Image: author's own. ‘Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World’, 2016 dir: Werner Herzog
The Internet, Documentary Science Fiction, and Feminine Points of View
In his latest cinematic venture, ‘Lo and Behold: Reveries of a Connected World’ (2016), Werner Herzog offers a simultaneously utopian and dystopian tale about the birth, adolescence and anticipated adulthood of the Internet. In ten chapters arranged like the contents of a dissertation, Herzog delves into the dazzling and dark sides of the Internet since its inception in 1969. Each chapter offer interviews with key visionaries and actors involved in the development of the Internet, including Leonard Kleinrock (University of California Los Angeles), Elon Musk (Tesla Motors and SpaceX) and Sebastian Thrun (Google X and Udacity). Herzog asks many questions off-camera before shooting to get out of the way of the narrative and highlight what the speakers have to say. His respondents provide illuminating and critical insights into the workings of the Internet, including its potentially disastrous effects on society. Ultimately, Herzog uses their contributions to make his point: for better or for worse, the Internet has come to dominate our daily lives so that human existence now completely depends on it for survival.
‘Lo and Behold,' which takes its title from UCLA's first failed attempt to send the word 'Login' to the Stanford University mainframe (only the word fragment 'Lo' successfully arrived), is worth seeing solely to learn about the chimerical workings of the Internet and to enjoy the results of Herzog's Q&A with his brilliant, eccentric, affable, and occasionally amusing respondents (for more details on Herzog's "characters" see the reviews of Lo and Behold published this year in The Guardian, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Cinematica, and Indiewire). However, I argue that - for Courtauldian readers especially - Herzog's film is significant for two additional reasons: its genre-blending aspects, and its partial foregrounding of (regrettably, exclusively White-Caucasian) feminine points of view. These two aspects of the film place ‘Lo and Behold’ outside the register of Herzog's existing oeuvre, which currently includes over fifty fiction and non-fiction titles.
‘Lo and Behold’ constitutes a departure from Herzog's previous work because he uses this film as an opportunity to explore the still-emergent genre of documentary science fiction. While many of Herzog's previous films have certainly dealt with weird, extreme, or even bizarre subject matter, his earlier films are fairly easily classifiable into one of two narrative categories: fiction (e.g., Fitzcarraldo, 1984) or non-fiction (e.g., Cave of Forgotten Dreams, 2010). ‘Lo and Behold’, however, transcends both of these traditional categories, and straddles the line between documentary, non-fictional depiction of "reality" and utopian/dystopian science fiction. In his Sundance Review for Indiewire (Jan. 24, 2016), Eric Kohn describes the film as "a kind of speculative science fiction film that just happens to unfold in the present." I would even add that Herzog accomplishes this feat in a very particular, authorial way: he firmly grounds the first chapters of the film in the realm of non-fictional reality, then slowly incorporates science fiction tropes into the narrative, until Chapter 7, when Dr. Lawrence Krauss (a cosmologist at Arizona State University) explicitly mentions the cover of Philip K. Dick's 1968 science fiction novel, ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’. At this point in the narrative, the audience becomes fully aware that the documentary they are watching has somehow been converted into an almost classic sci-fi film.
Finally, watching ‘Lo and Behold’ allows us to witness how Herzog concertedly tries to foreground feminine points of view. Perhaps the most striking example of this is his interview with Dr. Lucianne Walkowicz, a renowned astrophysicist and multimedia artist (pictured above) at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. Dr. Walkowicz provides eloquent commentary about society's dependency on the Internet, and provides an important counter-argument to Elon Musk’s position. While Dr. Walkowicz appears several times throughout the film, her most significant appearances occur just before and after that of Elon Musk. In Chapter 7 (titled "The Internet on Mars") the latter states that, ‘should something go wrong on Earth,’ Mars can be considered a ‘back-up planet’ for human travel and colonisation. Dr. Walkowicz, whose job as an astrophysicist is to search for evidence of life throughout the universe, strongly contests Musk's argument, and Herzog clearly agrees with her. In my view, this debate about the proposed human exploitation of Mars (a discourse that is intimately connected to debates surrounding the uses and misuses of the Internet) makes Herzog's new film unmissable.