility and audibility are null. Nutritional ecologist Olav Oftedal and his crew study the dietary peculiarities of docile, roly-poly Weddell seals, extracting with a forcible yet harmless method from nursing cows a milk of uncommon viscosity and chemical composition noted by physiologist Regina Eisert. An utter silence common to the vicinity of Oftedal’s station is often broken by phocine vocalizations in waters six feet beneath it: resonant whirrs, burbles, blips and howls that could be mistaken for those generated by an analog synthesizer. At the mainland’s coast, cellular biologist Samuel Bowser quietly exudes either anxiety or melancholy on the occasion of his last antarctic dive, during which he observes exotic fauna and flora in gelid immersion. From another dive ensuing toilsome drilling and detonation elsewhere, three captured specimens are genetically determined by zoologist Jan Pawlowski to be of theretofore unknown foraminiferal species. Slow and static shots of Shackleton’s hutch reveal it unchanged over a century, one of a faded empire’s innumerable proto-civilizational relics. Further, a monument erected alongside the numerous flags raised at the south pole commemorates Amundsen’s and Scott’s pioneering attainments…though Herzog can’t help but bemoan this progress and a presumptive loss of its site’s pristine serenity, a value that’s never qualified. Cocks of a waddle wait on eggs for hens to return at Cape Royds, where Herzog interviews eremitic marine biologist David Ainley, who graciously replies to an asinine question regarding homosexual penguins with his observations of polyamory and transactional congress in the colony. A visit to Mt. Erebus finds volcanologist and geochronologist William McIntosh displaying and demonstrating the functionality of a rugged observational camera designed to withstand explosions, emplaced to monitor the volcano’s lava lake. Tasked with examination of the volcano’s gaseous emissions, his subordinate colleague Clive Oppenheimer historically contextualizes the relative severity of known volcanism. Our impressionable filmmaker’s existential despondence, now inspired by climatic pseudoscience repeatedly reworked and consistently unproven over the course of a half-century, spoils what could’ve been a pleasantly amusing scene: in a frozen subterranean passage leading to the precise center of the South Pole, two workers deposit a frozen sturgeon in a niche opposite another garlanded with strung popcorn, containing little floral prints…while Werner the doomsayer verbalizes a stale, silly scenario in which extraterrestrials visit the niche perhaps a millennium following mankind’s extinction. Finally, physicists led by Dr. Peter Gorham launch an enormous balloon to loft instruments constructed to detect neutrinos above any distractions of terrestrial electricity.
Sublimed by the ethereal vocal plangency of Dragostinov’s Planino Stara Planino Mari performed by The Philip Koutev National Folk Ensemble, and Alexander Sedov’s rendition of Bortnyansky’s Retche Gospod Gospodevi Moyemu, among others, this picture’s underwater and underground highlights are extraordinary for deft exhibition of the former’s magnificent aquatic biota, and in both icy formations submersed and caverned — those latter accessed though fumaroles by McIntosh’s spelunking team. If these speechless sequences characterize Herzog at his best, redundant commentary by his interviewees and his pestilentially pessimistic narration represent the worst he has to offer. Some of Pashov’s philosophical musings are mildly interesting, while others are as negligible as the dreams that glaciologist Doug MacAyeal recalls before addressing his far more intriguing surveyal of a calving iceberg (B-15). David Pacheco is McMurdo station’s demonstrably adept plumber, who bloviates about his allegedly Aztec ancestry and more environmental paranoia, but not his duties there. Linguist William Jirsa recounts how he came to keep the station’s greenhouse, and he’s only marginally more occupying than Karen Joyce, whose African and South American extravagations decades before was surely as perilously imprudent as it’s tediously told. Earlier scenes show two seemingly pathetic penguins mysteriously, intractably bound for the mainland’s interior and their likely quietus; one can imagine Herzog’s apposition of these apparently disoriented birds with the errant baizuo vacuously reporting their own misadventures. Those subatomic particles that Dr. Gorham tracks and describes are enthralling, but his own gushing fascination with them is not. One bright exception is Libor Zicha, a machinist still visibly haunted by trauma suffered during the Cold War, who keeps an impressively comprehensive survival kit in a rucksack at his side at all times. An extraneous interview of irritatingly ingenious publicity hound Ashrita Furman comprises a most glaringly inapposite aside.
This might’ve been another of Herzog’s documentary masterworks, but it’s marred by the trendy and sentimental faults that so endear it to Anglophones. His undue familiarity, rambling, risible ruminations and desultory indulgences might be apropos to one of Errol Morris’s features, but for them this 100 minutes is a fifth padded and hardly so graceful than it should be. Unlike the foregoing sacred music, Henry Kaiser’s and David Lindley’s score is almost unbearably grating. So untypically personal, unprofessional and subjective is it that its conclusive dedication to Roger Ebert comes as no surprise.

Recommended for a double feature paired with Into the Inferno or Cave of Forgotten Dreams.