' Cinema Romantico: Encounters at the End of the World & Wendy and Lucy

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Encounters at the End of the World & Wendy and Lucy

Not for nothing did I see these two films on consecutive days. "Encounters at the End of the World" is the latest documentary from mad genius Werner Herzog in which he takes his cameras to Antarctica and, making it clear that he has no aspirations to repeat a similar documentary from a few years earlier, states in voiceover that he specifically did not want his movie to be about penguins. In the end, it has a whole lot to do with penguins, but we'll address that a little later.

The opening shot is of a diver beneath the freezing cold water, establishing immediately that this south pole adventure will concern humans as much as animals. The main setting is the muddy, unattractive McCurdo Research Center, overrun with the residue of construction, bringing to my mind the frontier town of Robert Altman's "McCabe & Mrs. Miller". The phrase Motley Crew may be a tad overused but I can think of no better term to summarize this camp's inhabitants. They are passionate people full of dreams and in love with travel. Philosophers drive trucks and filmmakers wash dishes and a "linguist on a continent with no languages" tends to flowers.

The camp has too many ordinary-world conveniences, though, for Herzog's taste and as soon as he is able to he heads out into the field for more exotic encounters - seals singing underwater and a scene in which it is explained that divers observe the sea life without the benefit of a rope linking themselves to the hole in the ice through which they came. It is up to them to navigate themselves back....or else. I shivered when Herzog explained this situation.


But where "Encounters at the End of the World" takes a somewhat romantic view of adventure, Kelly Reichardt's "Wendy and Lucy" takes a soberingly realistic view of the same topic. It owes a great debt to the neo-realism movement and "The Bicyle Thief". Wendy (Michelle Williams) is driving to Alaska. Her dog Lucy is her only companion. Her car breaks down in Oregon. Then she loses her dog. She tries to get her car fixed. She tries to find her dog. And that, and that alone, is the movie.

It never instructs you to think anything. The camera never tries to influence your feelings. It merely sits back and contemplates Wendy as she does what it is she has to do. If I'm remembering correctly I don't believe there was even a hint of music at any point. She encounters a few people, a helpful security guard and a distracted auto mechanic, but these people don't truly affect Wendy's ultimate plight. And that fact brings us back to Herzog's penguins. Or, more accurately, his one penguin, perhaps the saddest and, yet, most noble cinematic figure of all 2008.

Herzog spends time with an introverted man who apparently is no longer used to dealing with humans and spends most of his time in solitude studying penguins. At one point the camera watches a group of penguins marching when one part of the flock breaks one way for the water and the other part breaks another way for their feeding ground. But one penguin stands alone before ignoring the others and pressing forward, all by itself, toward some mountains way, way off in the distance, headed for "certain death."

It is explained that even if someone were to stop this penguin and bring it back to the feeding ground it would simply strike out for those same mountains once again. As soon as it becomes determined it cannot be stopped, even if its pursuit is entirely illogical. If a human ever encounters one of these penguins on its deranged quest, it is not to interfere and simply allow the penguin to continue. The shot summing this up is glorious, unsettling and tragic.

We never receive true insight into Wendy's reasons for wanting to go to Alaska. There are a few lines about more jobs being available but you never get the sense this tells the whole story while also getting the sense that with her limited money and her rundown vehicle that this is a fool's errand. She speaks briefly to her parents on the phone who not only seem of no help but don't even seem to care at all about her problems. The security guard offers sympathy and a few bucks but no more. The mechanic only offers straight talk. She's on her way to Alaska and regardless of whatever disaster may await that decision these people just get out of her way and let her go.

I thought of that penguin at the end of "Wendy and Lucy" and if you see both movies (and you should), when you see the last shot I think you will know what I mean.


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