Alone and Behold: A Review of Werner Herzog’s Latest Film
On the day of its release, Werner Herzog’s latest film, Lo and Behold: Reveries of a Connected World, launched not just in theaters, but online as well. I felt it fitting to choose to stay at home alone and “rent” the movie right away. As the pixels on my laptop flickered with Herzog’s visions, I reveled in the juxtaposition of my solitude while consuming this film whose subtitle espouses connection.
Midway through the film, as if on command, a colleague from South Africa sent me a message. How apt. My solitude has been penetrated by a message from half a world away. I tell her to watch the movie because halfway through it is already stunning, and she brings up her own perception of the irony that we are communicating while this film is streaming into my life. She mentions something about telepathy at the very same moment the film begins to discuss the possibilities of telepathy and that soon we will be “tweeting thoughts”… “It is already happening,” I think to myself. I tell her about the synchronicity, and she replies, “weird.”
The macrocosm of any film is contained within the microcosm of the first scene. Lo opens with a shot of the campus of UCLA. The frame focuses not on the architecture, but on a tree-lined campus road, with students traversing the space in slow motion, allowing us to see movements in a way not possible to the naked eye. Herzog narrates that none of the students are aware of the role this space played in giving birth to the internet and what significance it holds for how we live and communicate now.
As he introduces us to these unknowing suspects, I reflect. Those students are avatars for us. We are also in the dark. Do we know where the internet was born? What traces of its nascence are present for us now? What it actually looks like? As a filmmaker who focuses on showing what cannot be seen (La Soufriere, and more), Herzog shows us a mundane image, while the “revolution” he speaks of, as the shot lingers, suffuses its very fabric, invisible and totalizing.
We move to “some sort of shrine” down a “grotesque” hallway, as Leonard Kleinrock, our first tour guide and internet pioneer, at once proclaims the sacredness of what he’s about to show us while he vigorously slams and slaps that very object representing this veneration, the first computer of the internet. “This is a military machine, you can’t break it” rings out like a mantra, subtending all that is to follow throughout the film. The camera closes in on the computer in a type of body cavity search, as Kleinrock describes how it smells (“delicious, old”) and what its parts are. “This machine is so ugly on the inside, it is beautiful.”
Historical record, due to the IMP LOG books stored in that room, has it that the internet was born on October 29, 1969 at 10:30 PM in Los Angeles (or Palo Alto, CA, respectively, if you want to clock the recipient of the first missive as well, given that it can only be successful if the receiver actually receives). The camera shows Kleinrock holding this document, and we can make out the scribbles of proof, “22:30 Talked to SRI host to host.”
This is followed by a closeup of the machine’s plaque: Interface Message Processor. IMP. The mischievous child goblin at the center of it all. Following the rabbit hole opened by this linguistic play provides illuminating avenues of analogy between what imps are and how we interact with the internet. But Herzog does not do that in his film.
While many gems of documentary footage, old and new, throw our current usage of the internet into relief, I would like focus on a few that impressed me deeply. And while I have tried my best to minimize spoilers, I assume that you have seen the film because you can stop what you are doing right now and stream it immediately to your computer and watch it before continuing to read on. Done? Ok! Let’s dive in.
In an outstanding scene of the film, a scene where Herzog pays someone a rare compliment, we visit with Ted Nelson, an internet pioneer. Nelson describes his relation to the early days of the internet in terms of water and interconnection, and, given this, what hyperlinking should have been, but did not become.
Standing on a deck, with a cozy, gray harbor behind him, he says, “Writing is the process of reducing a tapestry of interconnection to a narrow sequence. And this is in a sense illicit. […] This is a wrongful compression of what should spread out. In today’s computers they betrayed that because there’s no system for decent cut and paste, and they changed the meaning of the words cut and paste and pretended it was the same thing.”
Losing breath, Nelson continues without pausing, “So a guy named Larry Tessler whom I consider to be a good friend nevertheless changed those words; I consider that to be a crime against humanity and he doesn’t even understand why because humanity has no decent writing tools.” By which point you almost want to take a breath for Nelson.
He closes his eyes, as though going back deep inside his mind, as if resetting himself, and says slowly, “In any case this is the problem of interconnection, representation and sequentialization… all…” with eyes still closed, he cracks a smile, pauses, and opens his eyes again and looks up, just past the camera (likely to Herzog), and says, proudly beaming, “…similar to the issue of water.”
The wrinkles on Nelson’s face mimic the ways he discusses the flow of water between his fingers. I was sucked into his description like an acupuncture needle into thirsty flesh, for just this past May, I spent an afternoon swimming in South Africa’s Magwa river, two hours by foot away from any road, dipping my hands in a rill and watching the water open around my fingers and close again behind them, just as Nelson describes. I entered my hand into the water in various ways, and observed how the water and air mixed together, or did not mix around fingers. I felt the power of the water against me, and pushed back, or didn’t, and let what I observed sink into my awareness. That day left me soaking in new realizations about the nature of water.
So when Nelson evokes water and the impossibility of describing systems of shifting structures, connections, and relations, I instantly related with him about how ineffable these insights are. I also instantly felt a sense that if one has not spent enough time around water, in a quiet and personal way, the words coming out of this man’s mouth would sound insane. But Herzog saw something in him that only film could capture. Herzog’s response to Nelson came not only through a verbal compliment (“to us you appear to be only one around who is clinically sane”), but his cinematography also followed suit.
As we are introduced to Ted Nelson, the camera focuses on an idyllic harbor. We see a shot of a house with a stone relief on its siding. A woman’s face, like Gaia, eyes closed in contemplation, rests in stillness as the camera captures a light breeze moving leaves of the plants that flank her face. The camera cuts to a shot of the surface of water, rippling, with Herzog’s voice still resounding, “…the web as we know it took a different route, but Nelsons ideas are still dormant.”
As Herzog allows us to climb inside Nelson’s world, we are taken to his computer screen, where he demonstrates his vision of what copy/paste should have been, but did not become. While we view Nelson’s hypertext, and the interlinking scrolls on his screen, the periphery begins to shift ever so slightly, up and down. Nelson lives on a house boat. The room itself undulates with the water’s current, underscoring the uncertain foundations at the heart of Nelson’s ideas.
What Nelson holds to be a kind of impossibility—“humanity has no decent writing tools”—Herzog expresses command of. The weaving of the filmic tapestry, the visual and aural connections and details that Herzog pays attention to, resist the “sequentialization” that frustrates Nelson. While the nature of temporality forces film to be sequential by definition, it also contains elements that defy Nelson’s interpretations.
The “writing” Herzog performs demands a deep listening and seeing. We must listen to what Herzog does not say while listening to what he does say. We must see what he does not show, while looking at what he does show. And we must do both of these things simultaneously.
While this could be said for the reading of any filmic text, with Herzog, it is particularly important because he writes as much in absences as in presence. In a film about the internet, which cannot really be depicted as such, we enter through human stories, woven together in Herzog’s brand of synesthesia. The gentle movements of the house boat inducing a kind of subtle nausea and poetic unity capture the essence of Herzog’s touch.
Here is another such woven thread: While interviewing Jay Lockman, an astronomer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia, Lockman says, the “enemy” of radio astronomy is ourselves, rather, the “natural radio signals we make on earth, either deliberately or accidentally.” The signals from outer space that they are looking for are so subtle, that human interference poses the biggest threat, including microwave ovens, cell signals, and radio signals, and Herzog rejoins, “Music stations…playing Elvis.” Lockman laughs, “playing Elvis.”—a tacit casting of Elvis as enemy. For radio astronomy to work, it needs the silent, remote wilderness of West Virginia.
Later, exactly 1:11 minutes into the film, entertaining the idea of an internet on Mars, Herzog cuts to a shot of the Chicago skyline at sunrise. His voice-over defamiliarizes the scene, catapulting us into another world, a world devoid of humans, the dystopia we have been skirting around the entire film. As the camera pans across lake Michigan, Elvis begins to croon, “Are you lonesome tonight?” Why, yes, Werner, I am! Alone and watching your movie. And there’s Elvis, jamming the star signals, as if on cue. “Do you miss me tonight, are you sorry we drifted apart.” The camera continues to pan and lands on the planetarium, Herzog notes, “the only point of contact.”
The camera skips indoors, and we are told that there is “a monument for those who have levitated and left. Yes, things must be real good out there.” We see astronomy porn—carefully constructed shots of astronauts and planetary models—before returning to the shores of Lake Michigan where we “meet some stragglers” in the form of buddhist monks milling about, conversationless. Herzog narrates, “they’re all on their smart phones. Have the monks stopped meditating? Have they stopped praying? They all seem to be tweeting.” The connection with the divine is lost as they dive into their magic rectangles, plugged in to another reality. Elvis continues, sweetly, “tell me dear, are you lonesome, tonight?”
Indeed. Historically, film launches were public affairs, with screenings in theaters, the theater itself forming a very specific kind of public space. Now, headphones on, with darkness of the night slipping through my window and around my screen, I consume this film alone, save for the few messages I send back and forth with my friend in South Africa. And Herzog has successfully converted Chicago into a dystopian paradise, replete with texting monks, and supersaturated with Elvis.
In the final scene, closing a film replete with visions of what the future holds for human/machine interfaces, and all the bleakness Herzog is known for teasing out of such visions, we are shown a group of men from West Virginia playing instruments together around a fire, singing, “Let me be your salty dog, I won’t be your man at all, honey let me be your salty dog.” The lyric defies what machines, and even humans, can provide. How fragile we are on this planet, and how fragile this digital ecosystem is, how ubiquitous and unseen, and yet by the end of the film, what we have done is take a long hard look at humanity, who now, surrounding a fire, in song, appears not to have changed at all from its prehistoric roots.
Over and against the cosmological highs and lows he’s taken us to, Herzog lets the salty dog have the last word.