PARK CITY, UTAH: Calling what Werner Herzog does after festival screenings of his films a “Q&A” is a shade inaccurate – yes, questions are asked, but the verbose and fascinating German filmmaker seldom answers the particular question at hand. But no one minds much, as he usually wanders into more interesting territory anyway; a question about engaging younger viewers, for example, somehow prompts Herzog to land, in 90 seconds tops, at a full-throated defense of the Warren Commission Report.
Tracking such tangents and deflections isn’t just an enjoyable festival spectator sport; it tells us a lot about how he thinks, and thus how he makes movies, and how he ends up packing so many ideas, big and small, into something like his new film Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World. The subject is nothing less than, as his thickly accented narration puts it, “the biggest revolution that we as human beings are experiencing”: the rise of the Internet, and the connectivity that it creates, for better and for worse.
He came at the topic as an outsider, he explained after Sunday morning’s Sundance Film Festival screening: “I do have a phone which I do not use very much. It actually had a mailbox, but whenever there were more than five messages, I would delete them categorically.” The project came to him as a result of his powerful (and wildly popular) video series about texting and driving, and was initially intended for similar distribution: “A company approached me, believing we should do something similar about the connected world, and I should do a few video clips for YouTube, five minutes in length. Within a day of shooting, I understand this was wrong, that was the wrong format.”
Instead, he tackled the topic of the Internet – and its history, its present, its future, and its effect – in this feature film, told in ten chapters. And his casual-at-best relationship with the technology ultimately served as motivation: “It was a very, very intense curiosity that moved me forward.” The result is less a disciplined documentary than a free-form essay film about connectivity, less a comprehensive history or analysis than a casual exploration.
“The real depth of the film comes because of the depth of discourse,” Herzog explained. “You see, I’m not a journalist. I do not have a catalog of questions. It’s just discourse, and I spontaneously come up with certain things.” As a result, it occasionally feels as though the filmmaker’s bitten off more than he can chew – that the topic is just too big for this sort of skimming treatment, that it’s a subject so giant that no single film could possibly contain it.
So what is Lo and Behold, then? It’s a Werner Herzog movie, with all the trimmings: the sometimes lyrical, sometimes (unintentionally, maybe?) hilarious, non sequitur-heavy narration (as his camera travels into the UCLA building where the first machines were built, he sneers, “the corridors here look repulsive”); a love for smart people who get very worked up and colorful characters whom he allows to rattle on as long as they’d like; an interest in wrestling with big ideas and connecting dots in an unexpected way. He may not answer all the questions he poses, but he’ll ask them in ways no other filmmaker would – like the remarkable scene, late in the picture, where he makes a video of the ASIMO robot pouring a drink into a haunting statement on humanity and technology, merely by letting it play all the way out and putting the right music under it.
Lo and Behold isn’t top-shelf Herzog; it doesn’t have the majesty of Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the sorrow of Into the Abyss, or the power of Grizzly Man. But it’s still Herzog, and that’s certainly worth celebrating. Or, as he said at the conclusion of that Q&A, “It’s a discourse, of course, it has nothing to do with cinema. And I like that we still have cinema as something where we can rely upon, something that we have become accustomed to; we love cinema, we love to see a movie together, we love the fact that there’s storytelling, and this not gonna go away. So we’d better meet in a movie theater.”
Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World screens this week at the Sundance Film Festival.