In his new documentary, Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, Werner Herzog positions the internet, and technological advancement more widely, as relational to the contemporary shift in social morals and what it fundamentally means to be human. In a post-Brexit Tory world where post-truth politics reign, and Donald Trump is waiting in the wings (running for office at the time of writing and elected shortly thereafter), the so-called “internet of me” that Herzog is getting at, where the world revolves around the notion of self, enabled by technology, is a lot more frightening than his dulcet tones and quick wit elide. The film is peppered with entertaining titbits, as told by the world’s most famous hacker, Kevin Mitnick, Roboticist, and Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University, Sebastian Thrun, who led the development of Google’s self-driving car, and others.
Herzog’s findings, after listening to a range of experts and amateurs, are bitesize conclusions: hacking is an extension of foreign policy, politics is war by any other means, artificial intelligence is real – and maybe one day it will be capable of falling in love, too. And, one day, the internet will be able to interact in a sensory way in the physical world we live in. It, like 20th Century social and political truth, will evolve into invisibility. Opinions on this are divided: some call it evil, some revelation. Either way, it has a multitude of inputs that make it easier for humans to retreat into the interiority and narcissistic “internet of me” that, in turn, enables the extreme Othering that Herzog also encounters.
Herzog interviews the Catsouras family, who lost their daughter Nikki in a horrific car accident in 2006. They do not see the internet as a positive tool owing to the intense trauma they suffered after Nikki’s accident when images of her disfigured body were published online. For them, and many others who suffer at the hands of online bullies and trolls, the internet is an Othering tool that enables users to dehumanise and hide behind imagery, coding, twitter handles, bylines, et al.
Herzog comes down on the side of the internet, despite the PR hyperbole surrounding the film that posits him as some sort of caveman without a smartphone, alien to the 21st Century. To afford his film with a greater air of objectivity, he occasionally adopts the observatory style of someone like Frederick Wiseman or James Benning, slowly tracking through an empty corridor, or lingering as carefully and lengthily over the muffins and croissants on the breakfast table as he would the subjects themselves. But it’s neither consistent nor convincing – Herzog’s voice cuts through the farce with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer and he flits between observation and television style talking heads too frequently for it to hold power. The film is, on balance, as idiosyncratic as the populist reviews purport.1 That is, insofar as its peculiar stories are entertaining rather than critical or even consequential.
Herzog seems concerned about the previous and even current “digital dark age”, where the speed of technological advancement will mean that content, materials and records will be lost, but he is too flippant and too eager to infuse the thing with quotable lines to engage with the complexity of what the internet really is and what the speed of technological advancement means to contemporary social and moral codes of humanity. Perhaps this is because he knocked the film out in the same year as two other titles, both of which were selected for this year’s Toronto International Film Festival; dramatic-thriller, Salt and Fire (after premiered at the Shanghai International Film Festival) and volcano documentary, Into the Inferno (after it premiered at Telluride Film Festival). Speculatively, the quick-fire rate of production looks like a desperate attempt to cover up his 2015 lemon, Queen of the Desert, which screened at the Berlinale and sparsely internationally since (it did not screen anywhere in the United Kingdom).
As for Lo and Behold, it’s the only 2016 Herzog title Toronto didn’t screen, but it did show avidly on the festival circuit, including at Sundance, Nashville, San Francisco, Hot Docs and MIFF, to name but a few. Opening in UK cinemas just two weeks after its UK premiere at the film festival, it has a theatrical model like many other titles in the festival; Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, Dennis Villeneuve’s Arrival and Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom all opened theatrically in the UK in the month directly following the festival. But Into the Inferno, which did not screen at all during LFF, opened in the UK on the very same day as Lo and Behold. Into the Inferno, however, opened exclusively on UK Netflix.
So too, did Ava DuVernay’s social history documentary, The 13th. After screening at LFF the film went on to enjoy a single cinema screening at the Curzon Bloomsbury, labelled as a “limited release”, with simultaneous Netflix distribution. Controversy ensued. Film Critic Mark Kermode, after positively reviewing the film in the national press, learnt that “limited” had, in this instance, meant just one cinema and, furthermore, that the film was not available for other exhibitors to screen. Most significantly for film festivals, though, what this does is challenge the air of prestige that a film festival not only trades on but requires to subsist.
While LFF is not known for its international premieres and has never played ball in the same league as Cannes, Venice and Berlin, it is still an international film festival that brings new and diverse content to the capital city of a country with as no other flagship cinema event. What a post-film festival VoD only release means is twofold; 1) it removes the scarcity of the cinema event, 2) it suggests a democratisation of quality. Now, there are no rules to suggest that the content on a streaming platform is any lesser in quality than what screens at an international film festival – other than the established brand and reputation of the festival’s curation. So what this, essentially, is doing, is undermining the role of festival curators by suggesting that the content they select is no more worthy of attention, and therefore admission fees, than what’s available at home. Whether or not this is perceived as a problem depends almost entirely on whether or not you work in the curation and programming sector of the industry.
What is good about it is that it concedes that great content comes from diverse places and that it can be found outside of cultural institutions. They are no longer the gatekeepers to quality content. That said, there were many films that opened exclusively on Netflix in the month after LFF that were not programmed in the film festival, including Into the Inferno.
The 13th, which I will admit to watching on Netflix after LFF, is brilliant for what it sheds light upon, while its rigour and aesthetics fall flat. DuVernay doesn’t have to do much to prove her point: America is racist and slavery still exists. It would take great ignorance to be surprised by this, but, if contemporary politics in the US and UK are anything to go by, the film’s thesis is likely to be met with surprise. Talking heads do most of the work, bolstered by statistics and stock news footage or photographs. I don’t think it’s much of a criticism to say that the style is uninventive, though there’s an attempt to the contrary: DuVernay’s camera sometimes captures its talking heads’ profile, trying to elucidate the notion that this film is showing us a non-dominant, non-standard perspective. Such artistry is annoying and the results remain unchanged: this is a topic of grand importance and a film of small screen proportions.
But, as diversity inches ever closer to the top of the BFI’s priority list (about bloody time, too), not including a documentary about race, made by a filmmaker at the peak of her career, who is also a woman of colour – when so many of the big title films are made by white men – would be criminal.
Launched in tandem with the BFI’s national Black Star season of films celebrating “the range, versatility and power of black actors”, this year’s festival was perhaps more aware of its content, and who made it, than usual. The opening night film, A United Kingdom, starring David Oyelowo as Seretse Khama, King of Bechuanaland (now Botswana), was a huge nod towards positive change, and not just because its subject matter joyously criticises both the monarchy and UK government. No, it is because it sets down an important foot that says a woman of colour can make a film worthy of the Opening Night Gala. Amma Asante (Belle, 2014, and A Way of Life, 2004) is fast becoming one of the UK’s most talked about filmmakers, and rightly so.
A United Kingdom, though occasionally tugging too hard on the heartstrings, especially through its soaring score, is an impassioned example of storytelling, determined to set the record straight. In highlighting the injustices of the past, the film speaks loudly about the challenges to freedom existing in the UK and further afield today. Relying heavily on electric performances from its leads, Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike, both of whom sizzle on screen, A United Kingdom is historical drama at its best. When the couple are in the UK, where prejudice conspires to keep them apart, the colours are drained and the air visually freezing as we see each and every puff of their impassioned breath. As they arrive in Africa, we are met with a new colour palette; one of golden sunshine and ochre plains. Asante matches tone with aesthetic with aplomb and is indeed as festival director Clare Stewart writes in the program, “One of the UK’s most distinctive and important filmmakers.”
Another of the UK’s best and brightest, Ben Wheatley (Down Terrace, 2009, High-Rise, 2015), headlined the festival’s Closing Night Gala with his new crime-comedy-drama, Free Fire, ensuring the festival was sandwiched between home grown talent. The drama plays out almost entirely in one space; an abandoned warehouse somewhere in Boston in 1978. It’s an anti-machismo tale insofar as its male characters are all either idiotic or unlikeable, or a combination of the two, and are doomed to fail due to false bravado or dim wits. The film’s only female character, Justine (Brie Larson), is like a page to screen version of the Cool Girl detailed in Gillian Flynn’s novel, Gone Girl (2012). Though the premise of a gun deal gone wrong will satisfy genre fans well enough, there is little in the way of homage or pastiche beyond the eye-popping colour and authentic textures of its 1970s costumes. Ultimately, its bro-driven comedy and narrative absurdity come across as derivative and misogynistic. If the festival started out with a strong, positive message about burgeoning talent, a new focus on diversity in screen culture, and the celebration of an historical triumph of the oppressed, then it ended with a bland, careless shrug.
Aside from the usual suspects premiered at the big name film festivals and soon to open on theatrical release in the UK including; Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, Oliver Stone’s Snowden and Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson (a showcase of international white men’s filmmaking); and a selection of competition features that rarely make a splash, the festival was divided up into unhelpful categories: Love, Laugh, Thrill, Cult, Journey, Sonic, Family, Treasures, Debate and Experimenta.
Even within the strands, however, curating personal viewing paths was confusing. Alongside avant-garde heavyweights Bill Morrison, whose new archive film, Dawson City: Frozen Time screened at London’s newest festival venue, The Prince Charles Cinema, and Lizzie Borden, whose 1983 classic Born in Flames headlined the Experimenta program, there were newcomers like Paul Anton Smith. His debut feature, Have You Seen My Movie? is a compilation of over one hundred clips taken from the great romance and noir classics, and high-octane action, horror and comedy cult favourites. From footage of couples taking their seats in the cinema to curtains opening and film reels being laced up in the projection room, the film is an homage to cinema-going. It hopes, in assembling such footage, to create a new, enriched meta experience of cinema-going for its audience. But, at 136 minutes in length, without commentary in the cutting, and with no evident thesis other than admiration for the movies, this a supercut of self-indulgence. It’s riding, of course, on tailcoats of Charlie Lyne’s success with Beyond Clueless (2014) which did the festival circuit two years ago to great critical acclaim, including Rotterdam, Toronto, SXSW, Sheffield DocFest and CPH:DOX. But where Lyne’s film examined the interplay between teen movies and coming-of-age themes including puberty and sexuality in an historical cinematic context, Anton Smith’s film is more interested in giving its audience a couple of hours of movie title bingo. The only challenge the work presents is in surviving its duration – a tall order for even the most avid meta-loving movie-within-a-movie fan.
The British film that totally nailed it this year in both aesthetic and content was Andrea Arnold’s much anticipated American Honey. If great filmmakers were considered national treasures, Arnold would surely be on the shortlist. Following a group of kids as they travel across America, trying to live out the promise of The American Dream through the mythologised freedom of capital, Arnold marries a naturalistic cinematic beauty with the harsh realities of social deprivation. The film is worthy of high praise and I consider it a modern masterpiece.
Arnold deftly matches the paradoxes and promises of popular rap music with the broken dreams middle America experiences every day. The songs, penned by those who’ve made their money, become anthems of aspiration, voiced by poverty,
I’m just living life
I make my money
So I spend it how I like
I don’t check the price
A sense of foreboding builds throughout the film but never has a true outburst. Instead, the narrative slows to a simmer, revealing cyclical behaviour, unresolved tensions, sparse solutions, few prospects and a misguided sense of freedom. Arnold’s unique style of social-realist drama, characterised by intimate close-ups, fluid cinematography and script improvisation means that we don’t get to know everyone in the ensemble cast, and yet, we feel close to them as a group. So close that we intrinsically understand the impossible reality they live in. Perhaps it is because Arnold has so brilliantly and carefully crafted every aspect of the incredibly detailed mise-en-scène to look completely, seamlessly like the world we live in.
BFI London Film Festival
5-16 October 2016
Festival website: http://www.bfi.org.uk/lff
- Wendy Ide, “Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World review – dispatch from a technology tourist”, The Observer, October 30 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/oct/30/lo-and-behold-observer-review and Julia Felsenthal, “In Lo and Behold, Werner Herzog Explores the Agony and the Ecstasy of the Internet”, Vogue, August 21 2016, http://www.vogue.com/13467794/werner-herzog-lo-and-behold-review/ and Shaun Munro, “Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World”, Letterboxd.com, October 2016, https://letterboxd.com/shaneo632/film/lo-and-behold-reveries-of-the-connected-world/ ↩