The Linguists wasn’t the best documentary I saw at the fest, but it’s the one I’ve thought about the most afterwards, and will probably continue to fascinate after everything else recedes. The film follows the far-flung treks of globe-hopping linguists Greg Anderson and David Harrison, who track down and preserve as best they can the remnants of isolated languages, all hovering on the verge of extinction. They are in a race against time, politics, and nature, hoping to capture these strange obscure tongues before they vanish from the planet forever. We never think of this, in the Western world, that a language could become extinct, and what that could mean, and what we could be losing.
And I don’t know that the film itself, or Anderson and Harrison, really explain it adequately, why it is so imperative that these languages be preserved, outside of academic or aesthetic interest. Perhaps this is just the course of nature and necessity, these marginal tongues eroding much as the land or a species. But there are hints that Anderson and Harrison might be on to something profound here. Their trips, and their immersion in the isolated outposts where the languages are found, seem to take on more of an anthropological, and even humanitarian, bent. These languages are generally found among impoverished and politically and socially marginalized native populations who have been overrun by dominant migrant populations (e.g. the Chulym people and language of Siberia). Perhaps awareness of these dying languages will give rise to awareness of these dying populations, and by saving the one, they can save the latter.
Or maybe they are onto something more arcane: High in the Andes, the two pursue Kallawaya, an ancient tongue used by traditional healers, and handed down over generations. The knowledge of healing methods and the medicinal properties of thousands of plants are so bound up in the language itself, it is impossible to extract the one from the other. Here is the most intriguing point of the film, this idea of an inextricable fusion of language and knowledge, and how the disappearance of the former will lead inevitably to the loss of the latter. It seems like a simple idea, but it points directly to the latent and immense power of words and language, and how much they shape the progress and experience of humanity.
As much as the audience for Eleven Minutes seemed to enjoy the film, there was a perceptible restlessness that began to manifest itself about halfway through, like they wished a reel would go missing or some other technical mishap would speed things along. The buzz and chatter, at a high pitch standing in line and sitting in our seats before the lights came down, reached a crescendo as the film ticked down its final moments. I think everyone liked the film, but I don’t think they were there for it—rather, it was the initial ordeal to get through before the triumphant appearance of the man of the hour, the flamboyant, outspoken, outsized, and hilarious Jay McCarroll, star of the film and winner of the first season of the popular Project Runway.
And indeed, the Q&A session that followed the screening mostly lived up to the excitement. It was the real main feature of the night. The banter back and forth between McCarroll and the audience was loose and breezy and supremely entertaining. McCarroll was rambunctious, funny, all over the map, improper, profane, and the audience ate it up and spat it right back. It was great fun.
Would that the film were so entertaining, though it had its moments. Following McCarroll during the year leading up to his first runway show during New York’s fall fashion week, Eleven Minutes follows a standard path of the various travails and trials, and triumphs and setbacks, McCarroll endures to get his vision onto the runway. Though the film strives to focus entirely on the “work” rather than the fabricated drama of reality television, there’s an appropriate amount of fashion porn, screechy bitchiness, and hysterical meltdowns to satisfy fans of Project Runway.
Eleven Minutes’ only real point of interest to non-initiates were the many references made to the show that “launched” McCarroll, and his own self-awareness of his media-created identity, and what that has done to his credibility as a designer, and his critical reception in the elite fashion press. It’s a route I wish the film had explored more, this bleeding of media into one another, the sanctity of the cloistered world of high fashion being invaded by the barbarians, and McCarroll’s own exhaustion at being caught in the middle of it all. It might have made for a better film for a general audience, instead of an offering to the acolytes of Project Runway.
Despite the fact that Werner Herzog told his funders, the National Science Foundation, that he “would not be making (them) a movie about cute, fluffy penguins” in Antarctica, there smack dab in the middle of his film are none other than cute fluffy penguins. But of course, the ever-morbid Herzog chooses to focus on one stubborn, wayward penguin, who turns his back on his flock to pursue a foolish and probably fatal solo mission to the mountains in the far-off interior. What is he running from, what is he running towards?
This is the central question Herzog asks of the transient inhabitants of McMurdo Station, the largest settlement on the Antarctic continent. A scientific hub that looks more like a poor, blasted-out coal mining town, it is the locus for a colorful collection of wayward souls and drifters from all over the globe, who somehow end up at the bottom of the world to do odd jobs and find themselves. As one worker muses (who Herzog humorously titles “philosopher/forklift driver”), those who “leave the margins of the map, they all meet up in Antarctica”. Herzog has made a career of finding and filming the most eccentric of eccentrics, especially in his recent documentaries, and here, at the end of the world, he finds them aplenty. His interviews with them are wry and humorous and form the true heart of the film.
The other half, which feels like an entirely different film grafted on, is a straight-up nature documentary, with breathtaking photography of divers swimming under the ice (underwater cathedrals they call them) and the lava lake inside active volcano Mount Erebus. It is all quite stunning, but after awhile all sort of the same, Herzog hypnotizing us with long takes under the ice but then letting the shot run just a bit too long. Some tightening up and economy would have done wonders.
So I really don’t know what to do with Encounters. It’s not an especially great film, but it is compelling and chock full of great moments. It’s schizophrenic and feels incomplete, like Herzog wasn’t sure exactly what kind of film he wanted it to be. It’s a collection of miscellanea about a place that is outside the normal flow of the world, a place that is unclassifiable no matter how much order you attempt to bring to it. So perhaps this is the best of all possible films one could make about such a remote alien place.