Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World: Black Mirrors, by David Bax
Werner Herzog long ago became as much of an auteurist documentarian as he is a maker of fiction films. A side effect of that is that his style—and particularly the way he includes himself in these films—has become singular enough to parody. Herzog is clearly not ignorant of this development and, at times, appears to play into it. In the brilliant Encounters at the End of the World, when he asks an Antarctic scientist if penguins ever go insane, a part of him must be aware that it’s funny, even as profound as the question is. In his newest documentary, Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, his tone of voice throughout the narration is so grave that, at times, it begins to seem that he’s once again poking fun at his own image. When he describes something as, “…so unspeakably horrifying that we cannot repeat it here,” it’s hard not to chuckle at the exaggerated somberness. In context, though, to laugh at what he’s actually referring to would be crass and at odds with the spirit of the sequence. Not being able to tell if he’s serious or not, in a film with such potentially heavy subject matter, is disconcerting. It raises the question: Has Herzog’s persona begun to consume itself?
Lo and Behold is an alternately alarmist and derisive view of the modern age and our increasingly symbiotic relationship with smarter and smarter forms of technology. Herzog cruises from topic to topic—from ghoulish cyberbullying to Internet addiction to radiation to the threat of sunspots and more—only occasionally landing on anything other than disapproval.
With Herzog’s ominous voiceover narration accompanying heavy uses of slow motion, Lo and Behold often plays like an uncommonly well-made YouTube conspiracy video. He could just as easily be warning us about chemtrails.
Eventually, though, the Herzog we know and love can’t resist coming through. Facts and science can only hold his interest for so long and soon he returns to his lifelong search to map the intangible, unknowable realms of humans’ inner selves. He is fascinated at the Internet as a tool not just for sharing information but for sharing pain and misery the world over. He leaps at the chance to explore the new ability to visit cruelty on strangers anonymously and from a great distance. Conversely, he also seeks avenues for positive emotion. When he asks a scientist of his machinery, “Do you love it?”, it’s another laugh line but it’s encouraging to know that he means it. Perhaps he even hopes the answer is yes.
Still, Herzog mostly maintains the position of a proud Luddite, mocking monks with smartphones as if he would prefer they live their lives as echoes of the past, like employees at Colonial Williamsburg. It’s telling that he reserves the most exuberant and joyful scene for a group of Americans who have chosen to live off the grid. To be clear, it’s wonderful that he found room for an honest-to-God hoedown in the middle of his film about technology. Yet one wishes he displayed the same affection for the online gaming addicts, whose life-destroying vice he dismisses by referring to “…the malevolent droid dwarf or whoever these characters are.”
Of course, there’s always a chance that Herzog’s right and a massive sunspot will wipe out the new gods we’ve created, turning the world into The Road in the blink of an eye. Or maybe the little, soccer playing robots we see zooming around a makeshift pitch will turn on us, killing most and enslaving the rest. More likely, though, Lo and Behold will come to look as accidentally funny as the “evil Roomba” from the Battlestar Galactica finale. Only this time, it plays soccer too! Come to think of it, maybe he did mean this to be a funny movie.