In Les Blank's documentary Burden of Dreams, Werner Herzog—then in the process of filming his epic period piece Fitzcarraldo deep in the Peruvian jungle—rants against the "obscenity" of his lushly overgrown surroundings. "Nature here is vile and base," he says. "The trees here are in misery, and the birds are in misery. I don't think they sing. They just screech in pain. It's an unfinished country. It's still prehistorical."
That was 1982, while Herzog was still relatively early in a career that has since taken him to other geographical extremes, from post-Gulf-War Kuwait to isolated research stations in the Antarctic. If the Bavarian-born filmmaker makes a habit of complaining theatrically about the habitats he enters, his grumpiness is offset by his desire to plunge ahead into uncertain terrain. He's long since secured his place in film history as a globe-trotting adventurer, unflappable in the face of danger and suited to clamboring over every kind of terrain in search of things to film.
The hook of Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, which premiered earlier this year in Sundance, is that it sends Herzog into uncharted territory—the virtual no-man's land of the internet. This is a massive topic for a single movie, and the degree of difficulty is compounded by the fact that Herzog, for all his cred, doesn't seem to be the ideal man for the job. At age 75, the director is clearly of a different generation. He famously made his first phone call when he was 17-years-old, and in an interview with TechCrunch admitted that he doesn't carry a cell.
And yet for all his skepticism, he doesn't overplay the part of the anxious Luddite. Instead, Herzog's curiosity—always his greatest resource as a documentarian—shines through. Determined to condense the history and implications of the internet into just under 100 minutes, Herzog covers a lot of ground. He dutifully visits the primal scene of host-to-host communication on the UCLA campus, and also some more contemporary computer labs, where he seems amazed by the possibilities of technology developing exponentially by the day. In one interlude, Herzog meets with programmers developing robot soccer players, which strikes him as amusing; he's less entertained by the idea that computers could one day direct their own films.
With its multiple characters and subplots, Lo and Behold is all over the place, but Herzog's thesis seems to be that the vast expanse of the internet is a reflection of those who use it—for good and ill. One woman, who saw photos of a dead family member disseminated across the web in the aftermath of a car accident, sees something demonic in the rapid spread of information, "I think the internet is the Anti-Christ" she says flatly. Always interested in dialectics, (it's the German in him), Herzog divides his subjects into two loose groups: those who've devoted their lives to mapping and populating social networks and those who've aggressively disconnected. In both cases, the film's thesis seems to be that our lives have gotten so thoroughly re-wired that occupying the middle ground is an impossibility.
A passage set in an Appalachian community whose residents have moved there to escape life online, presents the subjects as if they were somehow living out of time—a remote tribe plunked down in the middle of the continental United States. An interview with infamous entrepreneur Elon Musk envisions a different kind of escape plan, to the safe harbor possibly offered by Mars (not surprisingly, Herzog is willing to sign up for that mission, too).
As the film goes on, it gets into big, abstract discussions about the implications of artificial intelligence, "does the internet dream of itself?" Herzog asks two programmers, who seem bemused by the poeticism of the question. This line of thinking takes Herzog to sinister places as well: at times, Lo and Behold seems to be stoking fears that our tools are evolving beyond our capacity to control them, which offers an intriguing twist on his usual theme of the indifference of nature. But he also leaves plenty of space for viewers to cultivate their own reactions, as in the scene where he uses footage of Honda's ASIMO robot pouring itself a drink.For some, this benign demonstration will seem a frightening image out of sci-fi literature—the implacable A.I. out to replace us. And yet the strange, awkward delicacy of the automaton's movements recall the weirdo outsiders of Herzog's other movies. This benign white humanoid could be kin to the demented penguin in Encounters at the End of the World which leaves the flock and rushes hell-bent towards the horizon. Are we looking here at a cool usurper, or a mirror image of our own frailties?
In Lo and Behold's best scene, a scientist calmly explains that the most sophisticated AI in the world is still operating below the level of a cockroach, which exercises choice about where to go and what to do. It's as if Herzog, whose fear and loathing of nature has always been underwritten by a healthy respect, is reminding us—and maybe himself—that Mother Nature still has the upper hand, at least for now. Whether or not the unfinished country of the internet will render everything else prehistorical remains to be seen.
Lo and Behold plays at Hot Docs on April 28-29.
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