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Does the Internet Dream? Werner Herzog Doc Explores Unseen World of the Net

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Courtesy Magnoilia Pictures
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The documentaries of Werner Herzog are as singular as his remarkable voice when he narrates. The films are personal, eccentric, obsessive. The variety of life in total fascinates Herzog, whether its cave paintings in France, lurid tribal beauty contests for men, or now the dreaminess of the internet in the minds of scientists in the laboratories of American universities.

Herzog’s new film about the internet, Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, takes its title from the very first internet message. A computer scientist at UCLA meant to write “Log in,” but the transmission failed and the first word turned out to be, L-O, “Lo,” a far grander and more poetic expression than the mundane “login” most of us experience every day.

The intonation of “Lo” catches Herzog’s attitude toward the internet. He sees it as one of the profound moments of human existence, like the shaking of European consciousness when the sailor on watch atop one of Columbus’s ships first called out his sighting of land.

Typically, Herzog’s documentaries involve going somewhere strange or forbidding. He descends into volcanoes. For Cave of Forgotten Dreams, he put on the white suit and booties designed to protect the rarely-entered Chauvet cave in France and filmed art that took his movie on a journey in time back 35,000 years. He’s gone to the taiga of Siberia, and into the mind of a young man living among grizzly bears in Alaska. With his film about Antarctica, Encounters at the End of the World, Herzog takes the audience under the ice for an ecstatic experience in what scientists call “the cathedral.”

Now, Lo and Behold enters a place that really cannot be seen for itself – all that’s visible is its skeleton and its effects. The film opens in a typical grim utilitarian hallway – a straight windowless corridor of smooth hard walls and floors, the ceiling covered by milky plastic over rows of lifeless fluorescent lights. And like Virgil leading Dante into hell, a dramatic computer scientist leads the film through a door into another windowless space to see the old computer that was the first element in the birth of the internet at UCLA. He admits that the device itself is just an ugly-looking metal assembly, but he finds the ideal of the internet magnificent.

Herzog divides the film into 10 chapters with titles like “The Glory of the Net,” “The Dark Side” and “Earthly Invaders.” My mind boggles when computer people talk about the technical intricacies of the internet, but I don’t think that in terms of plain information, Lo and Behold offers anything new. The genius of the film lies in how Herzog uses the subject of the internet to get inside how people think and dream.

The scientists he talks to certainly dream. They describe elaborate musings about what it means for people to be connected as they are through the internet. One tells about creating a game which got thousands of people working on a molecular problem about disease. In his Antarctica film, Herzog wondered about insanity among penguins, and here he asks if the internet itself dreams – and stories about people all over the world playing a game together through the internet feel in some way like collective electronic dreams. The gushy wonder fades though when a man tells a horrendous story about how photos of his daughter, mutilated in an accident, made their way onto the internet and the family was subjected to vile emails from anonymous and cowardly correspondents.

It’s positively bizarre that all of this life and activity, both thrilling and repulsive, takes place in some of our most uninspired settings. The scientists are engulfed in wonder while they sit in soulless, discouraging rooms. Herzog poses the family that lost the daughter and sister around a dining room table in a modest house. On the table are trays of doughnuts and muffins in regimented straight lines. The image goes right to the ineffable conflicts the internet presents.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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