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Slasher (2004) and Encounters at the End of the World (2007)

encounters.jpgTwo minor documentaries from two master directors, with two very different approaches. John Landis’ Slasher is very much in the cinéma verite style — in fact, it’s really not much of a step from the classic 1969 film Salesman. Like that doc, this is concerned with the life of a travelling salesman, in this case, a master used-car salesman, “The Slasher”, who travels around the US trying to sell cars the regular dealers can’t clear off the lot. It’s not quite verité — there are some talking-head interviews and a little hamming for the camera — but for the most part, Landis takes a fly-on-the-wall approach and shows us the ins and outs of a three-day lot-clearing sale in economically depressed Memphis. I actually really dig these kinds of documentaries — the details of people who have jobs I never knew existed — and The Slasher is truly a character. Fast-talking, hard-drinking, charming and vaguely sleazy: once you see him, you can instantly see that the only possibly job in the world for him is elite used-car-sale hitman.

Werner Herzog, on the other hand, has no time for cinéma verite — in his Minnesota Declaration he states that “cinema verité confounds fact and truth, and thus plows only stones.” And he’s quite happy to put his money where his mouth is, in one brilliant documentary after another. In Encounters at the End of the World, after stating to his funding agency that he “would not be making another penguin movie” and getting the okay, Herzog goes to Antarctica to talk to the scientists, adventurers, and other weirdos who have found themselves at the end of the world. What follows are interviews with colourful characters who run the gamut from a cheerful Aztec plumber to a solitary, taciturn penguin researcher, and some stunning footage of Antarctica — from the beauty of the waters under the Ross ice shelf, to the mining-town ugliness of McMurdo Station, to the long shot of a lone disoriented penguin marching determinedly to certain death, which probably sums up in 30 seconds everything you need to know about how Herzog feels about “the penguin movie”.

I really enjoyed both of these docs, but there is something of a “minor project” feeling to both of them. Slasher has clear focus, but the whole fly-on-the-wall approach lacks drama, even when the slasher is flailing around, trying to talk up sales in a deserted car lot. Encounters is probably the more successful film, but it lacks the clear point of view of my favourite Herzog films, like Grizzly Man, and the episodic structure instead comes across a bit like “travels with Werner”. Which is not a bad thing — you couldn’t ask for a more interesting travel companion than Werner Herzog.

One Comment

  1. I just saw (and adored) Encounters – and I think the thread wandering delicately through the film is the “end of the world,” possibly via climate change. See also Roger Ebert’s thoughts.

    The DVD has some stunning extras, by the way, including a fantastically trippy 35-minute underwater sequence.

    Monday, April 20, 2009 at 7:47 pm | Permalink