Notebook is the North American home for Locarno Film Festival Artistic Director Carlo Chatrian's blog. Chatrian has been writing thoughtful blog entries in Italian on Locarno's website since he took over as Director in late 2012, and now you can find the English translations here on the
Notebook as they're published. The Locarno Film Festival will be taking place August 3 - 13.
The remarkable power of Werner Herzog’s documentaries lies in their visionary qualities, in their courageous assertion that the world can still amaze us. I don’t mean just those films in which the director sought out hidden recesses not normally visible to common mortals: the frigid waters beneath the ice of Antarctica, the Chauvet Cave or the Amazonian jungle. Those same visionary qualities are all the more conspicuous when Herzog addresses the ordinary, the subjects we all have before our eyes, because then we appreciate that the magic lies entirely in his standpoint as investigator of the present.
And so it is with his latest film, an inquiry conducted in an orderly, traditional format, divided into chapters that each explore different aspects of the impalpable but tightly woven web that has wrapped itself around the world in the 21st century. After meeting pioneers, gurus and hackers, FBI employees and victims of cellular and wireless network radiation sickness, Herzog performs a typically spectacular volte-face to take up a position that is not only quite outside conventional wisdom, but also requires a complete change of perspective. In his journey through the Internet, from its inception to its current state of global colonization, the German director who brought us Kaspar Hauser comes up with the unexpected question, “But does the Internet dream?”
Another way of putting it would be: is the connected world capable of that leap into the void which dreaming implies? Astonished, amused, his interviewees respond uncertainly, perhaps intuitively aware that the question puts them on the line. Our ability to dream is being tested. The ability to go beyond the horizon of things, to discover the unexpected, what no research and no script can provide. In other words, what Herzog is interested in is the ability to shift from the pre-ordained world of fiction to inconsistent, discontinuous reality. When you think about it, the question which the film asks is the same one that underpins the rest of his work. Perhaps it is the very question which gives him the will to go on.
When did we stop dreaming? Watching Lo and Behold (whose title already suggests the surprise of seeing) you could get the impression that it all happened just like in a Kurt Vonnegut story, quickly and imperceptibly. Dreams dried up in parallel with the ever increasing flow of feasible access to what is remote from us, be it place, person or thing. In a world that offers us everything, on display in infinite shelf space, there doesn’t seem to be much point in dreams any more.
By the same token, the now more than a century-old dream factory that is cinema suffers from this situation more than most. Today cinema is looking to the fantastic in an attempt to re-invent itself, but it is failing to find it in the familiar places. Fantasy no longer lies beyond the confines of reality: there is now nothing there but superheroes and the consolidated dramatic forms they are modeled on. So perhaps the last stronghold of the fantastic is precisely in the reality of things. Sometimes you only need a slight shift of point of view to pick up what lies outside the frame and realize the difference.
This is what Herzog asks of his interviewees and of his viewers. He asks us to stray off the regular path and follow him along a route which will be fraught with obstacles, detours and surprises. Herzog is the only filmmaker – except perhaps for Errol Morris – who uses the interview as a wedge driven into narrative continuity. Normally interviews serve to set out or back up a given point of view, or to demarcate a conflict of opinion. Interviews in documentaries are often boring because they are predictable: they make up for something that the documentary cannot do, namely film the past. Interviews typically provide the raw material from which a documentary screenplay is made, with the story’s emotional, dramatic and narrative content. When a film makes extensive use of interviews, it puts all its cards on the table. Hence the increasingly frequent recourse to reenactment sequences in place of interviews. In Herzog, on the other hand, the interviews are an interface with reality. They are in the present, and when interviewees try to speak with the authority of experience the filmmaker catches them out with an unexpected question, forcing them to show their hand. This he does not do with Michael Moore’s sarcasm, however, nor with Errol Morris’s surreal amazement. Moore is too much of an actor himself not to forget the interviewee on occasion, while Morris effaces his presence to the point where the interview is left alone in the icy presence of the camera, but Herzog has his own unique way of being both discreet and very much present. Recognizing that familiar voice with its slight German accent, the viewer knows it will put the interviewee at ease, but without a trace of connivance. In all of his documentaries the interviews provide moments of pure joy and openness towards the space of possibilities. Herzog’s interviews arise from a genuine interest in people: they are, or try to be, happenings, moments in which the film breaks free from the script to make that leap into the unknown which the director has often not been shy of making in person himself.