Sunday, January 1, 2017
Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World
Werner Herzog's new documentary, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (2016) can be seen on Netflix. It's not a particularly vivid film visually and, except, for Herzog's dead-pan interlocution, much of the film seems conventional -- Herzog interviews a series of "talking heads." By this time in his career, Herzog's fame has infected his interview subjects (they seem to know Herzog's films) and, so, they stretch to provide him with the ecstatic touches that characterize his movies, odd little details and poetic insights contrived to belong within a Herzog documentary -- one man rhapsodizes over the distinctive odor of old electronic equipment, others talk about the theological and ethical aspects of artificial intelligence and there's a heavily tattooed lady astrophysicist to provide eye-candy for some of the film's more recondite points. Herzog stages each interview impeccably, with odd little artifacts visible next to the people that he is interviewing and, sometimes, he intercuts grandiose and visionary images into the discourse: enormous solar flares, aurora borealis, vast dark corridors lined with computer equipment. All of this is done relatively unobtrusively, without much fanfare and the film seems modest and unassuming. It is, also, one of Herzog's best documentaries, reasonably designed and not as discursive as some of his recent films, for instance, his picture about volcanoes Into the Inferno. The film is fraught with curious ideas, novel and imaginative insights, and raises profound questions as to the role of the internet in altering human consciousness. Herzog's perspective is not exactly Luddite, although he is deeply skeptical that the internet has changed things entirely for the better. Indeed, two of the best sequences in the film address the "dark side of the internet" -- these are the most restrained parts of the movie, the least exuberant visually, and, partly for that reason, the most moving aspect sof the film. In one sequence, we see a family traumatized by the death of one of its members. After a young woman was killed in a horrific automobile accident, someone began posting images of the girl's mangled corpse on the internet -- millions of people clicked on the gory pictures and the family was devastated. Herzog's presentation of this sequence is a model of grave discretion -- he films the family members in their exceedingly nice living room, all of them facing the camera, sober and heavy-hearted witnesses to human savagery. Instead of showing the dead girl (or images of her corpse), Herzog is content with showing us a room where she spent much time and that she loved -- there's art in the room, a large window, and a grand piano. At the end of this sequence, the dead girl's mother describes the internet as an agency through which the Anti-Christ is working in our times. In the other powerful anti-internet sequence, we see people who believe that they are afflicted with pathological sensitivity to the radiation emitted by computers and cell-phones. These people live in an eight-mile square conclave in the mountains of West Virginia where no electronic radiation is allowed -- it would interfere with a powerful radio telescope installed in the mountains. Again, Herzog doesn't intervene in the material -- he lets the people speak for themselves. Although they seem to be hysterical on some level -- mostly middle-aged women who have retreated in Faraday cages -- Herzog doesn't dismiss their claims and, in fact, he returns to this community for the final images of the film, as if endorsing, if only partially, an existence that is internet free. On the other hand, Herzog doesn't dismiss the importance of the Internet and eight of the ten sections (or reveries) extol the world-historical importance of interconnectivity and how it is changing human nature itself. These episodes address exploration on Mars, the "internet of me" -- that is, hooking all of our environment up to machines, various types of robots, and artificial intelligence. Some witnesses make dire predictions; others are much more optimistic. Herzog shows us complex mathematical equations that establish, apparently, that the more connections in a system, the faster it will operate. In one sequence, he imagines that everyone has fled the dying planet of Earth for Mars -- showing Chicago eerily uninhabited. Then, we see a group of Buddhist monks in saffron robes -- on the soundtrack, we hear Elvis Presley crooning "Are you lonesome tonight?" Among all of his visionaries, the most prosaic is Elon Musk, the entrepreneur of the Mission to Mars. Musk seems discomfited by Herzog and a little stilted. A brief glimmer of horror runs across his face when Herzog volunteers for "a one-way trip to Mars." "No, no," Musk says, "we want our volunteers to come back." In another funny scene, Herzog asks a German scientist whether robots can fall in love. Obviously, the man thinks the question is absurd. "Why would you want your washing machine making love to your dishwasher?" he asks. In the final sequences, Herzog asks if the internet dreams. This yields a number of interesting responses, including the concept that we can't rule it out that this is already occurring. In the latter part of the film, we see robots, including a little servile-looking Japanese robot that laboriously opens a bottle of orange juice, pours it, and offers the drink to a woman -- for some reason, the scene is intensely moving. One of Herzog's interview subjects says that if we could produce a robot half as a clever as a cockroach we would be doing well. Clearly, the film is very timely today -- several sequences involve hacking; however, the movie was certainly made long before the scandal involving the U. S. election -- indeed several interviews suggest that much of footage was shot in 2013. In an early scene, Herzog describes a view of a long corridor at a college like Stanford as "repulsive" -- an odd word choice, but exactly the sort of thing that is intriguing about a Herzog film: the director's point-of-view is peculiar, slanted, and always interesting. Now, 24 hours after seeing the movie, I am still trying to figure out why Herzog used that specific word. The other clue that we are watching a Herzog film is exemplified by the beginning and end of the interviews: often, we see the interview subject carefully posed but silent -- it's an odd effect. Most disconcerting, Herzog has the tendency to keep the film running after the interviewee has finished his or her statement -- we see the people looking questioningly at the camera. The effect is to end every interview, no matter how simple and declarative, with a looming, and enigmatic question-mark.