As the coronavirus pandemic approaches its projected peak, the need to stay indoors takes on a renewed urgency. But, for a good many, self-isolation is less than a luxury. Escape is needed, and there are fewer art forms that offer escape like the movies.
For the upcoming days, weeks, maybe even months, I will be re-posting several old Boulder Weekly reviews, all of which you can find either for rent or streaming online. Here’s hoping it will soothe your soul for at least an hour or two.
There’s been a lot of talk of how today’s coronavirus pandemic stacks up against previous pandemics. Influenza, plague, pox… It’s all pretty gnarly. That was the topic of yesterday’s virtual panel for the Conference on World Affairs. If you’re looking for 90 minutes of intelligent discussion, you can watch it here, and, if you’re so inclined, CWA will be presenting one panel a day for the remainder of the week. Each panel will live stream at 2 p.m. MDT, and then be archived on their YouTube page. Zoom slots to participate in the upcoming panel’s Q&As are already full, though you can probably Tweet or Facebook them in—more on all of that here.
But, back to the topic at hand: If we, thanks to a historical lens, can know the similarities between pandemics past and present, what, then, is different? In a word: Connection. Never before has humanity been more connected with one another, with information, and with resources. The internet is a marvelous thing, and without it, we’d be sunk. Seems like a fine time to spend a little time understanding the inner workings of this (non)sentient network, and who better to function as guide than Werner Herzog? Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World came and went in the fall of 2016, but is ripe for rediscovery any day. From Boulder Weekly Vol. 24, No. 9: “The way of the future.”
If all had gone according to plan, the internet would have made a rather inauspicious debut, but perhaps it wasn’t meant for modesty. On Oct. 29, 1969, two computers — one at the University of California Los Angeles and the other at Stanford Research Institute — were scheduled to communicate to one another through ARPANET, a predecessor of the internet. The first word UCLA tried to send was “login” but after only two characters, the transmission was terminated. The result was the actual first word communicated via technology that would eventually lead to the internet: Lo.
There is poetry in that, and it’s not lost on scientist Leonard Kleinrock, who recounts the story in Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World. Nor is it lost on the 74-year old director behind the camera, Werner Herzog. For nearly 50 years, the Bavarian-born Herzog has plundered every possible corner of the globe, captured images from the 32,000-year-old caves of Chauvet and life under the ice shelf of Antarctica. If Herzog can’t go to space — Lord knows he will try — then the deep and expansive world of the internet is his final frontier.*
Lo and Behold is the result of that exploration. Told in 10 vignettes, Herzog interviews to the pioneers of the internet, the manipulators, the watchmen, the analysts, the everyday users, and the victims. In one case, Herzog talks to the Catsouras family, who lost their daughter in a violent car crash. Photos from the scene were uploaded to the internet and distributed to anyone seeking morbid titillations. The internet is the manifestation of evil, Mrs. Catsouras surmises.
In another instance, Herzog talks to Elon Musk of Space X about the crucial role the internet plays in the future of communication and invention. How else will we be able to talk to Mars? Trying to accomplish what Musk imagines without the internet would be akin to robbing a carpenter of their hammer while asking them to build a house.
Both of these conclusions are rather mundane — we’re all pretty much on board with the idea that the internet can be both an awful and outstanding tool — but Herzog doesn’t stop there. He wants to know if the internet dreams of itself. In Herzog’s hands, it just might. It is said that art is a mirror that the artist holds up to society. The caveat is that the artist selects what the mirror reflects. With the internet, the mirror has no frame. It is everything we’ve been, are, and want to be.
Maybe that want is to be simultaneously singular and part of a collective, specific and anonymous, detached, and engaged. Herzog distills this duality into a single image: Buddhist monks swaddled in bright orange robes quietly strolling along the banks of Lake Michigan, their heads turned not toward the impressive Chicago skyline or heaven, but to the glowing screens of the smartphones in their hands. It is a humorous image, somewhat ironic, but Herzog’s camera lingers so the viewer can behold the dual complexities of the image and the very nature of the internet. There is nothing singular about it.
Header photo: Leonard Kleinrock in Lo and Behold, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
*The original text read: If Herzog can’t go to space — Lord knows he will try — then the deep and expansive world of the internet is where he must go. Writing is rewriting.