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“Werner Herzog Sings The Body Electric: His new documentary Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World”

Sep 12, 2016 - Cinematica, by Rielly Stares

September 12, 2016 by Guest Contributor
“I sing the body electric,
The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them,
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the soul.”
– Walt Whitman

Werner Herzog’s new documentary about the internet, Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, is now playing at the Screening Room as of Friday, September 9th, 2016. Werner Herzog is the internationally lauded and immensely prolific filmmaker who directed the documentaries Grizzly Man (2005) and Cave of Forgotten Dreams (a 2010 3D celebration of the Chauvet cave containing ancient on its walls in France); and a raft of raw, intense, heavy fictional films, including Queen of the Desert (a 2015 film starring Nicole Kidman about the adventurer/write Gertrude Bell), Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009), Fitzcarraldo (1982), and Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1977). Of the over fifty films he’s made (and counting) many are considered among the finest films every made. Herzog is also a steady and hard-working director in the world of opera and theatre, a writer and poet, and an actor. He has started his own film school and is a generous and tireless pedagogue who uses any and all opportunities to teach others what he knows and what he believes is important. Of all the things he does, Herzog says that the prose and poetry he has written probably has deeper and lasting cultural relevance than anything, including any of his films and he speaks frequently about the importance of fostering the poetic spirit for any kind of artistic endeavour, including and especially film-making.

A discussion of his work must also include this director’s “true grit” and his restless preference for most extreme settings, most extreme physical feats (usually of endurance) whilst film making, and most extreme subject matter. The appreciation of Herzog’s poetic spirit and his spectacularly adventurous and extremes-seeking nature, I think, is part of what binds Herzog’s fans to him, of which there are many. Francois Truffaut, himself acknowledged as one of the greatest, called him “the most important film director alive.” With his characteristic stark acknowledgement of reality and bravado Werner Herzog also joins the expression of enthusiasm of his own talents. When attending a forum at the Producers Guild of America in conjunction with the release of Lo and Behold, Herzog said: “I believe that not only was I the best choice for this: I was the only choice.” He cited his curiosity and the fact that he is a vast reader and says this makes him a critical and conceptual thinker adequate for the task of considering the internet at its impact on humanity. I think Herzog’s relative unfamiliarity with the internet and his unusual upbringing in a remote German village without any running water, electricity, or telephones make him a unique candidate to lead an investigation into the most significant and far-reaching technological development of our time. He’s after all in the position of witnessing our rapid unfolding of technological advancement because he realizes what it is like to live with the very basic level of technology that most of humanity experienced for most of history. To a person who made his first phone call at the age of 19 as Herzog did, the last 80 yeas of developments in technology must seem all part of the same wonder – or more exactly rephrased – they must seem all part of the wonder that they truly are. Indeed, the lofty and prophetic title of this film Lo and Behold is meant to underscore the wondrousness of the subject matter and to acknowledge the actual and important dawning of a vastly unique era for humanity. It’s also referring to “LO” the first internet message ever sent in UCLA in 1969, which was going to be “LOG” before an unexpected failure of the equipment.

At the time of the release of Lo and Behold, Werner Herzog called himself a beginner with regard to the technology about which he was reflecting. “I understand the basics conceptually but I’m still a novice,” he said about his facility with the internet at the Producer’s Guild of America. During an interview with Ben Makuch of VICE Herzog entertainingly and with self-awareness revealed his at-the-time patchy knowledge about the internet. He recounts to Makuch that after having participated in a podcast someone suggested that he google it once it was posted, to which Herzog asked how he would “hack” into Google to do such a thing and how for minutes afterward the room was seized hopelessly with irrepressible and wordless fits of laughter. No one who has ever used Google would refer to the act in that manner. It’s clear that embarking on this project Herzog was secure in what is actually his historically and perennially preferred film-making perspective: that of being a stranger in a strange land. I hope now that this film has been made, Werner Herzog can take time to explore the internet and discover how he really feels about it when it’s up close and a daily facet of his life. Although I’m sure he believes his “fresh eyes” approach served his purposes, I’m curious about what he would actually think about his subject if he had the same level of usership on it as someone like me, and how he would specifically feel about Facebook and Twitter and Youtube etc. if he were to actually know them and experience them on a daily basis. He made it clear in his VICE interview that he is aware that there are Twitter and Facebook accounts under his name, but that they are made by “imposters” and not authorized by him.

Throughout the film, Herzog’s conversation perspectives of the internet are only representative of a technical or scientific view of the internet (curiously heavy on nightmare science-fiction scenarios) or with those highly-antagonistic to the internet. The personal opinion that Herzog in the end seems to convey is that the internet may be a miracle, but that it may be just as well avoided altogether. I can detect from watching interviews about this film that at times Herzog seemed pleased in some ways to be so far away from the enchantment and – for himself and his work – still largely living in a pre-internet environment of his own preservation.

This project began when the production company Netscout offered him a commission to do five short films about the internet. Herzog says it became clear within days that the scope of the project would be much larger. He says that Netscout easily assented to all expansion and to his delight, continued to give him freedom to pursue it in any way he pleased. His modus operandi was to set up a series of meetings with experts and interesting characters. He admits that in general he shoots relatively little footage compared with other filmmakers for any project he embarks upon. In the end this time he shot about 28 hours of footage mostly in Los Angeles and Chicago and Pittsburgh to make the finished product of 1 hour 38 minutes. About his methods for capturing good footage quickly, he explained in his talk at The Producer’s Guild of America (whose audience was populated with many young filmmakers) that in all the films in which he uses “talking heads” footage, he that he doesn’t do interviews, but he “conducts conversations.” He does not have a catalogue of questions and likes to arrive completely unprepared. He gets a quick sense of the person he’s dealing with and forms a natural rapport. Herzog emphasizes that in order to be able to have a rapport with others they must be worldly and to read widely: “You learn about the world and reading that gives you access to the rapport and thoughtfulness. If you want to learn how to do it – have real conversations with real people, expose yourself to the world where it is raw stark-naked and intense. That will make it easy for you to have a decent conversation on camera.”

The students in his charge at his film school, Rogue Film School (est. 2009) are probably well-used to such admonishments. According to Wikipedia “The program is a 4-day seminar with Herzog, which occurs annually (the last of which was held in March, 2016 in Munich). Courses include “the art of lockpicking. Travelling on foot. The exhilaration of being shot at unsuccessfully. The athletic side of film-making. The creation of your own shooting permits. The neutralization of bureaucracy. Guerrilla tactics. Self reliance.” For the students, Herzog has said, “I prefer people who have worked as bouncers in a sex club, or have been wardens in the lunatic asylum. You must live life in its very elementary forms. The Mexicans have a very nice word for it: pura vida. It doesn’t mean just purity of life, but the raw, stark-naked quality of life. And that’s what makes young people more into a filmmaker than academia.” In an appearance on a UK television debate program called Intelligence Squared, Herzog states: “The poet, the filmmaker, the musician… must not avert his eyes. We should not be sitting in the library and study it as an academic subject. I think the poet has to live a real, solid, pure, raw life out there in life itself.” He goes onto say that the poet must even observe and try to understand all aspects of culture – even the most base and vulgar.

In this film, Herzog brings us interviews with scientists, computer experts, technologists, robotics engineers, and game-designing microbiologists, and he also features the stories of ordinary people with extraordinary relationships to the internet like internet and video game addicts and others who live without the internet for other reasons. One of the technical people interviewed is Lawrence Krauss, professor in The School of Earth and Space Exploration and the physics department at Arizona State University. Krauss an internationally known theoretical physicist, and is the author of The Physics of Star Trek (1995). Leonard Kleinrock also fittingly makes an appearance, who was part of the team that developed ARPANET at UCLA in 1969 which was the precursor to the internet. He’s now a computer science professor at UCLA and has contributed to the development of computer networking and computer theory. Kevin Mitnick is in the film, a.k.a “the world’s most famous hacker.” In the 1990s Mitnick hacked into the corporate systems of dozens of corporations and now, after his arrest and the fulfilment of his incarceration for these crimes, works as a writer and corporate and governmental security consultant all over the world through his company Mitnick Security Consulting. Mitnick also teaches the willing at his security awareness training company KnowBe4.

Herzog also converses with the billionaire engineer, inventor, and former Queen’s University undergrad (!) Elon Musk, who spearheads many projects and companies, but most notably is the founder of Tesla Motors, SolarCity, and SpaceX. SpaceX is a private technological aerospace program. According to Wikipedia, “Musk has stated that the goals of SolarCity, Tesla Motors, and the SpaceX program revolve around his vision to change the world and humanity. His goals include reducing global warming through sustainable energy production and consumption, and reducing the “risk of human extinction” by “making life multiplanetary” by setting up a human colony on Mars.” Elon Musk also created a non-profit research company called OpenAI “which aims to develop artificial general intelligence in a way that is safe and beneficial to humanity… By making AI available to everyone, OpenAI wants to “counteract large corporations who may gain too much power by owning super-intelligence systems devoted to profits, as well as governments which may use AI to gain power and even oppress their citizenry”” (Wikipedia) During the interview with VICE Herzog said that Musk, in an effort to answer Herzog’s questions truthfully, often lapsed into sustained silence and deep thought before responding to Herzog, but that Musk seemed to become excited and more animated when he was talking about SpaceX and the need to colonize Mars. Herzog says in order to enliven the conversation he himself volunteered to take a one-way trip to Mars. He confessed to the Producer’s Guild of America, though, that his statement was actually sincere. “I would love to go on the first mission to Mars as long as I have a camera on me. As long as through an interplanetary internet I can beam my images down to planet earth instantly. And I said to Elon Musk, even if it were a one-way ticket, yes I would do it because I’m so curious.” Then Herzog stated that he’d love to, instead of being the first documentary-maker on Mars, to be the first poet on Mars.

Also making an appearance in this documentary is Sebastian Thrun, a German entrepreneur and computer scientist, once a vice-president and fellow at Google, founder of the team that went on to build the Google self-driving car, and founder of Google X (a secret branch of Google). He is also currently teaching at Stanford University and Georgia Tech. The U.S. Department of Defence agency, DARPA, awarded Thrun and the team he led victory at the 2005 Grand Challenge for their robotic vehicle, and again in 2007 for another robotic vehicle. DARPA is involved with developing emerging technologies for use by the military. In 2012 James Ball of the Guardian called Sebastien Thrun of the top 20 “fighters for internet freedom.” A very memorable and warm interview in Lo and Behold is with Ted Nelson who was the founder of Project Xanadu in 1960, an early information sharing network interface planned to be vastly more interconnected than the current worldwide web with regard to matching the similarity or relevance of one piece of information and another. According to Wikipedia “Project Xanadu was to be a worldwide electronic publishing system using hypertext linking that would have created a universal library.” He wrote a highly acclaimed book about computing entitled Computer Lib/Dream Machines: You can and must understand computers NOW in 1974, which had a self-published first edition until it was eventually picked up by Microsoft Press in 1987. It’s considered one of the first books written about the personal computer. Computer Lib/Dream Machines’ forward was written by Stewart Brand of The Whole Earth Catalogue, a counter-cultural magazine that began publishing in 1968 and went on regularly until 1972 and the intermittently until 1998. Nelson says that he was influenced by the DIY spirit present in The Whole Earth Catalogue. Amongst those the fascinating scientists and technologists Herzog talks with is Lucianne Walkowicz who is an Astronomer, a Kepler Fellow at UC Berkeley, and the Henry Norris Russell Fellow at Princeton University. Walkowicz holds a B.S. in Physics from Johns Hopkins University, and a M.S. and Ph. D. from University of Washington. Currently she works in the Astronomy Department at the Adler Planetarium and studies stellar magnetic activity and how stars influence a planet’s suitability as a host for alien life. Walkowicz “has been internationally recognized for her advocacy for conservation of dark night skies,” according to IMDb. She’s also an interesting artist who has created a series of visual images in collaboration with Chicago illustrator Frank Okay to (according to her website) “change the image of persons impacted by incarceration by using space travel as a lens for their experiences.” She has also interestingly composed electro-acoustic pieces using “sonifications” of data from NASA’s Kepler mission.

Speaking of sonifications, there are some things to note about the music made to accompany of Lo and Behold  Prolific artist, writer, and composer David Byrne was involved in the project but only apparently (perhaps by his choice) as only a guitarist. Also listed as in musicians as a violinist is Lisa Germano who is an indie singer/songwriter who has released seven solo albums. According to Wikipedia: “[Germano] is… known as a guest performer and/or session musician on over sixty records by a variety of artists, including U2, John Mellencamp, Simple Minds, David Bowie, Yann Tiersen, Neil Finn, Sheryl Crow, Iggy Pop, Billy Joel, Jewel and Eels.” On the credits page for Lo and Behold on IMDb both Mark de Gli Antoni and Sebastian are listed as “musicians” on this project. They are both formerly of the four-member NYC alternative band Soul Coughing from the 1990s and 2000s. Mark de Gli Antony has done film scores many films since the 2000s including Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired and Into the Abyss, which is a Werner Herzog film about capital punishment. Sebastian Steinberg has in that time been working as a session musician  According to the trailer, which I slowed down and paused at just the right second, the music in this film is composed by Mark de Gli Antoni and Colin Stevens. I could find as yet no Wikipedia entry for the other listed composer Colin Stevens. He is interestingly also credited with “musician: instrument design” on IMDb. I found seemingly relevant a Soundcloud account, a Facebook page, and one Youtube video and sent a message to see if it was the same Colin Stevens and received a reply that it was not. Anyway, it seems that this film’s band consisted of three guitars played by Mark De Gli Antoni, Sebastian Steinberg, and David Byrne; a violin played by Lisa Germano; and an instrument designed by Colin Stevens played by Colin Stevens – all playing music composed by Mark de Gli Antoni and Colin Stevens… or something like that! The music is expectedly droning, ambient, spacious, at times soaring, and at many times ominous. It repeatedly creates this sense of viewing earth from outer space.

Along with the music the tone of the film is set by Herzog’s voice. A palpable feeling of the film is Herzog’s enthusiasm and energy and his inevitable interest in worst case scenarios, most terrible extrapolations, and the most extreme results. Even in his monotone German narration that overlays this film you can hear the high timbre of excitement – and one could say delight – when he is speaking in enormous superlatives about the wonders of technology and equally when he is revealing something particularly terrible. This documentary is certainly a mixture of both of appreciation for the incredible strides made by the technology that many of us use every day and take for granted and the results of Werner Herzog’s search for the worst-possible downsides to it all.

Interestingly, in his interviews to promote Lo and Behold, Herzog’s tone about the internet is more exclusively in attempting to convince the audience that the introduction of the internet is significant and noteworthy event in world history than in relaying any trepidation about its use or its future. In the WIRED interview Herzog says: “The internet is a gigantic step in our civilization at least as large as, for example, the introduction of electricity.” “I’m not a prophet but I know that it’s a huge, huge, huge momentous event and we have to learn to cope with it prudently.” In the VICE interview he calls the internet a “monumental revolution.” During an interview this year at The Sundance Film Festival (where Lo and Behold was well-received), the producer of this film Jim McNiel also makes this case to Steve Zeichik of The Los Angeles Times: “We wanted people to understand that they’re living in a very historical time. Just in the last 30-40 years this phenomenon has connected the world has permeated every part of life. If you don’t stop and think about it you don’t get it. You don’t understand that your every day is being driven by this ubiquitous connectivity. So we want people to stop and pause and just ask themselves for a moment what would be different if it wasn’t there or what would be different if it wasn’t working exactly as we have come to expect it will work all of the time.” McNiel adds: “What’s happened in 40 years is nothing compared to what’s going to happen in the next ten.” There is indeed a lot of speculation in the film about the future of the technology that we know today, the feasibility of communicating with a colony on Mars using an interplanetary internet, extending the internet into the fixtures and electrical fixtures in homes so that one’s moment-to-moment life is a seamless fulfilment of one’s personal aesthetic preferences and wishes, and controlling and interacting with the internet using deliberately chosen thoughts and brainwaves thereby creating a form of interconnected ESP.

One of Herzog’s conversation topics that was really evocative for me in Lo and Behold was a whimsical and naive-sounding question he seemed to ask every technical expert. It was also posed as follows post-documentary in an interview with Patrick House, a writer and neuroscientist during an interview for The New York Times. Herzog says: “The Prussian war theoretician Clausewitz, in Napoleonic times, famously said, “Sometimes war dreams of itself.” Does the Internet dream of itself?” Each of the technical experts in the documentary gave this a thoughtful answer. This question for me brings up a number of thoughts I think are important but none of which are really answers to the question. Firstly, I think a more interesting question for me is ‘what seems to be the fulfilment of the furthermost intent of the use of the internet in general?’ This new question, sparked from Herzog’s, was actually satisfactorily answered for me by one of Herzog’s interviewees in the film: “In the connected world the notion is to really tie together every human being and every piece of information on the planet.” If this indeed is the intent, thinking of this fact in the most general terms, is that not kind of beautiful? One of the computer scientists in Lo and Behold states that the internet was originally an open tool shared amongst fellow scientists and technologist at UCLA, and it was built with a spirit of trust and openness between colleagues. The internet as it was developed was not really meant to be the framework of society, even though that’s what it has turned into. The extrapolation and proliferation of this tool has created an unprecedented sharing environment similar to the thrust of Ted Nelson’s Xanadu Project, though obviously different in structure. The internet in more ways than one is a product of and somewhat a realization of the peace, love, and understanding of 1969 in California.

Secondly, “does the internet dream of itself,” makes me think of Virginia Heffernan’s 2016 book Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art, to which I was introduced in a conversation about this article by a friend. In it Heffernan discusses the recognition of the internet as a cultural artifact: “Like all new technologies, the internet appears to represent the world more faithfully than technologies that proceeded it, and the internet is an extraordinarily seductive representation of the world. We’ve never seen a work of art like it. That is the book’s central contention, that the internet is a massive and collaborative work of realist art. And moreover, it’s so beguiling a realist showpiece, and so readily confused with reality, that books about it call themselves books about business, politics, or science, the reigning bywords for reality itself. That is a mistake. Digital forms are best illuminated by cultural criticism, which uses the tools of art and literary theory to make sense of the internet’s glorious illusion: that the internet is life. Because, of course, the internet is not life. It’s a highly artificial regime with tight rules and rituals that organize its text, music, and images. That’s why the internet becomes more deeply meaningful and moved when read as an aesthetic object than lived or reported on as first-hand human experience.” Along with this insightful train of thought, Heffernan likens her early (necessarily limited) explorations of the millions and millions of privately uploaded videos on Youtube as the “discovery of a lost civilization” for a person who was used to reviewing television shows for The New York Times.

What I think is most meaningful about the internet that Herzog did not discuss that is evoked by the question “does the internet dream of itself” (in the specific context he lays out) is the ‘you-and-me’-ness of the internet. It’s the practically indiscriminate inclusion of astoundingly diverse and numerous endlessly accessible cultural products and voices in video and print and photograph and so on that make it impossible to ignore that the dream the internet is dreaming is more like the dream of humanity at large than was true for any other cultural landscape that immediately preceded it. The things that we consider obvious and ordinary that are happening on the internet are, in fact, compared to what was possible just a few decades ago, miraculously extraordinary.

I’m sure that this documentary is only the beginning of Werner Herzog’s relationship to the internet and perhaps as it deepens I will hopefully get a chance to hear him express some of his more experienced views on the technology and its implications. I’m sure he will not “avert his eyes” from it. We are really lucky to have a Werner Herzog in this world. One of my favourite parts of any of the interviews I watched that were done for the promotion of this documentary was when Herzog was asked at the forum for the Producer’s Guild of America what his film editing process is, he replies that he goes through the footage “with great urgency.” When the talk leader asks him why he does it with great urgency, Werner Herzog looked at her surprised and briefly says, “Because that avoids to become boring for the audience.” But it seems clear to me that Herzog means tell her of course he does it with great urgency, because he obviously just does everything with great urgency. To his credit he has a manner that wishes to get to the heart of things, he’s genuinely interested in his work and in the world, which I think is a very good thing.
To the Producer’s Guild of America Herzog listed some things he would have liked to include in Lo and Behold that he didn’t get a chance to cover. Firstly he would have had an interview with Tim Berners-Lee who designed the worldwide web, whom he only met him months later – he was not available during shooting. Also he said he wanted to have discussion of Bitcoin which he called “phantom currency.” He said, “I don’t know how it functions, but I would love to rob the Bitcoin bank.” Herzog also mentioned that Estonia is a fascinating case study as it has one of the highest internet users per capita in the world. Lastly, he said he was curious about dating platforms but didn’t have the time to investigate them. Now Herzog is entranced with another fascinating project. He’s completing a very interesting-looking documentary about volcanoes all over the world called Into the Inferno which is being released later on this year. I’m sure that I will make a point of seeing it.