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Pity the penguin. Darling of the animal world in the wake of March of the Penguins’ success in 2005, penguin fever quickly begat penguin fatigue. First, the film’s makers went and accepted their Oscar for best documentary carrying penguin stuffed animals. Then Hollywood inundated the market with penguin-centric films including Happy Feet, Surf’s Up, and Farce of the Penguins. The story of adorable birds with strong familial bonds on the desolate Antarctic landscape was universally appealing. But, as with most things adorable, enough finally became enough.

This is probably why Werner Herzog opens his new documentary, Encounters at the End of the World, with a caveat: If the U.S. National Science Foundation — which sent Herzog to Antarctica — had been expecting a penguin film, it would be sorely disappointed.

Understandable. March represented much of what have historically been nature documentaries’ flaws: Anthrpomorphism. A species-specific focus. The imposition of a narrative arc. The use of nature to reinforce the importance of the nuclear family, of two-parent “households.” And Herzog is a filmmaker whose protagonists often have tenuous relationships with nature — Fitzcarraldo’s battle to bring opera to the Peruvian jungle, for example, or the subject of Herzog’s most recent documentary, Grizzly Man, who was killed by the species he loved.

The director’s disdain for “penguin films,” then, would be all well and good. If only Encounters didn’t represent just about everything else wrong with nature documentaries, including the heretical idea that maybe they have become useless.

Every film, from Citizen Kane to Showgirls, owes a debt to the desire to capture nature in motion. In 1878, the most primitive form of the movie was created when Eadweard Muybridge took a series of photographs that, strung together, gave the appearance of a horse in motion. (The project was undertaken on behalf of California Governor Leland Stanford, who hoped to settle the question of whether a horse’s legs are all simultaneously off the ground during a run; they are.) At around the same time, in France, Étienne-Jules Marey was exploring ways of documenting birds in flight; he ultimately created a photographic “gun” that captured in rapid succession multiple frames on the same piece of film.

Over the course of the 20th century, nature documentaries transformed as tastes and technologies changed. Dramatic hunt and adventure films of the early part of the century served both as respected alternatives to the bawdy side of the medium, and as a perceived means of staving off total moral corruption at the hands of a rapidly transforming society. These films gave way to family-friendly Disney films in the wake of World War II, which in turn saw nature brought into the home through television programs like Marlin Perkin’s Zoo Parade and Wild Kingdom, and later the Discovery and Animal Planet channels.

Discovery today owes its success to such fare as The Deadliest Catch, which documents the perilous work of Alaskan fishing; an annual Shark Week marathon; and a game show that takes place in a taxi called Cash Cab. Yet it still had the ability to attract an auteur like Herzog: Discovery Films is a producer of Encounters at the End of the World.

The film represents a contemporary approach to documenting nature. These pictures take a holistic approach to their subjects, which are more often places and ecosystems than they are individual species; the hope is to communicate the vast interconnectivity of life on Earth.

Encounters has no traditional drama, nor any kind of narrative arc. It instead explores both the humans and animals that live in and around the McMurdo Station research center in Antarctica. There are hypnotic jellyfish; a biologist who makes the last Antarctic scuba dive of his career; seals that “sing” as they glide under the ice; exploding magma; a former linguistics Ph.D. student who now works in the Station’s greenhouse; a solitary penguin marching determinedly but mistakenly to the Antarctic interior, and to his death.

Together, these scenes take the viewer on an impressionistic journey of Antarctica. In that way Herzog’s film is very much like last year’s BBC megahit Planet Earth. In place of Antarctica, Planet Earth guides its viewers through equally generalized ecosystems including “Caves” and “Deserts” and “Mountains,” each in approximately one hour. As in Encounters, these are meandering journeys. “Fresh Water” begins in the misty mountains of Venezuela, and then moves past giant salamanders in Japan, piranhas in the Amazon, otters in the Nile, and swimming macaques in Indonesia.

There is no question that these are beautiful films (the colors and sounds of life on Antarctica being what they are — greens, blues, white, and black; wind, ice cracks, and scuba respiration — it was possibly inevitable that the New York Times would describe Encounters as “haunting” and dream-like). These are films that convey the complexity of life, the awesomeness of Earth’s biological diversity. But what, then, to do with this?

There’s a general belief that nature documentaries exist to serve Nature. That viewers’ exposure to them lead — by way of various paths — to conservation, species protection, or improved use of natural resources. In Reel Nature: America’s Romance With Wildlife on Film, for example, historian of science Gregg Mitman suggests that the film Letter from the Brooks Range played a role in the formation of the Arctic National Wildlife Range (today known as ANWR) in Alaska in 1960.

Planet Earth thinks nature films have this power, and came to its own defense through supplemental episodes concerned not with particular environments, but with “The Future.” Whereas the main episodes shunned man, these episodes focused on him. In “Living Together,” Earth producer Alistair Fothergill credits the series with continuing the noble tradition created by the pantheon of nature documentaries: “If you look back at the history of wildlife filmmaking from the very beginning, undoubtedly the awareness that has risen over the years, and introducing animals to people, is phenomenal. And every generation, … we are showing people new animals.”

Awareness is important. In the same episode, for example, David Attenborough — the famed British nature documentarian and Earth narrator — credits “underwater pioneers” like Jacques Cousteau with drawing the public’s attention to whales and, as a result, building support for the preservation of the threatened species.

The praise is justifiable. After first inventing scuba equipment that allowed humans to better explore the underwater world, Cousteau then brought the wonders of that world to audiences that had never before seen whales in motion, or the undersea ice around Antarctica. In series like The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, and films like the Oscar-winning Silent World, the sea opened to a curious public.

But Cousteau’s day has passed. Today it is no longer simply enough to “see” something. This is not to lazily criticize generations raised on video games and the Internet, as is often done. Nor is it to criticize filmmakers like Cousteau who are responsible for exposing the public to nature beyond its own backyard, at a time when there were few other means of doing so. Rather it is to acknowledge a fundamental shift in what constitutes a fruitful relationship with nature, one that is not so different from that which nature documentaries themselves precipitated.

Carl Akeley would understand; one could consider him the Cousteau of the early 20th century. An expert on Africa and a revolutionary taxidermist, Akeley was responsible for the eponymous Hall of African Mammals in New York’s American Museum of Natural History. His goal was to expose the public to examples of vanishing wildlife that most would never otherwise see. Today those dioramas stand among the greatest examples of museum taxidermy in the world. Yet they are best appreciated by the nostalgic: The advent of moving pictures and the expansion of zoo holdings doomed natural history dioramas as the primary point of contact between the public and exotic wildlife.

Contemporary nature documentaries are at a similar place. While they still hold the power to astound through dissemination of the “unknown,” that power is fleeting in its ability to create meaningful relationships between humans and the natural world they’re increasingly expected to protect. In Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums, philosopher Stephen Asma discusses the dangers of a reliance on the “unique” in museum exhibitions, but his words could easily be applied to nature films:

Educational and entertainment institutions meet in the common-ground territory of the spectacular. But some spectacles lead to something cognitive or reflective, and the hope of the educator is to facilitate that trajectory. There is a place in that trajectory for the odd, the wonderful, and the grotesque. But some spectacles, using the same spectacular launching pads of human curiosity, only lead back to themselves…The spectacle itself becomes the commodity.

Is such contemplation and reflection possible after viewing Encounters or Planet Earth? Maybe, if the viewer had never before been awestruck by the natural world. But for the vast majority of viewers, the time spent before the movie or TV screen is time lost from actual encounters with nature, which, when ultimately made, can be fraught with disappointment.

“The distillation of the natural world into a series of dramatic moments on film created an expectation of nature among lay audiences that was rarely, if ever, realized in the field,” Gregg Mitman writes in Reel Nature.

Mitman refers to nature filmmakers tendency to include only those things most interesting, and exclude the long periods of animal and plant life, as well as geologic time, in which nothing much happens. But it applies as well to the praised visual elements of films like Encounters and Planet Earth, which resemble in no way how a human experiences nature beyond the screen.

Those experiences are important, for modern conservation today depends not solely on the preservation of single species as in the case of whales, or on the setting aside of pristine lands, as in the case of ANWR. It instead requires more complex changes to behavior, to ways of living, to ways of using the Earth. These are changes that require an appreciation of the natural world that once could be acquired through museum exhibitions and innovative documentary films. Such an appreciation today, however, may be strongest from encounters with nature not at the far ends of the world, but in our own personal corners of it. • 27 June 2008