Friday, January 16, 2009

Apocalyptic Optimism

"Somehow I know the hearts of men." -Werner Herzog

Despite all its talk of doom and gloom, saddled up with evolutionary nihilism, Encounters at the End of the World earns a label like "humanistic" effortlessly. I recently listened to an interview with Herzog (found here), which I've now revisited after watching Encounters.

What struck me most was that Herzog here has assembled a sort of Secular Hagiography. Encounters celebrates these Saints of Science and Adventure, presenting them to us for veneration. And it's a powerfully convincing work. I don't see how anyone's initial reaction can be anything but awe at the spectacle of the South Pole and these Holy Fools who have set up camp there.

Herzog, in the interview (and indeed throughout the film), makes clear that what he is doing is conflating religion and science/adventure. The spiritual yearnings of our collective past, according to Herzog, are finding high fulfillment in the searching of the scientists on display.

"When I went down to Antarctica, I had no idea what I was going to find, no idea what I was going to do. I took consolation in Virgil. I said to myself, "This is what I'm going to do: I'll name the glory of Antarctica in my film, one after the other." I named the glory of these wonderful men and women that I met down there. This is why, at the end of the film, I used some music from Russian Orthodox church choirs. There is a basso profundo, a bass voice that is one octave lower in pitch than a regular octave. The voice—which is incredible, like a big column of voice—establishes the glory of one saint after the other. It just names saint after saint after saint after saint, and that's what I tried to do in my movie."

I could be angry at this conflation, as I think it is a bit manipulative, but yet I bow in submission to this master of cinema and his vision, even if I disagree fundamentally with his worldview at times. The reason that, in the end, I can't find fault is that Herzog believes in every moment. And the glories that he names truly are convincing spiritual glories even when they're skewed.

Ever since I first saw Aguirre ten years ago, I knew I would follow Herzog into any unknown, because, somehow, he does know the hearts of men. He hasn't disappointed me yet. I only wish I could be half the man that Werner Herzog is. I often look to him as that rare modern man, a hero, who has found a way to live honestly in a world at odds with honesty.

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