One of the boons of the new technological age is the ease of accessibility for fledgling filmmakers. Where once the process of creating cinema required a decent sized crew and a director with vision and panache, now all that's required is a camcorder and an idea. Nowhere has this dynamic been more successful than in the documentary format. People with little or no money have made movies both important (Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me) and deeply personal (Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation). But with the good has to come some bad – or if not outright rotten, at least misguided and meandering. Such is the case with German filmmaker Lutz Dammbeck's Das Netz (offered with the far more complicated English title The Net: The Unabomber, LSD and the Internet). An attempt to discuss, realistically, the arguments against technology made by the notorious Ted Kaczynski in his "Manifesto", what we end up with is a logic leap so large that no amount of backfilling can keep the center conceit from simply falling apart.
It all began as a study of art and science. While surfing the Internet, researching the probable connections between the two, filmmaker Lutz Dammbeck stumbled across a story about the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski. Intrigued by the idea that a Harvard trained professor of Mathematics would resort to violence against his own peer group, Dammbeck was equally shocked to learn that many of the individuals he was interested in were also connected to the Unabomber case. Thus began a whirlwind tour of offices and universities, with the German filmmaker following up on theories he was developing on the interrelation between computers, creativity, the hippy movement of the 1960s, the testing of LSD on college campuses, cybernetics, the rise of the Internet, and the post-millennial advances in technology. Buried in between all the postulates was Kaczynski, his Manifesto and the crimes he committed as the Unabomber. Dammbeck came up with an interesting hypothesis: while the acts committed were unconscionable, they came from a place of proper, prescient thinking. In Dammbeck's mind, Kaczynski's theories about the damaging effects of advanced computing systems have a place in the current social dialogue. But as he was quick to learn, many in and out of the movement definitely do not agree.
There is an interesting idea buried deep inside the otherwise disjointed documentary The Net. What director Lutz Dammbeck is attempting here is the near impossible. He wants to link the crimes of Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a the Unabomber, and the rise of '60s counter culture. There are also connections to be made to radical science, the avant-garde art scene, the development of technology (specifically that of computers), cybernetics and the notion of humans as 'machines', and the testing of LSD on college campuses. The theorem Dammbeck is functioning under is one that claims Kaczynski had a valid point – that the social order was and still is being slowly consumed by a greater and greater reliance on machines to replace what man intrinsically can do. Of course, the former Harvard math professor took his fears out in psychologically warped ways, but the issues he warned about in his Manifesto are, at least in Dammbeck's view, dangerously close to coming true. While not pushing for the kind of radical rethinking (and abhorrent violence) of Kaczynski, The Net wants to argue that three decades of speculating "outside the box" has resulted in a world where we have literally modified our life and lifestyle in service of the silicon chip and the instant access of information (and misinformation) via the Web.
Granted, the proof of said requires a massive amount of material and a huge logistical undertaking, and Dammbeck makes it even worse by expanding the scope of his inquiry to include Ken Kesey and the Acid Tests, the New York underground film scene of the '60s, the history of computers and their eventual networking, and the present day thoughts of an imprisoned Kaczynski. Rambling from bit to bit, as an ever-present female (?) narrator giving us insight into the director's thought process, we feel we are part of one of the largest detective stories in the history of filmmaking. Dammbeck appears to be onto something when he confronts people like "cultural impresario" John Brockman and Yale Professor (and Unabomber victim) David Gelernter. Both men feel Kaczynski, as a murderer, is to be ignored and shunned. But it's their very ideas, the meshing of the media with man (Brockman) and the realm of artificial intelligence (Gelernter) that most disturbed this already paranoid man. Dammbeck even links Kaczynski's cabin to The Whole Earth Catalog.
It's too bad then that Dammbeck decides to mimic Nick Broomfield and inject himself into the story. He is not as obvious as the Kurt and Courtney helmer, but he definitely forgets the "observational" part of the process. When interviewing people, Dammbeck is intentionally coy, lobbing laudatory softballs before cutting to the chase. He tends to praise and then prod, setting up his subjects only to shock and dismay. A perfect example is the long awaited Q&A with Gelernter. Dammbeck starts off genial, asking about the scholars thoughts on modern technology. Then without warning, he brings out the big guns – he wants to know if Kaczynski (the man who took Gelernter's eye and hand, by the way) offered any valid thoughts on the subject. Like asking a victim of violent crime if the perpetrator had a right to stab them seven times, the response not only begs the question, but the questioner. We don't expect Gelernter to answer honestly – he is too closely involved in the subject area to possible provide any pure insight. But why Dammbeck would purposefully push this man into an area he doesn't need to revisit is one of The Net's most nagging issues.
Another is the overall point the film is trying to make. Like a conspiracy theory on crack, Dammbeck is reaching a lot of the time. Tying the avant-garde movement to the man who ended up making millions promoting scientists like rock stars may seem like an interesting conclusion, but it's more coincidence than cautionary. Similarly, the fact that Kaczynski participated in LSD experiments while at Harvard may or may not explain some of his latter paranoia, but to then suggest that the Merry Pranksters and their proto-party on wheels were somehow connected (if not actually, but spiritually) is ludicrous. Dammbeck is the kind of filmmaker who would argue that because DVD Talk works with the movie industry and accepts screeners as part of the promotional aspect of film, we here at the site are somehow responsible for the crappy movies being made. His arguments are missing major internal logic links, as he completely dismisses anything - time, place, truth – as a factor in the formation of his ideas.
If one was to try and sum up his conclusion, it would be something like this – radicals from a bygone era, revved up on dope and a decidedly arty view of the world, were at war with scientists who conceived to stretch the boundaries of technology by creating super computers and networking systems. Somewhere in the greed-stricken '80s they called a cease-fire and began a process of intermingling. This notion of manipulating reality to fit a scientific discovery was seen as forward thinking by many – it had it's underpinnings in the man/machine movement of the '60s and '70s. But a single divergent voice, who saw the danger in delivering truth to the realm of artificial intelligence, decided to stop it. His means? A bombing campaign meant to undermine the very men at the center of this cabal. Of course, this critic could be way off base with this description. It takes into consideration facts Dammbeck fails to offer, and simplifies many of the Godel, Escher, Bach like discussions the director has with scholars and theorists. And since he does it in such a scattered, stupefying way, it is hard to get to what The Net wants to say. It may be one of the best documentaries ever on the subject of cybernetics ever crafted. It could also be a lot like Dianetics, which we all know is L. Ron Hubbard sci-fi silliness. Either way, it does not make for an entertaining two hours. The Net is not very good.
Offered in a non-anamorphic 1.78:1 letterboxed presentation, The Net is a true digital creation. Material not captured on camera is presented via laptop and there's a real attempt to turn the entire production into a multimedia event. Some of the stock footage is intriguing, and many of the conclusions Dammbeck draws come directly from side by side comparisons of data and design. Further proving that professionalism is just a decent DAT camera away, The Net looks as good, if not better, than many of its mainstream documentary brethren.
Here's an odd thing about this presentation. Lutz Dammbeck is clearly a man. Yet The Net uses both a male voice, and the aforementioned female voice, to narrate the film in a decidedly first person style. The Dolby Digital Stereo presentation is clear, and the interviews are conducted with a design at making the conversation as easy to understand as possible. There are various subliminal sounds in the background of the film, groans and electronic tweaks that must have some insular purpose in Dammbeck's overall design. Similarly, the use of music is minor, and unobtrusive. While not the most amazing aural offering, The Net is still quite solid, sonically.
Aside from some promos for other Other Cinema releases, the sole added content on the DVD is three interviews with Stewart Brand, John Brockman and Paul Garrin. More or less outtakes from their segments in the film (Garrin didn't make it into the final cut) we learn very little of substance from these bonus Q&As. If you want to know more about Dammbeck's purpose behind the production, there is a conversation with the director included as part of the packaging insert. It's informative and enlightening, much more than the movie made of these ideas.
While it is hard to dismiss outright this confusing, complicated film, it is also hard to defend it. The Net has some interesting ideas, but they are wrapped up in a criminal's callous acts and a significant amount of grandstanding gobbledygook. As a director, Lutz Dammbeck makes the tragic mistake of confusing conspiracy with chance, and never once wonders if he's on the right track. He's more than happy to subvert his subjects for a little onscreen histrionics while purposefully playing the naïve foreign filmmaker. Because of these baffling filmic facets and the lack of sense made overall, this DVD earns a less than enthusiastic Rent It. Some may be moved by the story Dammbeck tells. Others may feel they've stumbled across Oliver Stone's home movies. If Ted Kaczynski really had a valid philosophical point about the terrors of technology, blowing people up was not the proper way to advance discussion on the topic. The Net seems to suggest that, all moral abomination aside, it did get the lamentable Luddite theory a lot of attention. Frankly, there are better ways to get your voice heard. Similarly, there are better ways to make a movie about the subject than this crackpot creation.
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