Encounters With Herzog: Finding “Truth” At the End of the World

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Werner Herzog’s impressive oeuvre includes a mixture of both fictional feature films as well as documentaries. There is no easy way to distinguish between fiction and nonfiction is his films because a mixture of both forms is always prevalent. Herzog works both within and against the context of documentary cinema in order to reach what he calls the “poetic, ecstatic truth” (Ames, ix). And this Herzogian truth is only attainable through the use of “fabrication and imagination and stylization” (Ames, 2). Encounters at the End of the World serves as a specific example of Herzog’s style in which he documents his experiences at the McMurdo Research Station on Antarctica. Here he chronicles the everyday lives of eccentric people who have chosen to live there as well as the beauty of a place far removed from any other people on the planet. The long, uninterrupted takes of life both above and below the ice, asynchronous music, and voice over narration characterize Herzog’s style and also sets the stage for a performance in which he sets out on a philosophical exploration of “truth” at the end of the world.

The characteristic long takes can be found throughout Encounters. The seemingly never-ending takes show life above, below, and inside of the ice that makes up Antarctica. Herzog employs long takes in order to establish the authenticity of his story. The camera remains a passive observer, letting the events unfold in real time. For example, the opening scene shows a diver under the ice of Antarctica (Encounters). The surreal underwater landscape is seen in only three different shots. There is no action occurring in these shots other than observation, either by the camera or by another diver seen on screen. Herzog’s narration is even kept to a minimum by providing the audience with simply the location and the source from which the images were captured. The long takes and objective source of scientists reinforce these images as being accurate depictions of Antarctica that were not constructed or reproduced on a studio set. Because there is minimal interference with events and long uninterrupted takes, the authenticity is established by just letting things progress naturally in a scene. It is a common element utilized in documentary films that set out to objectively observe. However, Herzog also uses long takes to establish a different sort of authenticity, especially in the interviews with the inhabitants of McMurdo. In interviews such as those with Scott Rowland, driver of Ivan the Terra Bus, or Douglas MacAyeal, a glaciologist and professional dreamer, Herzog’s presence is rarely ever invasive. He allows the social actors to talk about their experiences both past and present, thoughts, or observations, without directing the conversation in any direction. The camera tends to linger on them much longer than seems necessary sometimes, which leads to improvisation on the part of the social actor. A specific interview that stands out is with David Pacheco, who Herzog gives the title of “Journeyman Plumber” (Encounters). Pacheco talks about his supposed ancestral link to Aztec kings based on the way his fingers match up. Once Pacheco has finished talking, Herzog does not ask any more questions and simply lets the camera linger on him. This produces quite an awkward experience for the audience and presumably for Pacheco as well, who just picks up his tools and continues to work after a few awkward silent moments (Encounters). For Herzog, the awkwardness and improvisation on the part of the social actor produces a sense of authenticity, which allows the audience to connect with the character.

There is a focus on the audience that permeates throughout most of Herzog’s films, which is achieved through a variety of techniques. A subtle yet intrinsically important technique used is non-diegetic music. For Herzog, a documentary is a performance, and therefore moments of it are often staged (Ames, 4). Music helps to call attention to this staging by focusing on affecting the audience’s experience emotionally or sensationally with the images on the screen. In terms of Herzog’s attempt to portray “truth,” using music to create on affect adds to the stylization of a film. The music used in Encounters calls attention to the documentary as a construct produced by Herzog by highlighting his involvement in the creation of a specific meaning that accompanies an image. The opening scene, again, is a good example that illustrates this. By indicating that the footage seen on screen was taken by a professional diver working at a research station in Antarctica assumes that this footage is meant to be objective and factual like something from an observational documentary. However, Herzog adds in the soundtrack what sounds like a choir singing in church (Encounters). This immediately evokes a feeling of spirituality, making the experience seen on screen have a more emotionally affective impact on the audience. This technique is utilized again later in the film on the second dive (Encounters). The chanting choir of voices is not the same that is heard in the beginning of the film but undeniably evokes the same feeling. The dive becomes analogous to the spiritual or religious experience that one might encounter while in prayer. Another example of music used to add or evoke a specific meaning to an image occurs after Herzog interviews the cell biologist and professional diver Samuel Bowser (Encounters). Bowser has a personal affinity for science fiction doomsday films and sees aspects of these stories in the microscopic world of the single celled organisms he collects on his dives. He begins to compare the creatures to man-eating creatures from science fiction films, and even mentions that they are the reason life evolved and fled from water to seek escape on land after prompted by Herzog. This point coincides directly with the twelfth point in Herzog’s “Minnesota Declaration” that states:

Life in the oceans must be sheer hell. A vast, merciless hell of permanent and immediate danger. So much of a hell that during evolution some species—including man—crawled onto some small continents of solid land, where the Lessons of Darkness continue. (Ames, x).

This shared view of the world beneath the layers of ice in Antarctica is immediately evoked as the camera follows Bowser into the water to explore the horrible world of these microscopic monsters. The music Herzog chooses for this scene sounds like someone is playing the violin off-key. It is loud and jarring and makes the images feel somewhat terrifying. For a moment this is no longer the surreal experience in the opening scene, but the underwater world as seen through Bowser and Herzog’s vision of it as “sheer hell.” The use of music lends itself to the ecstatic truth that Herzog is intent on portraying by revealing Herzog’s interpretation of the images for the audience.

Another technique characteristic of Herzog’s filmmaking style is the use of voice over narration. In his documentaries, Herzog often provides the narration to accompany the images, which implies his films come from a more personal point of view. More often than not, Herzog inserts opinions, thoughts, and personal observations into his narration to create a vocal presence (Ames, 33). Herzog’s experience becomes the experience of the audience. An explicit example of Herzog’s vocal presence through voice over narration appears just before the second dive takes place. Immediately prior to the dive, people were shown creating the hole that the divers would enter the water through, which gives a sense of simple observation. Next, the divers are shown preparing for the dive by putting on various layers of neoprene wetsuits, gloves, and hand warmers. During this moment Herzog’s narration picks up again, drawing comparisons between the silent preparations of the divers with priests preparing for mass. This personal insight from Herzog reshapes and contrasts with the simple observational technique used just before. It forces the audience to reconsider the importance or meaning of the role of the divers, McMurdo, and Antarctica. To reinforce his observation, Herzog continues to assert his presence and opinions through the use of the music that was previously mentioned. Herzog in a way forces his presence on the documentary. Encounters is as much about Herzog’s personal views and experiences as much as it is about life at the McMurdo Research Station, global warming, or Antarctica.

Encounters serves as a clear and concise summation of Herzog’s stylization techniques utilized in his documentaries. The long takes, asynchronous yet affective music, and voice over narration are undeniably characteristic of Herzog’s films, and all of these techniques assert his presence within the film. Even though long takes are meant to be objective and observational, Herzog uses this to create authenticity in the people he films by pushing them out of their comfort zone. The music is specifically chosen to evoke certain emotions or meanings to accompany an image. And the most explicit assertion of his presence is in the voice over narration where he freely provides his views, sometimes corresponding to the music and image. Herzog is able to use these elements in his documentary films to put on a performance for his audience. He stages scenes for the purpose of creating an emotional connection to the audience, to shock or irritate them into a new way of thought.

The Issue of Identity: A How-To Guide by Fatih Akin

In the early 1960’s there was an influx in immigration to Germany as guest workers. People from Turkey, Greece, Yugoslavia, and other countries began pouring into the country to take advantage of the abundant work opportunities. Eventually, these immigrants had children who grew up culturally and socially as German while still retaining their parents’ traditions. The immigration that took place led to the creation of fluctuating border zones as well as notions of identity as these children were tied to both Germany and, in the case of Fatih Akin, Turkey. Akin is the son of Turkish immigrants and was born in Hamburg. This duality of identity is frequently explored throughout his films that are often autobiographical in nature as he deals with this “tricky balancing act that shapes the existence of people like himself who juggle more than one language, tradition, and set of codes”. Akin often uses broad, recurring themes such as travel, identity, and multiculturalism, all which are enhanced by the use of music, to reconsider and reconcile what it means to belong. These themes and devices are exemplified by his films In July (2000) and Head-On (2004), through which Akin is able to explore a fluid cultural identity within the transnational spaces of the twenty-first century while redefining German identity in the film industry.

Places in Akin’s films are most often connected by the plotline, as opposed to geography or politics. This is achieved through the theme of travel. For In July, the protagonist Daniel embarks on a road trip with Juli, a free-spirited woman who plays a part in setting him on the journey, to Istanbul in search of who he believes to be his true love. The romantic comedy follows Daniel and Juli’s developing love relationship, which is central to the film’s story. Along the way Daniel meets a variety of characters and has many cross-cultural experiences. The theme of travel helps to create a sense of fluid borders where boundaries have been dismantled so that these cross-cultural encounters and alliances can occur. The use of the road trip in the plot of In July highlights the relatively short distance between Germany, the heart of Europe, and Turkey, which remains on the periphery. In this way, Akin’s film becomes slightly politicized, especially when considered in the debate over Turkey’s integration into the European Union. However, the story of In July focuses more on the deconstruction of fixed national identities. As Daniel and Juli make their way across Europe, crossing borders freely, they are also overriding the idea of rigidly defined boundaries and identities of nations based solely on language, culture, or ethnicity. For example, about halfway through the film, Daniel meets Luna, a mysterious woman driving a military jeep along a dirt road, there is a close-up shot of the back of the vehicle as they drive away. This shot reveals Luna’s national origins as Yugoslavia, but even more significant is the red “Ex” spray-painted over the sticker. Akin uses this to situate the film within an international framework by confronting Europe with its former East. Europe’s own identity is in flux, calling into question what exactly constitutes Europe. This ties in to the autobiographical nature of Akin’s body of work, dealing with the idea of a more hybrid or fluid identity influenced by many places and cultures instead of a fixed identity with set boundaries.

A narrative element that also lends itself to Akin’s exploration of identity is the focus on multiple, sometimes conflicting traditions. This is most evident in the film Head-On, a dark melodrama about two Turkish-Germans who are brought together by fate. This film is the first installment in Akin’s “Love, Death, and the Devil” trilogy. But more importantly is the way Head-On exposes the psychological strain of mixing cultures and what happens when Turkish-Germans do not adhere to cultural expectations. Sibel and Cahit, the two main protagonists, struggle with this very problem of living up to the expectations associated with being a German born Turk. On one hand, Cahit denies both German and Turkish culture, commenting to Sibel that he has all but abandoned his Turkish side. His apartment is decorated with posters of bands representing his subcultural tastes. On the other hand, Sibel is forced to adhere to the rituals and traditions of her Turkish family but seeks sexual freedom. As a result, they engage in a fake marriage as a form of mutual escape. The wedding scene exemplifies the expectations of Sibel and Cahit and how they comply to yet disregard them. For the protagonists, the wedding is only a show. They engage in the replay of rituals as a ruse for Sibel’s family. This is underscored by the shot of Sibel and Cahit taking lines of coke as the wedding continues on in the background. Also, their delirious, drug-induced dance anticipates their later interaction when they dance to a punk-rock tune in Cahit’s apartment shouting, “Punk is not dead!”. Inevitably, the couple ends up becoming emotionally reliant on each other, failing in their fake marriage and their attempt to escape adherence to both German and Turkish conventions. In the end, when Cahit and Sibel reconnect in a final sexual encounter, their physical transformations become a façade for their rebellion, indicating their failure to defy conventions as they are forced to re-assimilate into society’s social norms.

Creating a sense of character is a central focus in Akin’s films. The stories become personal and serve as insights into the lives of these fictional characters but also more generally the lives of immigrants dealing with a dual or mixed identity. The use of music in Head-On provides additional insight into the emotional and mental states of the main characters. For instance, at each critical transition point in the film, A Turkish chorus introduces and obliquely comments on the story. They are arranged in a line with their backs to the Bosporus River and performing for the camera. The chorus enhances the visual storytelling of the film by calling attention to important themes or elements of Sibel and Cahit’s struggle. Also, the soundtrack throughout the film is also in conversation with the characters, emphasizing certain aspects of images and content. In the beginning of the film, as Cahit attempts suicide by driving head on into a brick wall, the dark and moody sounds of Depeche Mode’s “I Feel You” echoes his unstable mental and emotional state. Music is employed again in a later scene when Sibel has finally realized her love for Cahit. The melancholic, bittersweet sounds of Wendy Rene’s “After Laughter (Comes Tears)” accompanies Sibel as she is shown laughing and smiling, enjoying the thrills of amusement park rides. Music as a theme also occurs in relation to Sibel and identity in the digital age. In the scene directly following Cahit defending Sibel’s honor and accidentally killing a man, Akin contrasts close-ups of Sibel with a CD. The song that plays is Turkish, which speaks to Sibel’s family background and belonging to that culture. However, the CD also represents a new notion of identity in the digital era as one that transcends national borders. Sibel’s identity is a clash between her Turkish and German backgrounds; it is one that exists without borders because she does not identify as neither Turkish nor German but both. As Mine Eren argues in her essay on cosmopolitan filmmaking, the use of the CD “demonstrates the easy access to global culture and the transformation of national subjects into ‘hyperlinked’ individuals”. The use of international music, coming from Turkish, German, and American backgrounds for instance, in the soundtrack relates the characters of Sibel and Cahit to a bigger picture on transnational identity in a time when crossing borders has become an inherent part of immigrant experiences. As the shot of Sibel and the CD suggests, identity has expanded beyond national borders.

The reception of Akin’s films within Germany often ranges from an emphasis on his Turkish-German background to praise for the European dimension of his work. However, his films work within a broader context of German cinema that contributes to redefining how Germany is seen in the global arena. As a result of the guest worker program initiated in the 1960s, Germany has inevitably become a country of immigration. In correspondence with this, films often celebrate differences of those living in Germany, with a strong emphasis on successful integration into German mainstream culture by assimilation. Akin’s films fit into this context of German culture by moving beyond stereotyped or clichéd representations of immigrants to address broader human questions about love, pain, or self-discovery. For instance, In July deals with issues of border crossing within Europe, finding love, and for Daniel the road trip serves as a moment of self-discovery. Similarly, Head-On can be described as a “Turkish drama in Germany” but also deals with topics that could take place in any location because it deals with universally human issues actuated by the Otherness of the protagonists. Akin’s films, exemplified by In July and Head-On in this case, contribute to the changing notion of German cinema by creating a cinema of migration that is defined by the hybridity of the characters.

Akin often emphasizes the autobiographical nature of his films while also drawing attention to their status as a work of fiction as well. He draws on the familiar in order to create stories about outsiders, love and loss, as well as self-discovery in a world characterized by immigration, border crossing, and fluid identities. His characters seem to be perpetually on the move, either crossing borders or vacillating between identities. Drawing on the familiar from his own life, Akin places his characters in the same world, which is most evident in a shot from In July of a road sign pointing in opposite directions to Hamburg and Istanbul. He resists any notion of a fixed identity through this road sign by showing both aspects of his identity competing and intersecting in a single representative space.

Stanley Kubrick & Sci-Fi

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Experiencing a film firsthand is an invaluable experience. Unfortunately, I wasn’t born until a few decades after Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as its successors, was released. Given all of that, I have approached my research for this project, writing of the paper, and formal analysis of 2001 with the critical mindset of an historian looking back in time. By examining the formal qualities and socio-historical context of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, I want to determine whether or not it truly revolutionized the Science Fiction genre in cinema.

What makes 2001 so unique? To answer this question it might be helpful to take a look at Science Fiction films that came before it. According to Carl Freedman in his essay “The Possibility of a Science-Fiction Cinema,” there are “two distinct periods of greatest prominence: the 1950s and the years from the late 1970s until the mid-to-late 1980s—the two most socially and politically conservative periods in postwar American history” (Freedman 301). Films from the 1950s include The Thing (1951), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and Forbidden Planet (1956). These films aren’t especially known for being innovative aesthetically or even engaging in some kind of intellectual ideology. During this time period, Science Fiction had yet to be considered a genre of film in its own right; it was not taken seriously critically and only garnered “ordinary success at the box office” (Freedman 301). What these films were known for, specifically Forbidden Planet, is the inclusion of addressing themes morality, isolation, and love. These subjects were not included in earlier Science Fiction films, with the selling point being the unique adventure it has to offer audiences. Forbidden Planet also departs from earlier Science Fiction films in including science within the story, rather than presenting a futuristic world where technology exists without explanation, which makes the world in the film somewhat more technologically plausible (Taste of Cinema). Skipping ahead to the late 1970s and 1980s, we see the chronological successors to 2001. These films include Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982), Star Wars (1977), and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). In considering this brief list of films, they represent a new trend in Science Fiction cinema, which is focused, in a sense, on aesthetics and special effects. All of the directors of the films listed claim 2001 as an influence on their careers. Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Ridley Scott saw 2001 as an example of what “…a motivated director with a brilliant story can do” (Taste of Cinema). Following in the footsteps of Forbidden Planet as the marker of revolutionary Science Fiction, Kubrick certainly set a new standard with 2001 with the realism of technological possibilities.

Science Fiction as a genre in cinema goes hand in hand with visual effects. 2001 is no exception. And certain effects are only possible through the medium of film because of special effects. In Kubrick’s words, “…I tried to create a visual experience, one that bypasses verbalized pigeonholing and directly penetrates the subconscious with an emotional and philosophic content…” (Banerjee 41). The long stretches of visuals, the lack of dialogue, and the slow pace of them all lend themselves towards a focus on the visual in the film. Kubrick seems aware of film history and theory, such as Andre Bazin’s ideas of using the camera to capture reality and the intervention of the photographer or filmmaker in capturing this (Bazin 93). Of course, Bazin puts more significance on the objectivity of the camera in capturing reality, unfiltered and unbiased, but the photographer has the ability to manipulate the image to create their own reality. Film creates a sense of a graspable reality that has been preserved by the camera, but this idea also suggests the “illusionistic power of film in all its fictionality, all its construuctedness…” (Freedman 305). Film is highly constructed to present a reality, and in considering Kubrick as auteur, 2001 is very much a reality constructed by him (Parrett 117). The reason I suggest that Kubrick is aware of all of this is the way he uses special effects in 2001. He uses special effects in three distinct ways: to emphasize continuity, to celebrate technology, and to emphasize the “real” in this futuristic vision. Firstly, continuity is exemplified by the transition from bone to spaceship in the beginning of the film. The effect of this transition is only capable through the manipulation of the filmic medium, but more importantly, emphasizes the crucial thematic point of evolution and invention that occurs in the film. Secondly, social effects are used to capitalize on the dependency of the visual in film to “self-consciously deconceal their own artfulness by overtly glorifying in the various technologies of filmmaking” (Freedman 307). So, the very use of special effects and emphasis on special effects in 2001 suggests a celebration of the technology of film itself, as well as the futuristic technology presented within the film. And thirdly, similar to the use of special effects used for continuity, Kubrick utilizes special effects to emphasize the ordinariness of the reality he has created. A specific instance of this is in the scene in which we see the shuttle transporting civilians to a space station. It is displayed as a commonplace occurrence in the lives of these characters. But the moment in the journey where the travellers experience zero gravity, is only possible through the use of special effects, and also calls attention to the very un-ordinariness of this technological capability for the audience watching the film.

Special effects certainly set up 2001 to be a great achievement. Not only did it win the Academy Award for best Visual Effects, it was also nominated for Best Director, Original Screenplay, and Best Art Direction. These nominations and awards suggest that the film’s impact on audiences and critics alike were the director as auteur and the special effects or technology of the film. There is not much mention of the narrative of the film beyond the mention that this was an attempt to capture the evolution of human kind through divine intervention (Parrett 117). The narrative or story is secondary to the visual impact on the audience. The story seems to deviate from the “typical” Science Fiction film, but it also follows generic conventions at the same time. It seems to simply readjust the genre to Kubrick’s style and intentions. There is the basic adventure of mankind seeking answers, but it does not really go beyond this much. But consider the importance of narrative in the overall plot of the film and its importance in determining the purpose of the film. The story is based on a short story by Arthur C. Clarke, who also worked with Kubrick to adapt it to a screenplay and novel. Control over source material gives Kubrick the freedom to dictate exactly what is incorporated in the narrative as well as the pace of how the narrative unfolds. Attention is given not to narrative quality but to visuals. In comparing the film to the novel that Clarke wrote at the same time the film was being developed, the film is able to use power of abstract suggestion, unique to the medium of film. The narrative can be seen in the visuals in a sense; we see or understand subconsciously the irony, symbolism, and metaphor of the story through visual suggestions (Banerjee 41). In comparing Clarke’s novel and its precise reasoning and analysis to Kubrick’s work the “…movie is suggestive in operation, deliberately intuitive in its function, and mystically vague in the end” (Banerjee 41).

I want to take a look at three of the most quoted “successors” to 2001 to see how Kubrick has influenced, or not, the genre of Science Fiction film. I will look specifically at Star Wars IV, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Blade Runner. In writing for the Science Fiction Studies journal in 1998, Carl Freedman examines these three films, among others, to support his claim that Kubrick did in fact revolutionize the Science Fiction genre. However, I hope to take a more objective approach in considering how Freedman sees these films as successors to 2001 to prove it as a masterpiece. As for Star Wars IV, Freedman considers the visual representation of space travel equivalent to the preciseness of 2001. This certainly seems like a plausible comparison to make in determining its influence. However, the manner of space travel in Star Wars is due to the fact that Lucas wanted a technological world that looked real and realistic. In fact, Lucas made it a point, perhaps limited by budget, to use physical special effects rather than computer generated. Compare, for instance to the clean and sleek spaceships in 2001. The white, gleaming interiors with their “newness” and futuristic qualities are literally shining. The idea of space travel as an ordinary aspect of life in both movies is the only comparison I can see in Freedman’s claim. Close Encounters is offered as another successor following in Kubrick’s footsteps. Freedman considers the end of the film to be “neo-Kubrickian.” For Freedman this means it is “atonally operatic,” the use of lights and visual effects creates a direct contrast to the mundane feel of the film up until the spaceship arrives. I would have to agree with Freedman on this comparison. The slow pace of 2001 achieves the mundane in its slow pace and approach to space travel and its ordinariness only to be completely turned around at the end with flashing lights and bizarre imagery. And finally, Blade Runner presents the best response to “Kubrick’s challenge” according to Freedman. He claims that, “In both cases, the human members of the two crews are essentially dupes of their employers, who entrust the most vital mission information to intelligent machines.” However, Scott goes further to engage a commentary on capitalist motives and corporate power that never comes up in 2001. Without considering that last difference between the two films, I would agree with Freedman’s argument for Blade Runner, and Ridley Scott, as successor to 2001. Although, I would go a step further to claim that Blade Runner achieves much more than 2001, with its commentary on capitalism, a more literary story to ground it, and a visual aesthetic that has more in common with Star Wars and Planet of the Apes than it does with 2001.

A quick Google search these days brings up 2001 in the midst of top 10 lists of Sci-Fi films or as the predecessor to a list of great Science Fiction films that would follow it. The connections and similarities to these films do seem to lend themselves to accurately claiming 2001 to be the determining influence on what is considered a golden age of Science Fiction films. But what about the first golden age that occurred in the 1950s? Perhaps 2001 set up foundations for certain aspects of Science Fiction film, specifically in special effects, that would later be riffed on by Lucas, Spielberg, and especially Ridley Scott. Reviews of 2001 tend to focus on the practicality or possibility of its technology or the ambiguity of the story. Critics of the film either like it or don’t. If it’s not in praise of 2001, reviews of the film usually note it’s boring, slow pace and ambiguity as hindering its success.

So, is 2001: A Space Odyssey a revolutionary Science Fiction film? Throughout this essay I have tried to focus on different aspects of the film that others have picked up on as well, such as special effects, ambiguous narrative, and the genre of Science Fiction. I believe the most obvious aspect of the film to be considered is its director. Kubrick is an auteur. In each of his films he sets out to reinvent a genre (Freedman 300). In comparison to the 1950s golden age preceding 2001, Kubrick sets out to make a Science Fiction film that is less about adventure and finding answers, and more about realism and celebrating technology. I don’t think this means he has revolutionized the genre, but rather, he has added to its evolving and continually changing framework to match the science, technology, and ideas of the time period. Kubrick’s entire filmography proves he is an auteur, and this close look at 2001 serves to define how he approaches thinking about filmmaking.