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James Franco’s Movie Column: What Werner Herzog’s Documentaries Teach Us About Humanity

Having lost his other half in last week's column, James Franco talks to his mirror about Werner Herzog's Internet-focused documentary "Lo and Behold."

Werner Herzog teaches a MasterClass

Werner Herzog teaches a MasterClass

courtesy of MasterClass

James + Semaj is a column where James Franco talks to his reverse self, Semaj, about new films. Rather than a conventional review, it is place where James and Semaj can muse about ideas that the films provoke. James loves going to the movies and talking about them. But a one-sided take on a movie, in print, might be misconstrued as a review. As someone in the industry it could be detrimental to James’s career if he were to review his peers, because unlike the book industry—where writers review other writer’s books—the film industry is highly collaborative, and a bad review of a peer could create problems. So, assume that James (and Semaj) love all these films. What they’re interested in talking about is all the ways the films inspire them, and make them think. James is me, and Semaj is the other side of me. This week’s installment focuses on Werner Herzog’s documentary “Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World,” which is now in theaters and on VOD.

Last time, James got into a fight with Semaj – over what, it’s hard to say. Semaj is very sensitive and didn’t want to work with James anymore, even though he is James’ other half. James decided he would do this week’s column on his own — but he got so used to talking to the other side of himself that he struggled to go solo.

James: Werner Herzog is known for many things, but lately his docs have been killing it: “Grizzly Man,” “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” and “Encounters at the End of the World,” for which he was nominated for an Oscar. And then there was the one about car accidents caused by texting and driving . . .

Mirror: You know you’re just talking to yourself in the mirror, right?

James: Yes, I thought that was clear. Semaj refuses to talk to me, so I’m talking to you, the James in the Mirror. I talk to you all the time, anyway.

Mirror: No you don’t, you just admire me and try to make out with me.

James: That was just for show! The New York Times asked me to do it!

Mirror: So you’re only Gay James when it’s for show?

James: No, I’m only Incestuous James when it’s for show.

Mirror: Incestuous James? Like with Dave?

James: What? No! With myself, you, dumbass. Although I did just play Tommy Weiseau from “The Room” opposite my brother as Greg Sestero, and I think that Tommy was in love with Greg.

Mirror: Okay, got it: Incestuous James for show, Gay James in private.

James: It’s not gay if you’re making out with yourself. Anyway… this is about Werner Herzog, and his new documentary about the history and future of the Internet.

Mirror: The Internet started at UCLA, your Alma Mater, I had no idea.

James: It’s your Alma Mater too, and neither did I.

Mirror: Werner says that the interior hallways at UCLA are hideous.

James: Well, he was filming over in one of the science buildings, and the halls are hideous over there. Cold. Fortunately, I never had classes in that department. I was an English major.

Mirror: For the first online message in 1969 – sent from UCLA to Stanford – they were trying to write LOG(IN) but the message got cut off in the middle and it only sent LO.

Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World

“Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World”

Magnolia Pictures

James: Yeah, fitting. That’s why the documentary is called “Lo and Behold.

Mirror: That computer that sent the message looks like an armored refrigerator. James: Well, it’s 47 years old.

Mirror: Look how much things have changed in five short decades.

James: They’ve changed exponentially. Kids these days can’t imagine a world without tweeting and texting. I can still remember the day that one of my classmates at Brooklyn College told me about this new app that allows you to send messages to everyone at the same time, tell them what you’re eating, or your opinions about things.

Mirror: You sound like a dinosaur.

James: That’s what technology does. It makes every successive generation look old; and then the older generations complain about the younger generations becoming callous, immoral, and shallow.

Mirror: The tech scientists in the doc were bemoaning the lack of critical thought in the younger generations because they’re so dependent on the Internet to immediately tell them the answers to everything.

James: Yeah, but I had a professor – when I was at UCLA – named Kathryn N. Hayles, who writes about man’s positive symbiosis with technology, and the new skills required to use technology so that it works for you. It’s not that humans are regressing, she argues, they’re just evolving, and we don’t need to memorize everything anymore because we don’t have to. Just like we don’t have to use computers that are as big as refrigerators, because they’re impractical.

Mirror: I still think there is something to be said for being able to think critically.

James: Of course. So do I, but I think the way that we think is changing because of the new ways that we engage with the world. The medium is the message, yo.

Mirror: Yeah, yeah, Marshal McLuhan. Technology is definitely changing us. I guess the questions that arise are: 1) Is technology changing us for the better? And 2) Will technology evolve to a point where humans aren’t needed?

James: Well, as far as the first question goes, Herzog’s doc tries to get at both sides of the issue. The Internet has allowed for incredible breakthroughs in medicine, robotics, defense, and weapons, the way we form relationships, and basically every area of life because of the sharing of information, and the computational abilities of computers.

Mirror: Yes, there is now an online community that links us all in ways that we never have been before. But Herzog also shows the dark side of that anonymous community: there is a scene where a young woman’s death is spread around the Internet and the grieving family is sent mocking pictures of their dead daughter’s mutilated body by internet trolls.

James: That’s horrible, and yes, the Internet is a place where everyone feels brave and a little evil because they can get away with more, but there is a much darker side to the Internet than harassment — the total lack of privacy. But Herzog doesn’t get into surveillance much in this doc.

Mirror: Well that has been covered so much recently, especially in the Snowden doc, “Citizenfour.”

James: Okay, and what about the second question? There is a scientist in the movie who designs driverless cars, and he predicts that in the future computers will do everything for us, even make movies.

Mirror: Herzog interjects that the computer movies will never be as good as his movies.

James: Ha, of course not. I was in one of his movies recently.

Mirror: We know James. That would be “Queen of the Desert” with Nicole Kidman, about Gertrude Bell, “the female Lawrence of Arabia.”

James: Okay, just saying. Werner is my man.

Mirror: Okay, thanks. (Aside): Where the fuck is Semaj? I’m dyin’ here.

***

Semaj: I read the above interview between James and his reflection in the mirror and, boy, is that guy struggling without me. Sorry, Werner.

While James was talking to himself, I went to the IFC Center in New York for the series “Ecstatic Truths: Documentaries by Herzog” and watched two of his short docs from 1981. The first one was “Huie’s Sermon,” which is basically a sermon by a black minister in Brooklyn filmed in its entirety — with shocking cutaways to devastated streets of Brooklyn that look like they were shot in a war zone. His sermon starts as a message that the works of man are nothing compared to the works of God, and he rises into an ecstatic and rousing performance.

“God’s Angry Man” features a televangelist, Dr. W Eugene Scott, who doesn’t do much but get angry with his parishioners watching him on TV for not giving enough money to his church. But for our purposes, what is fascinating is the number of people he can reach because he’s on television.

Mirror: Hey, you’re going to have to talk in the mirror too; you and James are lost without each other.

Semaj: Fine. What?

Mirror: I just think that these early docs, along with “Lo and Behold,” are great barometers for how we are changing as a species. Before the Internet and the rise of computer, we defined ourselves in relation to animals and God. We saw ourselves as superior to animals, and the special recipients of God’s grace. But now technology is the pervasive God in all our lives. Whether you go online or not, your food, and basically your entire daily life in civilization is managed by forces that are conducted and organized online. So now we have to define ourselves in relation to a power that obviously so much greater than us.

Semaj: There is a new God.

Mirror: In a way. A new God created by us — and sustained by us.

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