Encounters at the End of the World
Written and directed by Werner Herzog. Released by ThinkFilm
Werner Herzog states – twice – at the beginning of Encounters at the End of the World that he’s not going to Antarctica to make a movie about fluffy little penguins. So it’s ironic that the most indelible image from the film is of a penguin who has lost its way and has become lost from the rest of his flock. It’s a typically Herzogian moment, imminently tragic yet triumphant in its attitude towards unshakeable determination. Herzog questions if the penguin may be “deranged,” but you can’t help but hear the admiration in his voice.
There are several other terrific moments in the film. Some are strikingly beautiful, like the footage shot from underneath the ice, and some, like a recording of seal calls, are downright bizarre. Herzog has always had an eye for the odd, in both landscapes and people, and a unique perspective on the natural world.
Yet the film often feels too much like a collection of moments. This is somewhat of a departure for Herzog; most of his documentaries deal with a much more narrowly defined subject than something as vague as “Antarctica”. As a result, it feels like he went to the continent and shot a bunch of footage, then molded it together as best he could. I enjoyed it, but it lacks a fully developed point of view and doesn’t rank with Herzog’s best work.
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
Directed by Alex Gibney. Screenplay by Alex Gibney. Released by Magnolia Pictures
A couple weeks ago, in the Openings thread, I said that the trailer for Gonzo “seems to reinforce the perceptions of Thomspon that everyone already has.” But I went to see it anyway, out of respect for Gibney’s previous work (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side).
And it turns out that the film … reinforces the perceptions of Thomspon that everyone already has. If you don’t know anything about Hunter S. Thompson, then I recommend that you watch this film. However, if all you know about him is that he was an irreverent, yet hugely influential, journalist who loved his psychadelics, then you already know everything that this film has to tell you.
It’s a shame, because Gibney did his due diligence, and has managed to interview many of those closest to Thompson. We hear from both of his wives, his son, Ralph Steadman, Jann Wenner, and friends (George McGovern) and foes (Pat Buchanan) throughout his career. It’s not a question of access. Yet Gibney is either unwilling or unable to get beyond the image of Thompson that we’re already familiar with. Ironically, the closest we get is when we learn that Thompson felt trapped by that image, but we never get beyond it.
Written and directed by Guy Maddin. Released by IFC Films.
It’s perhaps a stretch to classify this as a documentary, but it was funded with the idea that it would be one, and it’s certainly as much of a documentary as anything else. My Winnipeg is Guy Maddin’s intensely personal and highly fanciful reflection of his childhood in Winnipeg, Manitoba. As it turns out, Winnipeg is the sleepwalking capital of the world, with 10 times the sleepwalking rate of any other city in the world, and many of the train lines head right to the city limits before turning around again. As a result, Maddin has never been able to leave.
A.O. Scott of The New York Times, in his review of the film, wonders how much of the movie is factual before finally deciding not to find out. I had a similar impulse before giving in, but a better question to me is how much of the film is archival and how much has been shot by Maddin. Three-fourths of it (or more) looks like old footage, out of focus and scratched up, but I suspect that it’s almost completely new. I knew that Maddin was fond of the style of old silent films, but this has an especially disorienting effect in a half-true autobiographical documentary. Like Scott, after awhile I found myself not only unwilling to question the authenticity of the “facts” being presented but especially eager to believe them.
At times funny, and at times impenetrable, My Winnipeg is something of a rarity in cinema, even in independent circles: a genuine art film. It’s full of things I didn’t really understand, and probably can’t be understood, but evocative nevertheless. If I had to compare the experience of watching it to anything else I’ve seen, I’d say it was most similar to Orson Welles’ equally unclassifiable F for Fake. I haven’t seen any of Maddin’s other films, and I suppose this is a reminder that there are always new film languages left to discover and new places for film to go. Alas, a cinweste’s work is never done.