BFI London Film Festival 2016 – Lo And Behold, Reveries Of The Connected World (2016)
That’s quite the inelegant title, isn’t it? To start by solving that first mystery Lo & Behold Reveries Of The Connected World opens with Werner Herzog’s distinct Teutonic purr, as he takes us to a sacred site – California, October 29th, 1969. At 22:30hrs the first message was sent over the ARPANET from computer science Professor Leonard Kleinrock’s laboratory at the University of California in Los Angeles to the second network node at Stanford Research Institute, Menlo Park, San Francisco. This seismic event was the first interaction of two computers speaking to each other across a interlinked communication network, with the first two transmitted and received digits in that initial correspondence being the symbols L and O, before the system crashed. Thus, the herald of this was the almost biblical sounding LO, harkening to a flash of inspirational transcendence, or perhaps the eruption and permeation of the very bowels of Hell. It’s these two instincts that steer Herzog’s latest documentary, exploring the benefits and bellicosity of our modern umbilically surveiled world, and the various omens, both positive and negative, that augur the future. The commission follows Herzog’s incredible global success with a series of public information films regarding the dangers of driving and texting from a few years ago, a powerful piece that have been widely implemented as mandatory viewing part as part of getting your driving licence in North America, thus rendering the largest audience that Herzog has garnered in his half century career. After this success Herzog was approached by the web development company WebScout with a modest cheque and a brief to make something about the modern technological world, and in a mirror to that intergalactically broad he has delivered a inconsistent and stuttering work, with occasional flashes of deep insight among it’s ADS afflicted ambulations.
On paper, this should be one of the greatest documentaries of all time for the Menagerie, concerning itself as it does with a panoply of techno-cultural issues and threads which I am and will always be deeply fascinated – internet culture, digital evolution, robotic industrialization, artificial intelligence, and the Venn diagrams as to how these new horizons of the human experience overlap with more traditional forms of discourse and control – politics, economics, sociology, medicine, communication, commerce, the entertainment and media spheres. Unfortunately the lasting impression of Lo & Behold is a diverse but diffused selection of stuttering gifs which never manage to unearth more than the most ethereal sketches on a specific subject, and that I think is the films main obstacle to harboring any lasting value. Despite interviewing such evolutionary luminaries as Bob Kahn, Elon Musk, Sebastian Thrun,and Ted Nelson Herzog is not interested in welding any connective tissue, of crafting any overarching narrative, a prospect which is further partitioned by the decision to compartmentalize the pieces into a dozen or so chapters which have little capacity to interact with reach other – this kind of defeats the central premise of the piece, evident in the title. Individually, as you’d expect, some of the sections are stronger than others, usually depending on the oratory and strategic vision of the interview subject, and we do at least have another addition to the Herzogian quote pantheon when he offers his services as a passenger on Elon Musk’s inaugural and almost certain suicidal mission to Mars. Also, I just found this which is quite amusing.
By sheer virtue of the subject matter some diamonds are excavated from the deep mines of mediocrity, if you think you’ve plumped the depths of human depravity with the voluminous racism, misogyny and cowardly bile that the likes of Twitter and loosely moderated comment boards has enabled then be prepared to get even more disgusted, as in one section a family tells of how their daughter was killed in a car accident, and one of the EMT technicians somehow thought it appropriate and amusing to snap a few pictures of her near decapitated corpse. For some reason this idiot subsequently sent the images on to some colleagues for a laugh, which eventually – yes you guessed it – some thoroughly decent specimen of humanity decided to send on to her grieving family with all the vomit inducing commentary you can imagine from any terrifying scrawl through a youtube comments section. ‘I think the Internet has released the devil into this world’ the mother solemnly intones, and even an avowed atheist such as yours truly found myself nodding in mild agreement. At another point the film does touch upon our embedded interactivity and reliance on self mediated machinery which effectively leaves critical systems such as utility infrastructure and power, food production and at a catastrophic risk of failure, that old adage of civilization being only three square meals away from anarchy easily tested by the inevitable EMP emitting solar flare which our planet is currently due. The ubiquitous image of the 2010’s, of everyone in public with their face buried in a screen also finds a exemplary visual commentary, with some images of Buddhist monks clad in their apricot finery silently tapping and in what may or may not be some zen like tranquility. Following the screening, and in tune with the films technological treatise we were privileged with a nationwide broadcast Q&A with Herzog, hosted by Richard Adoyade. This was a skilled affair, the latter serving some well considered and illuminating questions, which Werner fielded with his customary ease. I ducked out halfway through but you can revisit a similar session – for some reason this particular event doesn’t seem to be on-line – here.
This would really have worked much better as a series of commissions, perhaps with each element of the patchwork of our still glistening millennium given appropriate consideration, to build a full tapestry of what these changes and prospects mean for current and future civilizations in our increasingly connected, yet seemingly more chaotic world. If memory serves there is no mention of virtual reality which just this year is finally breaching the domestic entertainment market, nor any space provided for the wider growth of augmented reality systems and pastimes, nothing on Surveillance technologies nor of recent advances in bio-medical interactions, and not a single tendril linking out to the carbon choked elephant in the room – catastrophic climate change. Perhaps it’s a little unfair to judge the piece by something it is not, but the overall impression is of a dainty stones skip across a vast and voluminous ocean of cultural and evolutionary implications which penetrate every layer of human existence, worth 100 minutes of your time, just don’t expect any nourishing intellectual insight. Just a quick aside, I was chatting with some fellow civil servants recently, some smart, ambitious, worldly wise young whippersnappers, and for some reason I raised the subject of Gamergate as an illustrative example for something or other – I can’t recall the details. My referral raised nothing but blank looks from these keen social media, gaming and entertainment consumers, which just goes to show sometimes how far these digital typhoons can seem blown out of all proportion, at least in respect of their influence and reach into our doughy meat-space. Amway, so that’s that for LFF 2016, a very modest spectrum this year but that’s what happens when you are having to be professionally assimilated into the Whitehall bubble and its associated cultural rhythms, and maintain something resembling a social calendar with friends celebrations – look, I’ve been busy, OK?. Whilst I can’t say I didn’t wish I saw more I did manage to assault two of the best films of the year, and a handful of reasonable, three-star placeholders – Raw was also pretty good but nowhere near as gruesome as anticipated, and whilst I enjoyed it I was soured by a clumsy ending which didn’t do the rest of the piece justice. Fortunately for us Herzog is a profligate drone, and we only have to wait a week or so until his next, thunderous thrilling epic, even if its only getting a release on the small screen. Before then however I have a special treat, through the South Bank hosted Menagerie time machine we shall be travelling back to the dystonian criminal wasteland of New York circa 1997, to finally extricate one of my all time favorite genre movies from its big-screen banishment – extravagant excitement is an understatement;