The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971)
Encounters at the End of the World (2008)
Offbeat and intense, The Hellstrom Chronicle won the Best Documentary Oscar in 1971. Unfortunately, despite the movie’s success, it’s not available on DVD yet—but I’m still hoping! I’ve done some research, but really can find no info as to why it’s unavailable. Perhaps the flick is trapped in a power-play between greedy and feverish egos. Who knows what lurks in the hive-mind of Hollywood? Perhaps an argument between executive producer David L. Wolper and distributor Warner Bros.? (And Warner Bros., when is a DVD of Ken Russell’s The Devils coming out? But I digress…)
ABC-TV always used to show The Hellstrom Chronicle opposite NBC’s Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday nights back in the day, and I remember seeing it multiple times before I was in my teens. I’d like to think that I remember teachers telling us to tune in and watch Hellstrom because it was educational, but I’m really not sure.
Using the format of the documentary, director Walon Green (co-screenwriter of The Wild Bunch and Friedkin’s awesome Sorcerer*) and writer David Seltzer (screenwriter of The Omen and Frankenheimer’s Prophecy), along with fantastic insect microphotography from Ken Middleham (Saul Bass’ Phase IV and William Castle’s Bug) and a moody, creepy score from Lalo Schifrin (if you don’t know who he is, shame on you!), have made a completely un-objective documentary with actors playing parts, a sort of unfunny mockumentary.
In other words, a science fiction film where the insects take over the world.
But it’s this lack of objectivity, and an adherence to a bitter thesis that keeps The Hellstrom Chronicle fresh. This flick is like anti-bug agitprop: a warning against the eventual victory of our soulless insect overlords.
It’s the complete antithesis of every “nature is cute and nice” documentary, making The Hellstrom Chronicle even more awesome. While Hellstrom’s ideas are all based on fact and genuine theories, that he’s a composite fictional character adds to the sci-fi feeling of the movie.
Hellstrom’s narration is fantastically bleak as well, beyond what any “real” scientist would say, with a sardonic edge of grim resignation: it’s nothing but descriptions of how ruthless and vicious bugs are, and their Darwinian single-mindedness and superior adaptability will leave them the winners of a despoiled planet.
As such, the narration’s very reminiscent of the narration for some of Werner Herzog’s documentaries. If you’ve ever heard the way Herzog describes nature in his docs (“the birds do not sing; they SHRIEK in agony”), it will be easy for you to imagine the German director in the role of Hellstrom, describing the way a wasp’s jaws crush a bee’s head in a gleefully gruesome manner, or intoning with morbid solemnity how it would take man billions of years to rebuild after an atomic war, while insects could repopulate the planet in a matter of weeks. Fun stuff all around!
Here’s actor Lawrence Pressman channeling Werner Herzog, warning us we are dooooomed! YAY!
And speaking of insects, The Oscars are happening soon. These awards only mean anything to me when they are attached to a film I already like, like The Hellstrom Chronicle. Then I can get on my soapbox and gripe, “How come this Academy Award winner isn’t on DVD yet?”
Otherwise, I’m not surprised when undeserving films win.
But I am annoyed about how it only seems to be five or six flicks that garner every nomination. Booooorrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrring! I’m not saying that they have to truly open their minds, just un-narrow them a bit. But really, does it matter?
I do seem to remember—but no, I’m not going to look anything up at Oscar-dot-poop--what if I’m wrong?—that there used to be more variety among the nominated. But then again, who cares? There are Johnny Paycheck songs to be listened to.
The fab Werner Herzog has been Oscar nominated this year for Encounters at the End of the World, a movie I liked, but also had reservations towards.
I caught Encounters at the End of the World in June 2008 at NYC’s Film Forum, a place I don’t visit as much as I used to when they had interesting film series about Don Siegel and Sci-Fi/Horror Fests. Anyhoo, at the time I wrote:
Uncle Werner goes to Antarctica! And while this flick is superficially a lot of fun (there’s plenty of laughs), there’s a mean spirit behind much of it, which leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Herzog zaps the foibles of a few blowhards, but to what purpose? The people he makes fun of are flunkies—why hold them up to ridicule? And if you’re mad at these people, Herr Herzog, please tell us why? The film also lacks a focus, being too much like a travelogue, moving from one subject to the next. Herzog should have concentrated the documentary on the marine biologist who was making his “last” dive. It seems that he and Herzog bonded over a love of apocalyptic sci-fi movies.
Meanwhile, this man has dived in freezing water and discovered new species of life! That should have been the topic of Encounters at the End of the World.
(photo of Herr Direcktor by the magnificent Rick Hall over at Toe Stubber)
As it stands, despite my gripes, if you’re a Herzog fan, this is a definite renter. There’s much to chortle over (grumpy Werner is in fine form), and there is some really incredible footage in this flick. And who knew that seals sounded like transmissions from Mars?
For an even more deliciously cynical and sarcastic look at life (and bureacracy) at the research stations of Antarctica, visit Big Dead Place: it's written by the people who actually work there!
Turning away from my notes….
I really-o truly-o want Uncle Werner to win the Oscar just to hear what he says. I hope he doesn’t punk out and not drop a heaping pot of scathe on the Academy; or at least a sharp and witty biting of the feeding hand. C’mon, Werner, you like kung fu movies more than Godard, so make it interesting!
[* = regarding Sorcerer, a flick I and the Missus enjoy very much, although I think she regards it as an existential comedy (which isn’t a bad way to look at the flick, actually): she started this when we first watched the film together, and now, in our household Sorcerer is always referred to as (scary voice) : “FOUR DOOMED MEN!”
[Alternative Universe Digression: I would KILL to see an NC-17 film called FOUR DOOMED MEN! if it was directed by John Carpenter, produced by Robert Aldrich, written by Walter Hill, starring William Smith, Joe Spinell, Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton as the FOUR DOOMED MEN!, with cameos by Ernest Borgnine and Warren Oates.]
Here The Missus and I are at the infamous Ruby’s on the boardwalk at Coney Island, circa 2004, back when we were a'courting. (With the so-called revitalization of Coney Island around the corner, Ruby’s is probably doomed, but with this kooky global economic crisis, who knows?)
Remember, Haneke’s original German-language Funny Games and the Brazilian cop-movie mind-fuck Elite Squad are two of her favorite films. No wonder I love her!]
WHOA! In my investigating, I found that over at the excellent Ferdy on Films etc. site, Marilyn Ferdinand has given a thorough examination of The Hellstrom Chronicle, well worth reading.
Please check out her review, and the site in general: good stuff!
And as we finish writing, on the stereo comes Van Halen’s “Atomic Punk!” YeeeeeeeeeeeoW!