Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Day The Earth (Didn't) Stand Still

Do you know what made science-fiction great back in the day? Dialogue, ideas, acting. Not action. (Exhibits for the prosecution: Forbidden Planet, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, Soylent Green). The original 1952 version of "The Day The Earth Stood Still" was characterized by an almost complete lack of action - the earth literally stood still. It asked us to contemplate our own role in the universe (albeit in the hokey way Hollywood demanded for mass consumption).

I can't say I was surprised by this trailer. But you'd think after enduring years of crap-tastic remakes, I'd stop caring. Well I'm close.


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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Sacrifice

#366 in the 1000 greatest films of all time

If you've never seen a film by Andrei Tarkovsky, you're in for a treat. He only made a handful of films over his 30-year career, yet by his second feature he had created an astonishingly developed and wholly unique cinematic style. His signature approach includes extremely long takes, mystical symbolism, and dream-like narrative structures. He had a photographic patience unrivaled in film history, and his meticulous attention to detail resulted in some of the most exquisite and soul-stirring images I've ever seen in my life. Don't believe me? Watch the YouTube video below for just a small taste of what awaits you.

Of all his films, I consider his last, "The Sacrifice," his greatest achievement. It's an ambiguous and unconventional narrative about the onset of what we can only assume is world war three. We watch an artistic petty-bourgeois clan, isolated at their homestead in a remote part of Sweden, unravel during the course of the film; the father, Alexander, makes a pact with both God and a witch to save his family from the "sickening fear." Or at least that's the more traditional interpretation of the film, though I will offer my own.

His Career
Tarkovsky was born in a small village in the western part of the Soviet Union in 1933. His father left the family when he was only four, and he soon moved with his mother to Moscow at the onset of WWII. After an aborted attempt to study Arabic at the Soviet Union's foreign language institute and a year of prospecting in the Siberian wilderness, he applied to the State Institute of Cinematography. Admitted into the film-directing program in 1955 at the beginning of Kruschev's breif "thaw," he was among the first generation of Soviet filmmakers allowed to experience film, art, and literature from around the world. He got a crash course in Bresson, Kurosawa, Bergman, and even the Japanese avante-garde director Hiroshi Teshigahara; all of these filmmakers had an obvious impact on his own cinematic language.

Over the next 25 years, he struggled in the grossly bureaucratic Soviet state film industry. His films, despite their international acclaim, were often heavily censored inside the Soviet Union and typically given limited distributions. For example, his 3rd feature film "Solaris" - a genre-bending psychological science fiction tome that won the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival - received almost no advertising inside the Soviet Union and played at only two theaters in the whole country for a limited time. The state assigned Solaris a "category 3" assessment - a Soviet kiss of death for filmmakers. Only Tarkovsky's international reputation stopped the authorities from completely barring him from working in the film industry.

In the early 80's, he eventually managed to convince the state to allow him to make a film in Italy; once he left the country, he vowed to never return. The authorities barred his wife and child from leaving the Soviet Union and joining him until he was terminally ill in 1986. He made two more films after his escape; one in Italy ("Nostalghia"), and "The Sacrifice," filmed in Sweden.

Living and growing up in an open and democratic society like ours, it's hard to fathom exactly why the Soviet state considered his films so politically subversive. In fact, I can't understand why they considered his films political at all. Certainly, the subtle thread of Christian symbolism and metaphysical themes in his films would have upset some of the more dogmatic ideological blow-hards. But the amount of suffering Tarkovsky endured for his deeply personal and introspective cinematic poems just shows how incapable the Soviet bureaucracy was of understanding any sense of reality, much less art.

Cancer ate away at Tarkovsky's lungs while he made "The Sacrifice." Sadly, he may have inadvertently caused not only his own death, but the death of several of his actors and peers. Between 1976 and 1979, he made a genre-less film called "Stalker." (Some critics, unable to resist classification, have referred to it as a science-fiction film). The set locations included both an abandoned hydro power plant and an old chemical processing plant. Within a few years, several of the actors and production crew died of cancer. Tarkovsky, whose death shortly followed theirs, knew of the rumors floating around attributing their deaths to the toxins they were exposed on the set of "Stalker."

The film
"The Sacrifice" capped off his tortured career, and like nearly all of his films, it's a personal journey. For many people, it charts the spiritual trajectory of the father Alexander (played by Bergman's favorite leading man Erland Josephson). Initially an atheist, he eventually pleads to God for his family's salvation. A neighbor even manages to convince Alexander to have sex with one of his maids, whom he says is a witch who can save them all. After the world returns to normal, Alexander follows through on his promise to God by burning down his house, forsaking his possessions, and refusing to ever speak again.

I've presented what appears to be a logical, orderly plot; the film, however, is another story. It's a mix of both narrative and experimental structures and techniques, and as such, is beautifully ambiguous.

This film represents not a spiritual journey, but a skeptical examination of our own purpose. Tarkovsky had plenty of reason to question everything: his artistic repression, his separation from his family, his inadvertent culpability in his own death and the death of his friends. I don't consider this film (nor any of his others) either an embrace or a rejection of religion. Tarkovsky, the man, was spiritual, but his films never take any open stance on any man-made institutions or contemporary phenomena. They orbit a much deeper, metaphysical level. They represent Tarkovsky's unresolved ideas about the world, his questions, contradictions. In a sense, his films are philosophical, not religious.

Alexander doesn't save the world as the typical interpretation suggests; instead, he descends into madness. This would explain his black-out near the beginning of the film, the dream like nature of nearly all of the sequences after his collapse, the surreal final TV broadcast, the maid's surprise at the father's sexual entreaties, her ignorance of the war. It also contextualizes the young son's first words, which also happen to be the last words in the film (he's unable to speak for most of the film because he's recovering from a surgery): "In the beginning was the word... why was that, papa?"

Burning down the house, leaving his family, becoming a mute - this isn't a noble sacrifice. It's his own loss of sanity, his inability to cope. (BTW - check out the documentary "Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky" for the fascinating backstory about how Tarkovsky's crew was forced to rebuild and reburn the house. For the first take, Tarkovsky refused Sven Nykvist's pleas to have two cameras shoot the house burning just in case one jammed. The camera, of course, jammed).

His Legacy
Tarkovsky created an indelible new language for film, or "time-sculpting," as he referred to it. It has found its way into the styles of filmmakers as diverse as Micheal Snow and Stephen Soderbergh - even if his own films haven't found their way into the homes of most cinematic consumers.

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Half Blood Prince

Just in case you somehow missed this: 

It's not coming out till July '09!!! That's a delay of 8 months!!! WTF? 


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The short version: it sucks (no pun intended).

The long version: If you're a fan of the books, this film will betray you. If you're a fan of the vampire mystique, this film will disappoint you. If you're a fan of TruBlood, this film will sicken you. Save your $12.

Note: This reviewer, too cowardly to risk his immortal soul, declined an invitation to actually watch this film and has instead relied on his wife, who selflessly sacrificed herself so that we may all be saved from this unholy abomination.


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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Johnny Guitar

#281 in the 1000 greatest films of all time

Director Nicolas Ray made “Johnny Guitar” at a time when America was least willing to accept it. 1954 marked a high point in the cold war and a low point in artistic and cultural output. Hollywood churned out dancing Fred Astaire’s and swaggering John Wayne’s. A surreal, existentialist drama set in the old west with feminist and anti-McCarthy subtexts didn’t stand a chance in this vapid wasteland.

That’s not to say Johnny Guitar is a political film. On the surface, it’s a dramatic narrative about a town divided between two warring women: Emma Small (played by Mercedes McCambridge), a local cattle baron representing the establishment, and Vienna (played by Joan Crawford), an entrepreneur who builds a casino outside of town and waits for the coming railroad. Johnny Guitar, played by Sterling Hayden, travels from afar to play the guitar in Vienna’s casino. And lastly, the Dancing Kid (Vienna’s occasional flame, suspected bandit, and object of Emma’s desire) directly and indirectly propels the narrative forward.

Despite the old-west setting, it’s not exactly a western. If the revisionist storyline wasn’t enough to turn fickle audiences off, Ray’s slow pacing, surreal settings, and innovative use of color surely doomed this film to commercial failure. It opens with a descent into hell: a lone cowboy, with only a guitar strapped to his back, steers his horse down a mountain past unexplained explosions and a deadly stage-coach robbery, finally arriving in the desolate valley below in the middle of a sand-storm. Suddenly, in the middle of nowhere, he comes across a grand casino, whose cave-like interiors are empty of humans except for black-clad dealers, and silent save a slowly spinning roulette wheel.

Ray constantly toys with our expectations, most effectively through his strong use (and misuse) of color. He introduces the eventual heroes of the story in dark, austere costumes while painting Emma’s gang with a bright pageantry. By the end of the story, the roles reverse; Vienna shines in an angelic white dress, while Emma’s lynch mob menaces in black funeral attire. Throughout the entire film, Ray deliberately suppresses the color blue, further destabilizing the already volatile milieu.

Ray also builds tension through a roundabout narrative arc; in some cases, we never discover exactly what drives these characters to such extremes. Johnny’s devotion and Vienna’s obsession are eventually explained, while Emma’s hysterical blood lust and the Dancing Kid’s self-destructive actions leave us guessing.

The lynch-mob justice and guilt-by-association interrogations (“Just say she’s one of them!”) certainly paralleled the very real McCarthy-led witchhunts of the times. Add to that the obvious feminist subtext and it’s not hard to imagine why American audiences laughed the film into oblivion.

Of course, Ray could only go so far. He worked within the studio system, and ultimately depended on their continued funding for his career. If Nicolas Ray could make this film today, I have no doubt we’d find a thoroughly artistic and startling experience. He would have discarded some of the occasionally hackneyed dialogue from the script as well as the more cartoonish leitmotifs in the score. One for contrast, he probably would have enhanced the few violent points in the film to more effectively release all of the smoldering tension. Also, the simmering sexual undercurrents might have risen to the surface in a less inhibited fashion.

But as much as I’d like to see that version of the film, I’m still just thankful I got to experience this one.

DISCLAIMER: this reviewer takes no responsibility for the frustration you will experience in your attempts to actually find a copy of this film.

CREDIT: Special thanks to my awesome friend and movie buff Ashley H. for burning me an already bootlegged copy of this film!


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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Madagascar 2

This isn’t exactly what I call “film.” It’s more in the orbit of “guilty pleasure.” I’ve seen the first “Madagascar” many more times than I care to admit. My wife and I love it so much, we even forced my grandparents to watch it. Their polite smiles and bewildered expressions were priceless.

I have a deep-seated fear of sequels. 2010, Shrek 2, Matrix 2, Ghostbuster 2, Aliens, Die Hard 2….. It’s an undeniable pattern. Sequels are Hollywood’s systematic prostitution of all that we hold dear and sacred. And we’re all masochists. Not to sound overly dramatic or anything.

So what about Madagascar 2? It ain’t Judas, and it ain’t the second coming. It had enough sparks of originality, irreverence, and pop-culture jabs to make me occasionally laugh my ass off. It’s Alex, Marty, Gloria, Melman. It’s insane penguins and cultured monkeys, with a sexually ambiguous lemur thrown in for good measure. It’s a love-slap in The Lion King’s face.

The story lacks the focus and uniform trajectory of its predecessor. You'll drift in and out. You’ll wonder exactly why it was necessary to bring back the castrating granny.

If you’ve got twelve dollars to waste, you could do much worse.

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Saturday, November 8, 2008


#250 in the 1000 greatest films of all time

If Ridley Scott made “Alien” today, no one would notice. You'd find it in Wal-Mart at the bottom of the the straight-to-DVD bargain-bin with all the other Bantha Poodoo. But that’s the problem with being an archetype. Your novel contribution is sullied by all of the cheap imitations that follow.

Even disregarding all of its serial-killer bastard children, I’m forced to wonder why this film was ever archetypal in the first place. Sure, the film is enjoyable. The special effects – especially the alien ship scenes – have that loving touch missing from so many CGI-driven features today. The 2001-esque tracking shots of the spacecraft's interiors, the hopelessly dated computers, and the made up programming languages all made me warm and fuzzy inside. When the cute little blood-drenched alien baby pops out of Kane all hiss and spit, jumps off the operating table and scurries across the floor, my wife and I nearly died of laughter.

The film offers very little in the way of character development, which is probably a blessing, considering the one-dimensional characters painfully drawn in its sequels. (“Game over, man!”) The terse dialogue and elliptical narrative also fits in perfectly with the screenplay’s efficient pacing. I loved watching android Ash descend into fanatical and homicidal obsession.

And we can overlook some of the more problematic plot points. I’m thinking specifically of Ridley staring at the screens of binary 1’s and 0’s and magically deciphering the code “stay away” (is it really any more ridiculous than Cypher watching the scrolling Matrix screens and seeing “blonde, brunette, redhead?”). Then there’s the absurdity of the recon crew parading through the sinister alien ship like starry-eyed, slack-jawed yokels without even having radio contact with their home crew.

In the end, the alien’s serial destruction of the crew is the only original contribution this film made to the medium (which, as my B-movie obsessed friend Sam Deldago pointed out to me, comes full circle in “Jason X: Jason in Space!”). And here’s what I can’t understand: even in this, the first film to really formalize this now well-worn formula, who seriously couldn’t see where it was heading? At most, this is a one-trick pony. Why God why has Hollywood raped this film over and over again?

Maybe you can help me understand. All I can say is: Watch it. Enjoy. Laugh. And Lament.

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Thursday, November 6, 2008

There Will Be Blood

For the first fourteen minutes and twenty seconds of "There Will Be Blood," Daniel Plainview doesn’t say a single word. And yet I've rarely been more fascinated with a character. Without a single line of dialogue, actor Daniel Day Lewis and director Paul Thomas Anderson invoke an intimately powerful connection with the protagonist that is as disturbing and mysterious as our own subconscious. Anderson’s thrown convention out the window – even his own. Gone is the engrossing dialogue that characterized his works like “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia” or the hilarious non sequitur of “Punch Drunk Love.”

If a filmmaker wants to transport you into another time, he has several tricks up his sleeve. Hollywood has created all kinds of ready-made formulas. Think of the grand costumes of “Gone With the Wind,” the hokey pageantry of an old-west shoot-em-up like “Rio Grande,” or even the colorful colloquialisms of “O! Brother, Where Art Thou?”

Yet somewhere in our DNA lives the memory of that past, the hardships, the putrid fears, the primal hatreds that we’ve carried down through the years – a shared memory that transcends all of Hollywood’s tired clichés. And I’ve never actually believed that until I heard Daniel Day Lewis’s opening lines of the film, “Ladies and gentleman, if I say I’m an oil man, you’ll agree.” Certainly after fourteen minutes and 20 seconds, any spoken word at all is bound to have a dramatic effect. Yet there's more to this than tension and release. There isn’t anything I can point to in the dialogue or the delivery to explain it. It’s just an ineffable authenticity in Daniel Day Lewis's acting that I’ve only felt a few times in all of my life.

One of Anderson’s most artistic contributions comes with his use of music. The score is probably a director’s greatest temptation. Overwrought music is often the last-ditch tool used to smooth over an awkward scene, a poor performance, or even an entire cinematic failure. (Not convinced? Revisit the Mendes/Hanks fiasco “Road to Perdition”).

Johnny Greenwood’s mostly original score finds a new orchestral language for communicating tension. His Ligeti-inspired strings tonally converging and diverging, an irritatingly insistent percussion cadence worthy of Stravinsky himself – these tell us as much about Plainview as does anything else. Which isn’t to say it tells us much. Unlike a Wagner opera, the orchestra fills out not so much the emotional depth as much as psychological impenetrability. What else would you expect from Radiohead’s lead guitarist?

It’s odd to use the words “intimate” to describe a film characterized by terse dialogue, detached cinematography, and unexplainable action. Yet that's what this film is. It’s an intimate look into the unknown. Filmmakers, like the rest of us, presume to know too much, to communicate too much. We’re too afraid to explore the unknown in ourselves and others, and to leave space in our thoughts. The beauty of “There Will Be Blood” is that it gives in, admits its ignorance, and sails across our subconscious, across humanity’s ambiguities.

This was no easy feat. To do so, Anderson had to somehow transform Upton Sinclair’s “Oil!” from a polemical pro-socialist labor novel into a largely non-political (and bewildering) examination of the soul. Along the way, he discarded large portions of the book, while cleverly salvaging others, including a frightening and cinematically fresh look into the sinister backwoods world of turn-of-the-century evangelical Christianity. The novelty of this representation is due in large part to the preacher played by actor Paul Dano. His snake like contortions, abusive, slobbery healings add a new spin to this well-worn narrative feature. It’s certainly on par with his memorable performance as a Nietzschian teen in “Little Miss Sunshine.”

The film is not a masterpiece. Its final act veers dangerously close to classical Greek territory with a conventionally dramatic father/son confrontation. In fact, most of this act feels out of place; Plainview’s opulent demise into decadence and alcoholic seclusion seems more fitting of a popcorn drama. Thankfully, the final scene saves the entire production. I won’t spoil it for you, I just have four words: “I drink your milkshake.”

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Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Nation I'm Proud Of

OK - this isn't about film, but I needed to write this.

As my wife and I landed at New York's JFK airport last night, our gay flight attendant came over the intercom and informed us that "Obama is the next president of the United States." Our plane erupted in applause. It was a beautiful moment, and something I'll never forget.

Of course, I had expected this victory. I knew that it wouldn't be a total landslide, that it could get close. I had mentally prepared for the last-ditch shenanigans from the McCain campaign. But I never really believed McCain could pull out a win. My wife and I had discussed our exit strategy should the unthinkable happen (we had landed on Vancouver), but always in a half-joking manner.

It wasn't till the cab ride home, though, when we kept asking the cabbie to turn up Obama's victory speech, that our victory really sunk in. And it really is our victory - a victory for every single last American. It's a victory for all us white kids who grew up with racist families in all-white hick-towns yet managed to use our brains and listen to our hearts long enough to see through the ignorance. It's a victory for anyone who had long ago lost hope in our nation and our ideals, who had receded into cynicism and despair. It's a victory for my Arkansas family, whom I love and miss dearly, who can no longer hypocritically praise Jesus while harboring prejudice. And most of all, it's a victory for our children. The first generation of Americans who will live in a country that has finally realized its dream that "All men are created equal."

I am so proud of our nation. And I am not ashamed to admit it - for the first time in my life, I am honestly, sincerely, profoundly proud of our nation.


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Monday, November 3, 2008

Welcome to moveease

This is the world's window into my thoughts on film. Join me each week as I review, analyze, or lampoon a film. It might be a new film; it might be ancient. But if I'm reviewing it, then there's a reason you should see it.

For this first week, I've posted my reviews of two recent documentaries: Werner Herzog's Antarctic examination "Encounters At the End of World", and Bill Maher's indictment of all things religion, "Religulous." Documentary has in the last few years moved from a stale, academic genre with a narrow following to a format with mass appeal. These two films are no exception - the masses will find them appealing, even if they do find themselves ridiculed in them.

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An unpleasant array of emotions washed over me as I watched “Religulous,” Bill Maher's anti-religionist documentary: shock, shame, horror, denial. Do these religious fundamentalists really still exist? Could such unabashed ignorance and stupidity still grip so much of mankind in a world constantly revolutionized by science and reason? I'm a “non-believer” and a casual follower of various anti-religionist crusades, so I didn't expect to learn much from the film. Growing up in the Texas Bible Belt, my brother and I had suffered through our fair share of church brainwashing summer camps, Sunday morning Bible studies, Wednesday afternoon church youth groups, abstinence-only sex education, etc. I knew all about the ignorance, the self-delusion, the fundamentalist hatred. So why was I so shocked by the film?

There's nothing really new about the film's concept. The genre is rife with documentaries about the unending parade of religious incongruities. These films are typically serious, well-reasoned (if not always well executed), and politically correct. “Religulous,” on the other hand, is beautifully offensive. The title sums up the approach; it's a portmanteau of the words “religion” and “ridiculous.” And, unlike its peers, this film is personality driven. It is as much about Bill Maher and his own comic take on the problem as it is about religion. If you're not a fan of his standup or his HBO show, you'll probably dislike the film. Director Larry Charles (of Seinfeld and Borat fame) also serves up some wickedly comic editing, including some very creative cuts from Hollywood's biblical lexicon.

“Religulous” progresses as a series of confrontations and interviews with various religious followers and figures. Maher first visits the “Trucker Church” - a roadside trailer-cum-chapel. We witness as the truckers attempt to fend off Maher's simple and straightforward questions with a mix of pseudo-scientific “proofs,” outright denials, and blank stares. You might be willing to forgive their ignorance; we don't necessarily expect truckers to be the most educated group of Americans. You might even pity them.

Maher's next victim is, however, entirely unforgivable: Bill Pryor, the junior Democratic US Senator from Arkansas. With the exception of President Bush, I have never witnessed such a shocking display of idiocy and backwardness in someone holding such a high office. This self-proclaimed creationist spews out a list of religious absurdities, intersperses them with a string of Bushisms, and caps it all off with the Freudian retort: “Well, you don't have to take an IQ test to be in the Senate.” His face slowly turns from a smile to an expression of fear as he realizes he just called himself an idiot on camera. I didn't know whether to laugh or to cry.

Maher is an equal opportunity ridiculer. In addition to Christianity, he takes aim at Judaism and Islam with gusto. For me, particularly intriguing was his examination of Islam, where he challenges the popular left-wing assertion that Islam itself is a peaceful religion, while the extremist offshoots responsible for so much terror and death in the world are actually just unrelated perversions. He examines both the history of Islam over the past two millennia, and also considers some of the more contemporary Islamic horror shows we've seen on the evening news. We watch as a powerful imam in Jerusalem denies that the Koran contains any lines condoning killing or violence, while at the same time stating that the 8th century imperialism, subjugation, and oppression of most of Europe by the Arabs wasn't “warfare,” but simply “spreading Islam.”

After the film, I imbibed some “devil's water” with my blasphemous wife and friends while we ruminated philosophically over the film. Surely, it only includes the most extreme examples in the religious world; most people couldn't really believe all of that nonsense, could they? But why not? Our societies are idiotic enough to create weapons that can obliterate the entire world. Why wouldn't we expect them to simultaneously deny belief in the very same scientific method that makes their “end times” possible? It turns out that in a list of the top 38 industrialized democracies in the world, the US ranks 37th when it comes to the percentage of the population that accepts the tenets of evolution. The only country ranked lower was Turkey, a nation infamous for Islamic fundamentalism and intolerance. I dug a little deeper and found that not even 50% of Americans could give even the most minimal definition of DNA.

Of course, to be fair, we can't necessarily conclude that atheistic societies will fair much better in creating a harmonious, tolerant world. The horrors unleashed on human kind by the first atheistic society – the Soviet Union – should give pause to anyone contemplating the end of religion. And then there is China's campaigns of terror against the Buddhist temples during the Cultural Revolution, or their more recent suppression of Christian house churches, complete with mass jailings and bulldozers. Yet perhaps these atheistic societies were actually consumed by their own type of religion – in their case, the religious-like belief in the inevitability and infallibility of their dialectical “science.” This belief made it possible for so many to either justify or deny the gulags, political terror, oppression, human rights abuses, etc. Is this ideology really all that different from the absurdity of the world's religions? Perhaps; we at least have to wonder why Marxist communists have become increasingly anachronistic while religious fundamentalism is stronger than ever.

In the end, maybe it's not religion, but the inherent drive towards dogmatism that represents such a danger to the world. As Maher states, he isn't selling certitude, but doubt. I'm reminded of the writings of Milovan Djilas, the one-time vice president of communist Yugoslavia who was thrown from power after daring to contradict the official Marxist tenets. After enduring torture and repeated jailings for his blasphemies, the government made every attempt to erase him from Yugoslavia's thoughts and memories. But Djilas's writings survived. In “The Unperfect Society,” he states that ideas themselves, or “the idea as idea, the idea in embryo,” while vital and necessary for the development of humanity, are the seeds of power and tyranny; that “one ideal dies that another may be born, manifestly 'finer' and more 'ultimate,' and this is the human lot, for good or ill.” God help us.

Still, the question lingers: why did this film actually shock me? I think that, over time, I have forgotten what it was like to live in a sea of stupidity; it was my own blissful ignorance that this film has shattered.

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Encounters at the End of the World

Penguin suicide and prostitution; a linguist on a continent with no languages; Aztec royalty; the death of an empire. “Encounters at the End of the World” threatens to bury you underneath an avalanche of characters, images, and ideas, yet director Werner Herzog manages to create a mostly cohesive vision in this cerebral yet accessible documentary. It’s both an examination of a continent almost no one has seen, as well as a look at the humans who choose to inhabit the most hostile environment on our planet.

Herzog grew up in West Germany, and started making his fiercely original films in the late 1960’s. His 1972 film “Aguirre: The Wrath of God” became an international art house success and cemented his status as the leader of the German “New Wave” movement. Since then, he has gone on to direct over 38 films and documentaries, 15 television shows, and 4 operas. Throughout his career, he’s been known for experimentation in both his films and documentaries and their controversial subject matters.

In the aftermath of widespread critical and commercial success of his 2005 documentary “Grizzly Man”, the National Science Foundation awarded Herzog a grant to make a documentary in Antarctica on anything he chose, despite his warnings that he would not “come up with another film about penguins.” His questions about nature, he warned, are more difficult to answer.

In a way, Herzog has set out to make the anti “March of the Penguins.” His view of nature is neither romantic nor anthropomorphic, a fact that those who have seen “Grizzly Man” won’t find surprising. Through startling imagery and narration, Herzog presents a vision of nature as cold, violent, and devoid of humanness. Yet despite this detached appraisal of our universe, we find in his films and underlying respect and even awe for nature.

If anything, see this film for the chance to see a side of Antarctica you’re unlikely to find anywhere else. He records a startling landscape below the ice shelf, filled with creatures and sounds more alien than anything imagined in the science fiction lexicon. His camera follows deranged penguins abandoning their colony to make an intentionally suicidal death march into the Antarctic oblivion. And he discovers natural structures more spiritual than any cathedral.

Herzog also gives equal attention to the continent’s human inhabitants. They include a philosophizing Caterpillar-driver, a welder descended from Aztec royalty, an Eastern European refugee still haunted by his escape from behind the Iron Curtain, and a linguist on a continent with no native languages. Some inhabitants will fascinate, while others will bore.

One of the most darkly comic points of the film begins with a look at the original base station setup by the continent’s first explorers. Herzog contends that the members of this first team were the early protagonists of the world record mania and the pursuit of personal glory that saturates our many cultures today. Herzog follows the trajectory of this degeneration all the way to the present-day where Ashrita Furman, who, after claiming multiple world records in the most absurd forms of travel (including cartwheeling and walking while balancing a milk bottle on his head) declares his intentions to become the first person to pogo-stick his way to Antarctica.

I came away with the impression that Herzog couldn’t decide whether he’s more intrigued by the Antarctic wilderness or by his human subjects. And I can’t blame him. I was practically hypnotized by the entire mosaic, whether it was the startling underwater world of the Ross Ice Shelf, the ramblings and exploits of the cliché self-identified “travelers,” or the hard rock-stylings of the doomsday obsessed biologists.

The final (unstated) subject of the film is Herzog himself. This is no ordinary nature documentary or human biopic; it’s Herzog’s attempt to find meaning and purpose (or lack thereof) in a baffling universe. We feel his frustration and elation as the film progresses. At times he abruptly cuts off his interviewees, sparing us from their stories “that go on forever.” At other points, his camera lingers on the awe-inspiring majesty of the Antarctic wilderness. Some may find that his persistent presence detracts from the experience, but in fact it’s precisely what elevates the film beyond the realm of National Geographic and into art.

In his own inimitable style, Herzog has again managed to deal with the larger unanswered questions of our lives without resorting to metaphysical masturbation or gross simplifications.

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