All posts tagged “north korea


Into the Inferno, Werner Herzog (2016) & Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, Werner Herzog (2016)

Herzog, in his mid-70s, continues to make excellent new work at an absurd pace. These two are ostensibly documentaries about volcanoes and the internet, respectively, but they work more like essays or poems which begin with the idea of something (e.g., volcanoes, the internet) and then spiral out associations from there. Into the Inferno has talking head scientists explaining how magma works and all that, but Herzog is perfectly happy, when visiting a volcano in North Korea, to spend a good chunk of time on North Korean politics and culture. So you’re watching along, enjoying the insights, and suddenly you ask yourself, wait, why am I learning about North Korean history in the middle of a volcano documentary? And then you’re like, whoa, hold on, is there some metaphor at work here? And by right about then, Herzog’s back to talking about magma, and the moment passes. Then all of a sudden he’s talking about cargo cults, and you’re like, wait a minute . . .

Lo and Behold is even looser in its organization and freer in its range of attention. We see the dingy UCLA office where a computer called up another computer for the first time, and we hear Elon Musk talk about connectivity, but Herzog also visits the National Radio Quiet Zone to talk with people suffering from electromagnetic sensitivity, conducts an absolutely devastating interview with the family of a girl whose gruesome death was photographed and shared on the internet by a couple of assholes in the employ of the California Highway Patrol, and — a favorite moment of mine — asks a young Carnegie Mellon student if he in fact loves the robot he and his team have designed. “Yes,” the student answers. “We do love Robot 8.”

There are certainly critiques available for Herzog’s documentaries. He prefers grandeur to details, poetry to prose, and so sometimes you get the sense that inconvenient data is being elided. He’ll let a MOOC proponent enthuse about the phenomenon’s potential, but won’t talk about the problems, for example. And some will be annoyed when he inevitably comes around to his portentous voice-over moments, which are so easily parodied. Ever since seeing Into the Inferno, I’ve taken to loudly announcing in a strong German accent that “Zee depthless abyss of molten lava reminds us zat all human endeavor iss futile.” Personally, I’ve for decades considered these Herzogian pronouncements a feature, not a bug.


The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson (2012)

Orphan-Masters-Son-with-Pulitzer-BurstA thoroughly enjoyable, tautly written, cleverly plotted novel, and one perhaps more subtle than it seems. Because Johnson’s research on life in North Korea is pretty clearly in place, we buy into the idea that we’re reading realism here. But how do you write realism about a place where reality is perpetually subject to change at the whim of the state? As events in the novel get stranger and stranger, you start doubting the realism that you took for granted at first — Is it really possible that Kim Jong Il commissioned a hand-built ersatz Ford Mustang just to humiliate a visiting U. S. Senator? Are there really villages in the DPRK populated entirely by “zombie laborers” who have been given lobotomies by the state? — and thus Johnson is able, in a small way, to create in his reader’s mind a state of surreality analogous to the one which must pervade life in North Korea, where survival requires you to believe in obvious untruths, and the truth itself is unbelievable.

So that’s a nifty formal success, yes, but there’s something discomfiting about the enterprise too. We see kidnappings, torture, coercion, murder, starvation, and much else to denote the plight of North Korea’s citizenry, but the novel, weirdly, also feels like a bit of a romp, with loads of exciting set pieces, comic passages, a star-crossed love story, and in the closing moments a Scooby-Doo-esque foiling of Kim Jong Il that left me tickled as a novel-reader but strangely horrified as a human-being. Digging down to get at the exact nature of my complaint here, I strike a layer of iron, or irony — I think I may be wondering whether there are simply some subjects about which novels should not be written.