I love good documentaries, especially the ones that combine artistry and exposition without becoming preachy or didactic. My picks for the top 5 documentaries of the year include films about cowboys, fashion photographers, 9/11 survivors and two films by the venerable Werner Herzog.
As in Herzog's previous films like Encounters at the End of the World (2007), which explored the culture of scientists working in Antarctica, or Grizzly Man (2005), which observed the eccentric life of Timothy Treadwell amidst the grizzly bears of Alaska, Cave is preoccupied with the interplay between natural wonders and the humans who've dedicated their lives to exploring them andunderstanding them.
Werner Herzog is at the top of his game this year. Catapulted by the unexpected success of Grizzly Man a few years ago, Herzog has regained some of the filmmaking prestige he had back in the 80s with films like Fitzcarraldo. Last summer’s Rescue Dawn was one of my favorite films of the year (I gave it four stars in my CT review) and featured a stunning and grievously underrated performance by Christian Bale. Then a few months ago, Herzog showed up as an actor (playing an eccentric priest) in Harmony Korine’s gorgeous Mister Lonely. But his latest film, Encounters at the End of the World, might take the cake. It’s certainly the best documentary I’ve seen this year.
Like many of Herzog’s films, Encounters is a thing of spellbinding beauty, intrigue, and wonderment. Commissioned by the Discovery Channel, Herzog’s film is unlike most other documentaries about Antarctica. First of all, it’s not about penguins (though “deranged penguins” do make a cameo). Rather than focusing solely on the natural environment or breathtaking photography (though it certainly has its fair share of these things), Encounters is a sort of travelogue that examines the humans who inhabit the seventh continent. More specifically, it asks the typical Herzogian questions: what draws man to live among such a harsh environment? Who are humans in the face of such awesome natural forces?
Herzog interviews a motley crew of scientists, engineers, wayfaring travelers, and otherwise eccentrics from all over the world, who inhabit the “town” of McMurdo Station during Antarctica’s summer months. Herzog’s sardonic voiceovers (in his memorable German accent) frame each interview with editorial commentaries, and as usual his personality adds much flavor to the tonally rich film.
For the scientific junkies among us, there is plenty of amazing stuff here: volcanoes, icebergs, microbiology, otherworldly underwater footage, speculation about the nature of neutrinos, and more. And Herzog manages to make it all utterly compelling, almost holy. Indeed, Herzog is never too afraid to insinuate spirituality into his examinations of nature. He frequently inserts language like “other-worldly,” “cathedral,” and “god” in his reckonings with a nature he continues to be utterly drawn in to and baffled by.
Herzog’s prevailing cinematic conflict is that of man vs. nature, and that is certainly the case in Encounters—a film that concludes rather nonchalantly that human life is reaching its inevitable conclusion on planet earth. He addresses global warming but treats it almost as a convenient sheet over our eyes—blinding us from the obvious truth that nature is winning, will win, and humanity’s days are numbered. Nevertheless, Herzog’s film is not in the least a somber or apocalyptic polemic (like An Inconvenient Truth or something), but rather a jubilant, child-like exploration of a totally fascinating topic.
There are moments in this film that are so beautiful, so true, that one doesn’t mind that the point of the film is to show us how tiny and powerless and, well, stupid we humans are. But I’ve always thought it a valuable thing to be reminded of: that the creation we are a part of is utterly beyond our comprehension and, to an extent, control. Sure, we are changing the climate with our massive pollutants, but there are bigger things going on in nature that we cannot account for.
In this way, Herzog’s analysis of the natural world is both eco-friendly and eco-ambivalent. His relationship to nature is similar to many Christians’ relationship to God: he fears it, loves it, and is totally dependent on it. Indeed, nature is Herzog’s god, and the passion and reverence with which he artfully approaches it is something we all might learn from.
Harmony Korine is an arthouse director if there ever was one. Actually, he's probably beyond arthouse--more avant-garde than anything. His films--1997's Gummo, 1999's Julien Donkey Boy, and now Mister Lonely--are unlike anything else coming out of American cinema. This is neither a praise nor a criticism. It is simply a fact that Harmony Korine--along with people like Vincent Gallo, David Gordon Green, and Richard Kelly--is one of the most distinct young voices in art cinema today.
Mister Lonely (see the trailer here) tells two simultaneous stories that have nothing at all to do with one another (though ultimately they do compliment each other). The first and dominant narrative concerns a commune in the Scottish highlands where a band of celebrity impersonators (including Madonna, James Dean, Queen Elizabeth, the Three Stooges, the Pope, Sammy Davis Jr. and Abraham Lincoln) live together in a bizarre and ultimately tragic fog of confused identity. The story focuses on Marilyn Monroe (the wonderful Samantha Morton) and Michael Jackson (a fantastic Diego Luna), as well as Madonna's abusive husband (Charlie Chaplin) and their dainty daughter (Shirley Temple).
The second story is even more fantastical--and concerns a group of nuns somewhere in Latin America who discover that they can jump from planes without parachutes and survive. Their deep belief in God apparently bestows them with this miraculous ability, and by the end of the film the group--led by an eccentric priest (Werner Herzog) head off to the Vatican to have the Pope recognize their unique penchant for gravity-defying miracles.
Though there is plenty to talk about with respect to the "flying nuns" storyline, I'd like to discuss the celebrity wannabes in this particular post. I should first note that the actors who play these people (who impersonate their respective celebrity icons) are intentionally awkward and not all that good at what they do (though their costumes and basic mannerisms are spot-on). They are people who are so uncomfortable in their own skin that they feel they must live as (or through) the celebrities they idolize. It's particularly sad to see them perform their stage "act" (in a decidedly minstrelsy scene late in the film) to an audience of about five. No one wants to see mediocre celebrity fakers; it's terribly depressing. Indeed, the film's mood is one of tragic, surrealist comedy: a sort of Waiting for Guffman-meets-David Lynch parade of naive whimsy and dark, eerie ambiance. It’s disarming to see Charlie Chaplin playing ping pong with Michael Jackson, or Queen Elizabeth dancing with James Dean. And these people never really break character (even when no one is watching), which is, well, just plain odd. It’s like watching an extended (and more poetic) episode of VH1’s The Surreal Life, only with A-list celebs who may or may not still be living.
It’s hard to say what exactly this film is about, but I think that’s probably the idea. The film is as confused as its characters are: about themselves, about each other, and about the world. But it feels very pertinent in this age of celebrity obsession, digital avatars, and postmodern identity. Increasingly we construct elaborate “lives” for ourselves in lieu of any sort of understood Self. Indeed, as Erving Goffman noted in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, we define ourselves in terms of the masks we try to live up to—and yet perhaps this mask is our truer self. In any case, there is a painful absence of self in this film: these people don’t know who they are, and Korine gives us nothing in the way of privileged knowledge otherwise. They are society’s outcasts, clinging together as spectral visages of immortalized icons, hoping for some sort of salvific utopia in their collective embodiment of the ghosts of pop culture’s past.
Though slow at parts, and certainly unfathomable from any conventional "what is this about?" point of view, Mister Lonely has some truly remarkable sequences and moments, beautifully photographed, edited, and assembled with an artist's touch. The blend of image and sound is particularly strong, and in this way the film reminded me of Gus Van Sant's recent triumph, Paranoid Park (my review here). Mister Lonely features a beautiful score from Jason Pierce of Spiritualized, as well as some classic hymns and modern tracks that accompany various stretches of poetic imagery. Bobby Vinton's "Mister Lonely," for example, is lusciously set to an introductory slow-mo sequence. An old recording of the hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” provides the backdrop for one of the most striking montage sequences, and the Tennessee Mountaineers’ version of “Standing on the Promises” provides a striking song for the closing credits. Music by Aphex Twin and A Silver Mt. Zion also contribute to the overall ambience of the film.
Clearly Mister Lonely is not for everyone, and I daresay most people won’t be able to see it on the big screen even if they wanted to. But if you like lyrical, abstract-ish or surreal cinema, do make an effort to at least Netflix this film. There’s really nothing else like it.