Friday, September 9, 2016

Eye on Movies: "Lo and Behold!"

Ecce Herzog!

For nearly fifty years, German filmmaker Werner Herzog has been challenging, entertaining, dazzling, annoying, and infuriating filmgoers and critics around the world. Every film he releases is a special event in the strictest sense of that overused adjective.

With his affable craziness and his unique mellifluous Bavarian diction, there is simply no one like him in the movies. I doubt there will ever be. Even when the work is not good (which is seldom, as in say, Nosferatu and Scream of Stone), Herzog defines sui generis.

Herzog still makes fictional features, but it’s his documentaries that seem to draw the most attention, at least in this country, with classics such as My Best Fiend (about his uproariously conflicted relationship with Klaus Kinski—a man he thought should be murdered), Grizzly Man, and Encounters at the End of the World.

Herzog seems to me to be an extremist of the human experience (i.e., Fitzcarraldo, where he dragged a full-sized riverboat over a steep hill in the South American jungle), but his latest documentary Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World is a reverie, an almost quiet and detached look at the Yin and Yang of the new world we have created with the Internet and its related digital technologies, including AI and robotics.

The film is divided into ten chapters, stepping back and forth contrasting such techno-utopians as Elon Musk with a variety of techno-dystopians, each with a different perspective on the Internet. It opens with the birth of the Internet in a non-descript room on the Stanford. campus (now plaqued as a landmark) which contains the very first server.

From there, it turns to the Internet’s dark side with the Catsouras family, who were psychically assaulted by hackers who posted photos of their dead daughter, Nikki, online, mocking their grief. The Catsourases honestly believe the Internet is a tool of the Antichrist, an accusation I believe deserves some credit.

But alongside the awfulness, there’s geeky joy and wonder. But it’s wonder plagued with anxiety. In the end, we’re left with nervous questions about where this new world had led us and where it might lead us still.

Among the other characters we meet is an engineer who devises robots to play soccer well enough to someday, he hopes, beat Brazil (which is all very clever but . . . why?)

Some of these new techno-tricks may actually make some people sick. Herzog visits one small community of souls who have been driven off the grid due to their allergies to digital technology. They’ve take up residence near a large SETI telescope because it’s the only place where they can avoid the damaging effects of electromagnetic waves. If those solar flares—discussed in another chapter—ever wash over us and shut down the entire world’s telecommunications system, those folks may be the only humans left standing.

But “no one ever gets the future right,” as one cosmologist says. The Internet was only sparsely predicted in the popular culture of science fiction, which was busy predicting flying cars, jetpacks and vacations on Mars. Stanley Kubrick et al were off by a cosmic mile, it must be admitted. What we have is the Internet and its associated technologies to show for it all. We still remain earth-bound.

Lo and Behold isn’t one of Herzog’s most electrifying films. It’s impressionistic rather than thorough and many viewers will already be acquainted with some these debates. In this film, Herzog seems a little like your strange but adored uncle who’s just turned on his first computer for the very first time: “Wow! Whoever thought!? Lo and Behold!”

With his distinct narrative style (parodied by everyone, including himself) Herzog is the best of companions to this dangerous new world. Wherever he travels, Werner Herzog is your perfect tour guide.

Copyright 2016 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield’s Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up  novel will appear this Fall 2016. His contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark won the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book Festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies and Now Speaks the Devil (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, Scribed, and other retailers. His reviews have appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal and he recently published a two-part look at the life and career of the great film villain (and spaghetti western star) Lee Van Cleef in Filmfax. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

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