Werner Herzog talks virtual reality

[This discussion from The New Yorker is full of incomplete but provocative ideas about the nature of our experience of both reality and mediated/virtual reality. –Matthew]

Werner Herzog

[Image: Credit Sarah Lee / eyevine / Redux]

Werner Herzog Talks Virtual Reality

By Patrick House
January 12, 2016

“I’m a skeptic of 3-D, but when I saw the paintings I knew I had to use it,” Werner Herzog told Judith Thurman in 2010, after the New York première of his documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.” The film examines some of the world’s earliest known paintings, which cover the walls of the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, in France. For Herzog telling a story about the Paleolithic required the technology of the Anthropocene. Recently, I spoke with him about how the rules of cinema might translate to yet another new form—virtual reality. His next film, “Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World,” which is about the Internet, will première at the Sundance Film Festival later this month, along with more than thirty V.R. shorts.

Our conversation is presented below, in slightly condensed form. Days after it took place, Herzog was still mulling the subject. “What reality is the cockroach at my feet in the kitchen experiencing?” he wrote in an e-mail. “It is not my reality, we only share the same space.”

Could you describe your experience with V.R. so far?

It was a variety of elements, some of it realistic—documentary material in some ice floes near Greenland. It looked O.K., but you get tired of it fairly quickly. What was more convincing was animated films. Digitally created landscapes and events made a better impression on me.

Would you call what you experienced cinema or film?

No. I am convinced that this is not going to be an extension of cinema or 3-D cinema or video games. It is something new, different, and not experienced yet. The strange thing here is that normally, in the history of culture, we have new stories and narrations and then we start to develop a tool. Or we have visions of wondrous new architecture—like, let’s say, the museum in Bilbao, or the opera house in Sydney—and technology makes it possible to fulfill these dreams. So you have the content first, and then the technology follows suit. In this case, we do have a technology, but we don’t have any clear idea how to fill it with content.

You once said that cinema contains the most intensive chronicle of the human condition.

No, no, not of the human condition—that’s misquoted. Today, today it is the most intense way to express our inner condition. It used to be, let’s say, literature or sculpture or architecture in previous centuries and in previous cultures.

Do you think that V.R. is the next technological innovation for expressing the human condition?

It’s not convincing yet. Short forms that I have seen look fairly convincing and fairly good, but I do not see a real, big form of expressing the state of our existence. It happens somewhere else. It happens, for example, on the Internet, which may become more autonomous. I can only express it in the form of a question. The Prussian war theoretician Clausewitz, in Napoleonic times, famously said, “Sometimes war dreams of itself.” Does the Internet dream of itself? That’s a big question. Now let me ask the Clausewitz question about virtual reality. Does virtual reality dream of itself? Do we dream or express and articulate our dreams in virtual reality? It remains to be seen.

Is there such a thing as a non-virtual-reality story?

I think you have to start right there. All human encounters are ambiguous. Even the perfect personal encounters are ambiguous in all societies, in all age groups, in all historical phases. And you see this ambiguity very clearly, for example, when you are on Facebook. This ambiguity, and this definition, is apparently the source of all your questions. Do we already live in a virtual reality? Did Rome, in antiquity, live in some sort of virtual reality?

You once walked from Munich to Paris to visit your dying friend, and in your film “Wheel of Time” someone told you that by walking thousands of miles they learned the true size of Earth. Do you think that, with V.R., it will be possible to learn the size of Earth without ever taking a real step?

No. No further explanation. I can say it only in a dictum: the world reveals itself to those who travel on foot. It is hard to explain to anyone who has not travelled on foot. And I mean travelling on foot, not backpacking or hiking or ambling along. I mean as we were made as humans to travel on foot, and sometimes very large distances, or as nomadic people. Strangely enough, the only time I got the feeling I was not caught in a virtual reality is when I travelled on foot.

What if you had filmed the entire voyage, and someone could experience it wearing a V.R. headset and take false steps in place? That would not be the same?

It would be utter nonsense to film the entire voyage on foot. That’s why, in cinema, we live in a condensed form of life, of stories, of experiences. It only functions because of the condensation.

You have said it was imperative that “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” was filmed and seen in 3-D. Can you imagine that at some point it might be imperative to experience something in V.R.? That there is a story that can only be told in V.R.?

Of course, 3-D was necessary for that film because paintings, thirty-two thousand years back in time, were not on flat walls in the cave but on wildly undulating ones. Whether the people were artists remains up to debate, but they would utilize, for example, a bulging piece of rock to paint the bulging neck of a bison that is attacking you. So, yes, that made it imperative to shoot it in 3-D.

It would be interesting to film this very cave in virtual reality. However, our focus always would be at one particular place, and then we would start to turn around and try to get some kind of orientation in space. It wouldn’t be imperative, but it would be interesting to see that.

You said once that when people describe coming out of “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” they don’t say the film was about a cave but, instead, that they were in a cave. When I tried V.R., I was with a group of people and one of them, when asked to describe it, didn’t say that it was a film about an animated character but that they were in a room with an animated character. Is it ever proper to describe film in the experience of the second person, and might that change with V.R.? Is this is a valuable cinematic experience?

I think so, because cinema does not normally offer this opportunity, but here it was evidently there. That probably makes a special charm of “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.”

Back to virtual reality. I’ve seen one fairly short piece—a Mongolian yurt with a family sitting around and cooking something. And you are sitting with them, and all of a sudden someone next to you starts to speak and you turn to the right and there’s granny, who all of a sudden starts to talk with everyone else, and you notice there is somebody else next to you. So those are interesting elements, when space all of a sudden becomes one of the main players in the film. Understanding of space is probably one of the things that cinema can really do quite well.

I heard about one virtual reality “film”—I say it in quotes—which was artificially made. It is not a realistic film. You are inside of a room and you turn around, and when you turn back at the wall to your left, all of a sudden it has come closer. And you turn away and look to the floor and look left again and all of a sudden the wall is right at your nose. It becomes claustrophobic. It’s a form of space that we haven’t experienced yet. It is a form of space that occurs in our nightmares.

Will V.R. kill the close-up? A close-up in real life is very intimate. The grandma to your right, when you look closely at her face—rarely do you want to get so close to an actual person.

I haven’t thought about it yet. You see, it’s all completely evolving. Our understanding of our brain, of our mind, is in its infancy. We do understand there is a certain vocabulary or grammar inside our minds. When you do an fMRI and somebody reads a text in English, and a different test person reads the same text in Portuguese, the pattern that you can observe points at a grammatical structure that cannot be English but must be Portuguese. So you can discern that the person is reading an English text or a Portuguese text. It’s very, very fascinating. And when imagining an elephant, or seeing an elephant, moving from left to right on the screen, the pattern of brain scanning shows a fuzzy image of an elephant. Very, very fascinating. And the same image occurs when you read a written text: “An elephant is moving from left to right.” It creates the same sort of brain pattern that emanates from your thoughts. It’s very strange and very beautiful, and we do not know much about it.

In film, when I’m sitting in a movie theatre and I close my eyes—to, say, escape a nightmare or a horror film—I close my eyes and I am back in the comfort of my seat and I can feel my armrest and my chair and I know I am in the cinema and I can feel the air-conditioning on my face. But when I closed my eyes in V.R., I still felt that I was in the virtual room. I still felt that I was there. There was no escape. I wonder if this could be used by a filmmaker to make a true type of horror by keeping the audience captive.

I have to think about it. Very beautiful what you are observing. Write down your observation. The most fascinating idea—but it’s deeply philosophical and very disturbing—is whether we do live in a virtual reality all the time anyway, in some sort of virtual ambiguity.

Will people ever be addicted to V.R.? Is there a difference between being addicted to film and V.R.?

I don’t see anyone who is addicted to films, but I do see young people addicted to video games. And it is so bad that now rehab centers have started. In Korea, in video arcades, teen-age boys come in there and they wear diapers, adult diapers, and they play sixty hours nonstop. They don’t have to go to the bathroom, and they can still collect points. There is a serious addictive effect. But I have never seen it with cinema. Cinema is over when the film is over, the credits are over, and the doors open and you are pushed out into the street and it’s still day out there.


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