By Elias Savada.
Werner Herzog’s documentaries tend to explore interesting lands or unusual people: the Chauvet caves in France (2010’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams), the frozen beauty of Antarctica (2007’s Encounters at the End of the World), or bear lover Timothy Treadwell (2005’s Grizzly Man)
Now he catches up to something we find around us every day: the Internet. Herzog’s latest essay on our technologically connected lives arrives just as the latest rounds of internet hacks shows how damaging the loss of our privacy can be. Just ask Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
The sly, often intoxicating cautionary tale that is Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World is a mesmerizing watch. It pairs well with Alex Gibney’s new exposé Zero Days, all about the Israeli-U.S. computer virus, later christened Stuxnet, which attacked the Iranian nuclear plant at Natanz.
Herzog’s film is laid out in ten chapters, running from the early days of the web (ARPANET’s birth in 1969) to its future, all narrated, as is often the case in his films, by Herzog with his singular brand of spry, determined curiosity. In between you get over two dozen energetic talking heads chiming in on the good, the bad, and the ugly lowdown on the web.
I’ve always considered myself a PC trailblazer of sorts, long before what Herzog calls the explosion of information technology. My first computer was Radio Shack’s minimalist TRS-80, with its tape cassette drive. I was using on one of Apple’s Macintosh machines within a year after it was released. I adopted America Online in its dial-up dinosaur days – so early that my email address was just my first name (no numbers!). I also beta-tested for them, and was in the small focus group that suggested they alert their users that AOL would never ask for passwords, which I suspect was one of the first internet scams hoisted on an unsuspecting public.
Anyway, that kind of geek fascination is what makes the film so enjoyable, whether it’s talking about EteRNA, a collaborative, web-based puzzle game with RNA molecules that might lead to biological discoveries; the revelation that educating the masses through online courses finds that incredible minds are not always at the brightest colleges; or, what’s up with those autonomous cars. There’s also the dark side, as in the case of Nikki Catsouras, who died in 2006 at 18 in a horrible car crash. The two first responders from the California Highway Patrol leaked the pictures of her disfigured body, and the photos were eventually were sent by mean-spirited people to the family’s email accounts. This segment is quite unsettling, not because of the photos or the hateful emails (not shown in the film – thank you, Werner), but because the family still looks shell-shocked so long after the girl’s death. It’s also an interesting framing structure captured by a stationary camera, with the parents standing behind the remaining three daughters, who silently stare into space while seated at a kitchen table bedecked with scrumptious-looking baked goods. The mother confesses her belief that the internet is inherently evil. It’s the anti-Christ.
Another chapter deals with the disruption of the internet for any number of reasons (sun flare activity, sabotage, someone tripped over the plug). Herzog gets Lawrence Krauss, a cosmologist with Arizona State University, to offer up his doomsday theory. Boy, are we really that dependent on our gadgets? Is it time to become a survivalist? Are we doomed to eventual distinction? Food for thought.
There are also stops at the hotbeds of such technology, especially Stanford and Carnegie Mellon Universities. And a sojourn to the opposite end of the radio spectrum. That would be Green Bank, West Virginia, where the National Radio Quiet Zone restricts all transmissions, allowing people who suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity (yes, it’s a rare condition) to live a humble, simpler, pain-free life, devoid of cell towers. While across the country is a rustic spot that helps people cope with IAD (internet addiction disorder). Surprisingly, this disorder originated as a satirical hoax twenty years ago. This affliction can cause harm and death, and it’s a lot more prevalent than you would think.
Hackers get their own chapter, filmed at a DEF CON gathering in Las Vegas. Herzog gets Kevin Mitnick on camera. For those of you old enough to remember, this 50-something guy, now a security consultant, was hacking in a semi-organic way as a teenager in Los Angeles, eventually breaking into several high profile corporate computer networks. Definitely one of the film’s more colorful characters with some very enlightening stories and stronger warnings. “People are the weakest link,” Mitnick declares. There are suckers born every minute. This section contains some of the same alerts sounded in Zero Days, with future wars being fought on cyber battlefronts.
Herzog does a very good job of not only educating his audience but entertaining them. The Internet on Mars? Let’s get some nice sound bites from Elon Musk and other scientific folks. And bring in some robots, too. Sebastian Thrun, CEO of Udacity, believes an artificial intelligence machine will be able to make movies in the future. “Will it be quite as good as yours?” he wonders aloud to Herzog. The filmmaker answers back, with no hesitation and an underlying laugh, “Of course not.”
The film has a nice, meandering pace to it, courtesy of Marco Capalbo’s very capable editing. Rather than dig deep on one particular issue, Herzog opts for Lo and Behold to provide a broad and engaging discussion on the topic, one that should be revisited a decade from now.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).