I saw Werner Herzog's "encounters at the end of the world" last night. It is a fairly simple documentary about McMurdo station in Antarctica and its outlying scientific field camps. Herzog is quite aggressive in informing us that he isn't a traditional nature documentarian, but he largely is. He romanticizes the beauty and strangeness of nature and those people who spend their lives supplicant to it. Much of the humor derives from Herzog's abject hatred of the banality of McMurdo itself, his cool dismissiveness of some of McMurdo's kookier non-scientist inhabitants, and his speech pattern that seems to make everything more fun.
Arctic/antarctic documentaries always stir up emotions for me. My blood runs cold. My memory has just been sold. Encounters featured an interview with David Ainley, a close friend of my advisor, and a man I have had intimate dinners with.
It is difficult to watch these pieces because polar cinema is so sentimental and so uniform--typified by its strangeness, its otherworldliness. The productions tell viewers, "you could never survive this life, but it would be amazing." Richard Glen, a prominent citizen in Barrow Alaska, used to joke that the native alaskans knew there was a season between spring whaling and duck hunting, when journalists migrated from the lower 48 to do stories on climate change.
I have been on the receiving end of the TV camera of the journalist visiting the arctic, and i know what a bizarre, contrived experience a visit from these documentarians can be. Herzog, better than most, tells a story about the beauty of the pole tinged with the deep, unsettling weirdness of career polar scientists and their attendants. Instead of reinventing the form of "camera visits arctic scientist," he just deepened the story beyond the breaching whale, whitish-blue ice, and deprivation. He went to a place and got it right.