Monday 30 June 2008

Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World: Film Review

Film director Werner Herzog likes strange people, from Klaus Kinski to Timothy Treadwell, and remote wild places, from the Amazon rain forest (Fitzcarraldo) to the Alaskan wilderness (Grizzly Man). And now, perhaps inevitably, he has made a film about the remotest, wildest place of all, Antarctica, and the strange, driven people who gravitate there. Lured south by images of the weird beauty of the ice and the southern ocean Herzog finds a land where dreamers and adventurers, eccentrics and scientists live huddled together in ugly industrial shanty towns amidst unbelievable natural grandeur. In Encounters at the End of the World Herzog explores the land and the people and his own reactions to it. Some of his findings are humorous, some disquieting, some tragic and he switches abruptly between these, keeping the viewer unsure of what is to come and sometimes thrown off balance, stifling a laugh as the tragic nature of an event is suddenly apparent. This makes for an engrossing, fascinating documentary unlike anything else I have seen or read about Antarctica. The landscape looks as vast and magnificent as ever and is beautifully filmed, especially some underwater sequences following the edge of an ice sheet as it meets the ocean, an unreal, dream-like world. But it’s the people who are most memorable. Philosophers working as fork lift truck drivers, scientists rocking out on top of their hut with discordant electric guitars to celebrate a new discovery, a group of people about to go out onto the ice discovering what a white-out is like by trying to find someone while wearing white buckets on their heads, a scientist showing B movie science fiction films to his team. Herzog looks for the quirky and unusual, the disturbing and the disturbed, and finds it everywhere. The characters he interviews – or rather allows to talk – come across as powerful, committed, larger than life. The director has a trick of holding the camera on their faces before they start or after they finish speaking longer than expected, sometimes revealing powerful emotions. Even the wildlife comes across as unusual. “Are there gay penguins?” Herzog asks a reclusive scientist who has spent years studying them and perhaps prefers their company to that of humans. “Do penguins commit suicide?” The film shows penguins heading for the ocean. One dithers then turns and heads inland, away from any food. “It will die”, says the scientist. Herzog has his answer.

I saw this excellent film at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, the only film I saw there this year. The performance was sold out. Unsurprisingly the film won Best Documentary at the Festival.

The book in the image was published in 1921 and picked up in a second-hand book shop many years ago. Photo info: Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF 50mm F1.8, flash, program mode, f3.5@1/60, ISO 400, raw file converted to JPEG in DxO Optics Pro.

Wednesday 4 June 2008

A Night On The Ben

When planning my TGO Challenge walk across the Highlands I never thought of camping on the summit of Ben Nevis. That idea only began to take shape after the walk began and I watched the Ben from the hills to the west, a huge snow-capped dome shimmering in the sunshine. It was the snow that caught my attention. In summer the summit plateau of the Ben is a mass of boulders and stones with no flat ground for a camp and no water. There is a small emergency shelter perched on the remnants of the observatory built back in the 1880s but it’s dark, damp and dirty and not somewhere I ever want to spend the night. Bivvying on the rocks has never been appealing either. But you can pitch a tent on snow and it makes a comfortable bed. You can melt it too so I wouldn’t have to carry water. As I approached Fort William at the base of the mountain and the fine weather held the attractions of a night on the summit grew. Climbing the mountain late in the day as it grew cooler seemed wise as well. Thirteen hundred metres of steep rocky paths without shade and with a pack loaded up with food for the next five days would feel more comfortable then.

With a late start in mind I spent most of a hot day in Fort William replenishing supplies – dried fruit, nuts and grain bars from a Julian Graves natural food shop, Crosse & Blackwell Pasta Sauce meals and a tube of Chilli Puree from Morrisons supermarket, “Murder in the Glen”, a novel by mountain rescue expert Hamish MacInnes, from the Nevisport outdoor shop. My feet having overheated on previous days even in thin socks and lightweight trail shoes I searched out a pair of budget walking sandals – Hi-Tec Tahoma – in a shoe shop and tried not to think of all the sandals I had back home. The Nevisport café and the Café Beag in Glen Nevis provided sustenance before I finally started up the mountain at 4 p.m. The sun was still high and hot as I started up the stony path. Although long and unrelenting it was the easiest ascent of the walk so far as the six hills I had already climbed had been boggy and pathless. Dozens of people passed me on the way down, many asking if I was camping out and telling me there was snow on top. They looked surprised when I replied “good”! This, the standard and easiest way up the mountain, isn’t the most exciting but there are good views of the Mamores on the far side of Ben Nevis.

Eventually the angle of the stones started to ease and patches of snow appeared as I reached the now deserted summit plateau. All was calm, most unusual on this normally stormy and windswept mountain. I pitched the tent not far from the summit trig point. The snow was deep and soft – there was a ten foot thick drift around the old observatory. Lacking snow stakes I stamped my thin pegs in hard and used my trekking poles to anchor the main guylines. There was no need to shelter in the tent though and I sat outside with my little stove purring away insulated from the snow on a flat stone. A snow bunting was singing by the summit cairn and a raven wheeled overhead. Dinner over I wandered along the edge of the great cliffs of the north face, staring down the snowy gullies and massive rock faces. A strange swishing noise came up from the depths. Staring down I spotted two climbers far below shovelling snow off a ledge on Tower Ridge. Later I saw them heading down into Coire Leis. Apart from these distant figures I was alone; watching as the sun slowly descended through thin clouds, turning them a gentle pink.

As darkness grew a half moon rose into the black sky and stars appeared. All was silent. No wind. No running water. I shivered with delight and amazement at being up here in perfect conditions. The night was chilly but the temperature in the tent didn’t quite reach freezing. I woke to a wet mist and a gusty east wind. The humidity made everything damp and the world was grey but I could see a pale sun through the clouds and occasionally there was a clearance and a patch of blue appeared. Soon the mist shrank back from the summit, filling the glens but leaving me in bright sunshine. I wandered round the summit again, reluctant to leave, but the walk had to continue and the warm rocks and graceful curve of the Carn Mor Dearg Arête beckoned. I had had the summit of Ben Nevis to myself for 14 hours. I could ask no more.

Evening on Ben Nevis. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, Canon EF-S 18-55 mm IS@ 25mm, f8@1/500, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in DxO Optics Pro.