Saturday, November 05, 2005

Day 36: The Endurance: Man vs. Nature 7

A straight-forward, Discovery Channel-style documentary about a failed early twentieth century Antarctic expedition in which, through good leadership and good luck, everyone survived, The Endurance is beautiful, but sterile.  In its running time, there are two or three moments that pop out amidst the way too familiar drone of talking heads, zooms into still photographs, and narration by Aslan, but these do not make the movie more interesting as a whole.  This is such a deadpan retelling of the journey, more than once I wished I was reading a book about it since the movie glosses over many details that seem rich in order to get to the next plot point.

The story itself is not uninteresting.  Ernest Shackleton, having failed to be the first to reach the South Pole, leads an expedition to be the first to cross the entire Antarctic continent.  On the way, their ship is stopped by the icy waters surrounding the continent.  A freak cold front sweeps in, and the ship, named The Endurance, eventually collapses under the pressure of the ice surrounding it.  The expedition, now stranded with only a few row boats, retreats to an island and Shackleton, with a few others, crosses 800 miles of treacherous ocean in a tiny sailing vessel to the closest inhabited island.  All of this is efficiently told by the movie through narration, still photos, talking head interviews with the descendents of the survivors, and some archival film footage actually taken during the expedition.

If there’s a reason to watch this film at all, it’s to see the archival footage.  Being able to see the people and some of the events the movie describes lends the movie an air of authority and weight that it would otherwise struggle to have.  Watching the ship break apart or the crew members chopping at ice to free The Endurance from its icy bonds on old film stock is definitely a thrill.  This is offset, however, by the movie’s decision to introduce sound effects to these silent images, a distracting and disagreeably populist choice, diminishing the eeriness from these images by making them aurally familiar.  In addition, the footage is so front-loaded (the photographer lost much filmstock when the ship broke apart) that the rest of the movie feels too much like watching the Discovery Channel or PBS.  

I hold nothing against those things, and, really, nothing against this movie.  It does the job it sets out to do in reciting what happened.  I’m fascinated with all things Antarctic anyway (blame Lovecraft), but for the entirety of the movie’s running time, I wished that the film had chosen a point of view or found something unique to express about the expedition, some thesis or a really fascinating insight into the character of Shackleton or even the photographer who took the film.  There’s some lip service given to the class struggles that existed among the members of the expedition (we’re led to believe that the crew made up a cross-section of the different classes in British society) and how Shackleton was able to assuage the fears of his men, but the movie rarely takes the time to explore what any of this actually means, aside from its surface story value, for the people living through the ordeal.

Beautiful, but annoying, is the modern-day Antarctic footage, stuck into the film as illustration of Antarctic landscapes.  Because it is shot so beautifully, and because the events depicted are decidedly not, the footage serves only to remind us of where the people were, something no one is in danger of forgetting.  (They were in Antarctica)  There’s a sense of isolation and barrenness from the footage, but nothing remotely related to the human element, and nothing that holds a candle to the actual film taken on the voyage.  It’s filler, filler that works at cross purposes to the film at that.

The movie did nothing to further my understanding of the events it described other than that they happened.  As such, I think it’s fine, but not interesting.  In reading a bit more about the movie, I discovered that there’s a silent movie called South that is made up entirely of the actual footage taken by Frank Hurley during the expedition.  Now that’s interesting.


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Benny said...

Man, I'm so pissed I missed Little Otik day! Shit!

Fame is fickle, but thrilling. For 15 minutes, I'll be your passionate adherent: name you for best-dressed lists, quote your personal politics in little boxes on the center of the page.

The next time you do Svankmajer, post a day's head's up, okay?



duke said...

My favorite moment is when the ship is collapsing and we hear a repeated 'BOING" sound.