Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World
Directed by: Werner Herzog.
There are only a few directors that I would want to spend 98 minutes exploring the internet with – but German madman Werner Herzog is certainly one of them. There have been quite a few films about the dangers of the internet – and they tend to end up being alarmist in the extreme – like Jason Reitman’s Men, Women & Children for example. There can also be films that are too idealistic about the wonders of the internet – and how it can connect the world, etc. The interesting thing about Werner Herzog’s Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, is that Herzog doesn’t seem to know all that much about the internet – which actually makes sense, as I find it hard to imagine Herzog spending too much time sitting in front of a computer screen, checking Twitter and Facebook. He is among the most prolific directors working – he has 69 directing credits according to IMDB, and always seems to have a few films on the go. He is fascinated with other people, and their stories, and has a unique interviewing style – some of his questions are more subtly profound than we normally get in interviews, and there are moments when his interview subjects generally seem taken aback by them – as if they never thought about things that way. At his best – like in a film like Into the Abyss, one of the best true crime documentaries you will ever see (that sadly didn’t get as much attention as it deserved back in 2011), he takes something we’ve seen a lot before, and comes up with something completely different with it.
Lo and Behold isn’t that good – in part, I think, because the subject of the internet is so big that Herzog barely seems to be able to scratch the surface in the 98 minutes he dedicates to it in the film. I almost wish that this was going to be something like a 10 part documentary series – so that many of the people Herzog talks to would get an hour to themselves to expand on their thoughts. Herzog doesn’t rehash the same tired arguments about social media, pornography, etc. Instead he looks at the bigger picture – how the internet started, what it has already done for us, the potential it can do in the future – and perhaps the dangers and benefits moving forward. Herzog isn’t naïve enough to think we can put the genie back in the bottle – and doesn’t want to. He does want to know where we, as a species, are headed however.
Herzog separates the film into 10 chapters, and basically, he switches back and forth from good stories to bad. Herzog delights in talking with brilliant people – and he certainly does that, when talking to some of the people who help design the technology that allowed the internet to start – and there are moments when you almost feel like a digital utopia is on the way. Then, of course, Herzog, plunges us into despair when discussing troll culture – using a heartbreaking story of a young woman who died in a traffic accident, and how a picture of her dead body went viral, causing people to mock her parents, hiding behind their anonymity of course, which makes you want to unplug altogether. There are even some segments when he seems to be suggesting both at once – driverless cars that will make your commute stress free and efficient, unless of course, something goes wrong causing massive accidents the passenger is powerless to control.
Herzog’s greatest strength in documentaries like this is his unusual sense of humor – and his ability to delve into complex subjects and larger meanings, without the whole enterprise devolving into pretentious garbage. While I think his increasing celebrity, which started with Grizzly Man more than a decade ago, is a mixed blessing at best – a lot more people know who Werner Herzog is, and his amusing, intellectual ramblings, than actually watch his films, it can help a great deal in a film like this – it allows him to ask the big questions, and still have a sense of humor about it.
The film is funded by a corporate sponsor – a cybersecurity firm – but they had to have known that when you hire someone like Werner Herzog to make a film, he’s going to do whatever the hell he wants to do – which he does. I’m not sure that Herzog has really uncovered all that much new here – the basic conclusion of the film is that the internet is both a wonderful and horrible place that has already fundamentally changed human beings, and will continue to do so. We already knew that, didn’t we? And yet, I enjoyed watching Herzog head down the rabbit hole once more. No one quite does it like her does.