- The Washington Times - Friday, July 11, 2008

“The Wackness,” opening in area theaters today, is a period piece. Through music, costumes and re-created locales, it evokes a New York of the past. The frequent references to the year aren’t necessary: The atmosphere is all we need.

We’re not talking about the Old New York of Edith Wharton or the Gangs of New York of Martin Scorsese, though. “The Wackness” is set just 1½ decades ago, in 1994.

“The film deals with the first time hip-hop culture started seeping in to the white youth,” explains star Olivia Thirlby on a recent stop in the District. The 21-year-old actress was just 8 years old that year, but she says she remembers the time. “It was a huge period of transition in New York, especially the neighborhood I grew up in,” she comments, speaking of the East Village. “It kind of morphed from no man’s land to the trendiest part of the city.”

It’s been only 15 years, but one big event has shaped New York since then: the Sept. 11 attacks. “That’s what makes it so nostalgic,” she says of the film. “It was kind of a golden age. Our economy was doing really well. Honestly, everything was different, pre-9/11. There was less paranoia.”

Miss Thirlby, best known as the best friend in last year’s quirky smash comedy “Juno,” is featured in the August issue of Vanity Fair as one of “Hollywood’s New Wave.” (That photo captures her beauty, but not her eclectic style. You first notice her voluminous curly brown hair, but it’s her hands that are particularly striking, her long fingers covered in rings and her nails painted a stark yellow.)

“I’m very much a New Yorker,” says the lifelong resident of that city. “The L.A. lifestyle kind of counters everything about that. Car culture versus the walking culture - those tiny elements bleed into the society in a really profound way and influence the culture,” says the actress, who, over the course of almost an hour, comes across as exceedingly thoughtful. “I’ve definitely spent a lot of time trash-talking L.A. But honestly, I am starting to warm up to it, mostly because I’ve found people there that I love and enjoy spending time with. If you just stick me on the beach, it’s such a welcome change of scenery from New York.” She’s quick to add, however, “Independent films are made mostly out of New York, so it’s a good place to be.”

Miss Thirlby has spent most of her three-year career making indies. She was in the midst of applying to drama conservatories when she was cast in her first film at 18. She plans to take a hiatus from work to attend school down the road, but for now, working with Sir Ben Kingsley, who plays her stepfather in “The Wackness,” “was my drama school.”

The first film job she landed, the lead in “The Secret,” has never been released in the U.S. She played a doomed passenger in 2006’s acclaimed “United 93,” the first film she appeared in that was released.

“Independent films, it’s a struggle, it’s a fight, not only to get them made but to get them seen by people. It can take years,” she notes.

That hasn’t kept her from continuing to focus on indies. “I’m drawn to more artistic filmmakers,” she says. You’ll see her on the big screen in a handful of films in the next year, including Kenneth Lonergan’s “Margaret.”

When asked what’s on her plate next, she laughs, “Right now, I’m attached to a small, unfinanced indie, which is the story of my life. We’re waiting for it to get some money.”

Kelly Jane Torrance

Herzog’s wild ‘World’

Throughout his career, German-born filmmaker Werner Herzog has exhibited a voracious curiosity about man and his environment and a proclivity to wander the globe, from the Amazon (“Aguirre, the Wrath of God”) to Southeast Asia (“Rescue Dawn”). Maybe it was inevitable that someday he would boast films made on all seven continents.

With his latest work, the Antarctica-based documentary “Encounters at the End of the World,” the director has at last earned this distinction, making him the first professional in his field to do so.

However, before anyone prints up a congratulatory banner, Mr. Herzog wants people to know something: He isn’t interested in celebrating. The 65-year-old filmmaker doesn’t make movies to land in the Guinness World Records.

“That would be the biggest of all embarrassments,” he says, speaking on the phone from New York. “The moment I get [in that book], I should quit.”

To Mr. Herzog, filmmaking isn’t about arbitrary accolades and accomplishments; it’s about getting at what he calls the “ecstatic truth” - a truth that lies beyond the one currently accepted in movies and even in our society as a whole.

“I don’t feel there’s one burning question in me,” says the director. “I’m a storyteller, and I’ve stumbled across wonderful stories, and I try to tell them as effectively as I can.”

Mr. Herzog’s newest film tells the tale of his recent trip to the frozen southland as a guest of the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists and Writers Program. He went there not to make a film about “fluffy penguins,” but to encounter the people who’ve ended up at the bottom of the planet and to investigate their surroundings, both man-made and natural.

“I had no idea who I was going to meet or what I was going to find,” the director recalls, “only that six or seven weeks later, I had to return with film in a can.”

The director lucked out, however. His footage juxtaposes scenes of natural beauty worthy of inclusion in the BBC’s “Planet Earth” with clips of characters every bit as fascinating and colorful as Timothy Treadwell, the subject of his 2005 documentary, “Grizzly Man.”

One moment, viewers are glimpsing the mystical under-ice world that Mr. Herzog likens to a cathedral; the next, they’re watching as computer expert Karen Joyce wows a crowded Antarctic bar by zipping her entire body into a duffel bag, her hands surreally poking out through custom-cut holes in its sides.

What Mr. Herzog discovers at the end of the world is by turns touching, bizarre, beautiful, mystifying and laugh-out-loud funny, and it’s likely to make viewers ponder the mental and physical worlds they inhabit, as well as man’s future. (Like the scientists interviewed on camera, the director does not believe that humans are here to stay.)

One of the most memorable personalities in “Encounters” belongs to philosopher and forklift operator Stefan Pashov, who discusses how when he was a young child, his grandmother used to read him “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad.” Through those stories, before ever leaving his home, he says, “I fell in love with the world.”

Werner Herzog says he knows the feeling.

Jenny Mayo

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