That one’s the penguin

February 16, 2009

Our Netflix queue has stalled recently–the new semester has gotten into gear, and so has our regularly scheduled programming, w/ Friday Night Lights, Lost, and BSG all returning for their winter runs–and this past week we found ourselves watching back to back documentaries.

The first one we watched was Encounters at the End of the World, Werner Herzog’s portrait of the people who work in Antarctica, either as scientists or supporting scientists. Confession: for several years in my late teenagerhood, I fantasized about being one of the hired help for a season. While I’m no longer nearly obsessive enough to qualify as an Antarctica buff, I do have an infatuation the place. I bought my expensive Northface snow boots this year largely b/c they are a style named McMurdo. I think, though, that even if you have not been intermittently twitterpated with the Earth’s largest continent, you would find something to marvel at in this film. I never got tired of the various poetic explanations people offered for how they ended up in Antarctica. One guy (I forget his name, but his occupation was listed as philosopher/fork lift driver) said it was where all the people who rushed toward the edge of map found each other. Another guy said that it was like the planet gets shaken up, and everyone’s who’s not attached to something or somewhere floats to the bottom. I’m fairly eccentric at heart, but I no longer think I am qualified to work in Antarctica. Not quite yet.

One image, though, I don’t think I’ll be able to get out of my head any time soon. Herzog interviews David Ainley, who has been studying a penguin colony for more than 30 years. Herzog conjectures that being around penguins so long has diminished his desire to talk to humans, but I think his terseness was in part attributable to hard questions Herzog seemed ready to supply constantly (maybe he resorted to the deep stuff when small talk didn’t pan out). Herzog asks him if he’s ever observed any evidence of mental illness in penguins. Being a scientist and all, of course he answers no, b/c there’s really no way to equate what we broadly call mental precisely with animal behavior. What does happen, though, is that sometimes a penguin can become disoriented. After he says this, Herzog shows us footage of one of these disoriented penguins, zooming away from his buddies who are on their way to the fish hole and towards inland Antarctica, where there is no food and where he will certainly die. I can’t stop seeing how surely he walks and scoots on his belly in what every other penguin could tell you is the exact wrong direction. He looks just as purposeful a the food-seeking penguins. Ainley says that even if the humans were to go and catch the penguin, and take him to the feeding ground or back to his home, he would turn around and go right back the wrong way. Once they are like that there is no way to stop them. So, all they could do is put the camera on him as he gets further and further away.

After this scene, I paused the movie and asked D if he thought that catching that penguin and autopsying its brain and seeing if there was some physical difference from the other penguin would change how humans treat similarly inexplicable behaviors in people. B/c there seemed to be something so clear about that image to me. The human race has its disoriented penguins–and I don’t think including that image of the penguin alongside images of Shackleton’s exploration team was at all coincidental. There’s all these penguins over here, getting food, and then there’s that penguin over there, hell bent on going some opposite direction. It’s hard to believe that penguin is making a choice. I’d be the last one to say I know where to draw the line between human choices  and human disorientation (do sane people need to go to Antarctica? write thousands of pages? paint huge canvases? would we trade the art and knowledge we gain from their extreme actions for their happiness? should we?)–but I wonder. If there’s no way to sort the beautiful extreme from the uselessly harmful extreme, what do we do when we see a penguin? Is there anything?

Coincidentally, the next documentary we put in was Man on Wire. The first time I saw footage of Philippe Petit walking between spires of the Notre Dame Cathedral, it took my breath away, and I turned to Daniel and said, “See? That one’s the penguin.”

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