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

hqdefault

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.

Left 4 Dead: Zombies and International Relations

maxresdefault

**This is a paper I wrote back in 2014 on the first installment of the video game Left 4 Dead for an American Studies class on zombies in popular culture.**

The video game Left 4 Dead is a co-operative first-person shooter game with survival horror elements. The story is set after the apocalypse has passed, and zombies have already taken over. The majority of the human population has been turned into mindless, flesh-craving creatures by an outbreak of the Green Flu. The virus manifests as increased aggression and loss of most brain functions. There are some that are immune to the virus as well as some who are carriers that don’t show symptoms but can transmit the virus. A group of four survivors, all of which are immune, work together to survive the plague of the undead.

Left 4 Dead is geared towards a very general audience. The four main characters, or Survivors, range in age, background, and physical appearance. There is Bill the seasoned war veteran, Francis the biker, Louis the middle-class office worker, and Zoey the young college student. Players can choose from any of these characters. This version of the zombie apocalypse narrative is not a unique occurrence. It is capitalizing on the prevalence of zombies in popular culture. The game draws on its cinematic predecessors, venerating the zombie film in many ways. For instance, the focus on a small group of random, regular people forced to survive together is an obvious continuation of the tradition started by Romero in Night of the Living Dead. The zombies, in particular, recall the creatures from 28 Days Later, which are fast, agile, and aggressive. And perhaps Louis’s attire is a nod to the parody film Shaun of the Dead. Left 4 Dead also follows in the tradition of preceding zombie video games, such as Resident Evil, which established the survival horror evident in Left 4 Dead, and also draws inspiration from the cinematic traditions of zombie narratives (Chien).

l4fwiiu1
Characters from Left 4 Dead

The popularity of zombies in popular culture has become a global phenomenon. Zombie narratives appear in many forms including films, novels, comics, and video games. The majority of zombie films, made in the last decade, have come from many different countries around the world. Most of these stories deal with a similar message: co-operation is necessary to overcome the global threat of a zombie apocalypse. This aspect of teamwork during the apocalypse is one of the main successes of Left 4 Dead.

Zombies in this game range from the typical horde to heavily mutated creatures with special abilities. While the typical hordes are generally easy to escape from, going up against the special infected zombies requires teamwork in order to make it out alive. The Boomer is an extremely bloated zombie that will vomit on a survivor. It is a rather fragile zombie that will explode when hit, spraying dangerous bile and fluids on the survivors. Getting hit by the vomit will not cause a fatality but will temporarily blind a survivor and attracts a nearby horde of zombies. The general purpose of the Boomer is to slow down survivors and create general confusion, since the survivors tend to spread out to avoid the mutated zombie. Teamwork is necessary to defeat the Boomer if any of the survivors have been vomited on. Because of the temporary blindness caused by the vomit, a player must rely on the survivors to continue attacking any zombies that might attack. Unlike the robust Boomer, the Hunter is extremely agile. Their agility as well as strength allows Hunters to do a lot of damage to the survivors. They will jump onto a player to pin them down and claw at them. The only way to break free from a Hunter once it has pinned a player down is to wait for another player to push it off or kill it. And to avoid Hunters altogether it is best to avoid becoming separated from the rest o the survivors. The Smoker is a mutated zombie with an extremely long tongue, which it uses to grab any nearby survivors and either drag them or choke them. Its mutations also include growths on its skin, which will emit smoke when killed, hence the name Smoker. When the Smoker catches a player they only have a small amount of time to react. If they are unable to break free from the Smoker’s grip then they have to wait for another survivor to save them. Also, once a Smoker grabs a survivor they become much more vulnerable and easier to kill, making teamwork not only helpful but beneficial as well. The Tank is perhaps the most powerful of all special infected zombies. Despite its abnormal amount of muscle mass, the Tank is fast and agile; survivors can only outrun a tank if they are at a good health level when they encounter one in the game. The Tank exhibits extreme amounts of rage and is easily provoked. And because of its extreme strength as well as agility, the survivors must work together in order to take it down. Although unfortunate for the victim, the Tank pursues only one survivor at a time, providing the other survivors with the opportunity to attack. Last but not least is the Witch. This is the most powerful of the special infected zombies, as she can take out a survivor with one hit. She is usually passive in the presence of survivors, but will attack when provoked. Usually, the Witch occupies narrow hallways so avoiding contact is not an option and the survivors must come up with a plan of attack. It is impossible to take on a Witch alone, so working with the other survivors is essential.

zombies
Wide range of zombies found in Left 4 Dead

Gameplay is more exciting when multiple players are involved. Relying on the computer to control your teammates, with one player leading the group, will not get you as far. According to a review featured on IGN Entertainment, the game is built around co-operative multiplayer action. Editor and author of the review Jason Ocampo states “This is a game that comes to life when you play with at least one other human player, and it’s even better is there are four humans in each game.” Ocampo concludes that working with others in the game is what makes it exciting and ultimately succeed. He goes on to say that if there aren’t enough human players, the AI will fill in when necessary. But he claims that working with the AI can be problematic since they are passive and must be lead through each level (Ocampo). But, if you’re playing with other humans you can communicate with them to make it through the levels more effectively.

The heavy emphasis on co-operative multiplayer action in Left 4 Dead may reflect concerns over global politics. Daniel Drezner, a professor of international relations at Tufts University, took notice of this cultural phenomenon of zombies. In his article “Night of the Living Wonks,” Drezner claims that there are many sources of fear in world politics, but recently an unnatural problem has become a growing concern in international relations (Drezner 34). There are many possible reasons for why this obsession with the undead has become so prevalent, but Drezner is more concerned with how world politics would approach the problem if the dead do end up rising from their graves. Drezner provides three views of how world politics might approach a zombie apocalypse, which are realism, liberalism, and neo-conservatism. In the realist view, international relations would be largely unaffected by an invasion of flesh-eating monsters, viewed as just another plague (Drezner 37). Overall, global politics would remain unchanged in a realist view as countries deal with their own problems. The liberal approach to fighting off a zombie invasion would be working together is the best possible option. However, the liberal approach would become vulnerable in a post-apocalyptic world where there is no common threat to fight against. A neo-conservatism approach would involve an aggressive and militarized response, eliminating the zombie threat swiftly (Drezner 38).

It could be assumed that Left 4 Dead exemplifies, even advocates the liberal approach to a zombie invasion. The emphasis on multiplayer action supported by the various threats encountered by players throughout the game requiring teamwork to succeed is a perfect example supporting a liberal approach in international relations.  The only way to succeed in the game is to work together. However, as Drezner points out in his article, there are flaws to every approach. Liberalism might work well during a zombie apocalypse, but what would happen to Bill, Francis, Louis, and Zoey once the threat is eliminated. Although the future already looks bleak in Left 4 Dead, with a severe lack of survivors, this diverse group of characters may not get along as well when they only have each other to deal with. Once the zombies are eradicated, there may no longer be a common threat that requires working together. In more general terms, Left 4 Dead reflects the popularity of the undead in today’s culture zeitgeist and possibly advocates for a certain approach to international relations if the threat actually manifested.

 


Works Cited

Chien, Irene. “Playing Undead.” Film Quarterly 61 (2007). Accessed December 2, 2014.

Drezner, Daniel W. “Night of the Living Wonks.” Foreign Policy 180 (2010): 34-38.

Ocampo, Jason. “Left 4 Dead (Game of the Year Edition) Review.” Review of Left 4 Dead. IGN Entertainment, May 21, 2009. http://www.ign.com/articles/2009/05/21/left-4-dead-game-of-the-year-edition-review.