If you happen to be familiar with the work of award-winning Austrian artist/filmmaker/everything else Johannes Grenzfurthner before you sit down to watch his recently completed semi-autobiographical documentary Traceroute, and I was familiar with Grenzfurthner even before I opened up an e-mail and saw an invitation to screen his film just before its world premiere at the NYC Independent Film Festival, then you already likely know that you should expect just about everything but the expected from the two-hour uniquely envisioned, experimental, intellectually stimulating and emotionally honest film that journeys into the uncharted depths of nerd culture in ways I'm pretty damn sure you haven't ever seen before.
Grenzfurthner is described on his Wikipedia page as one of the most outspoken researchers in the field of sexuality and technology and, yeah, trust me there's a field of sexuality and technology and Grenzfurthner's work in it is remarkable.
The truth is that I could easily spend my review on the curious and outspoken work of Grenzfurthner, a refreshingly unique voice who grounds his thoughts and ideas with research and a unique weaving together of creativity and critical thinking. These things are very much at the root of his first feature documentary, Traceroute, a documentary borne out of a 2015 road trip Grenzfurthner took across the United States that now introduces us, the audience/participant, to the people and places that have shaped Grenzfurthner's activism and life journey.
Of course, as you might imagine, these people and places aren't your usual people and places. There are times that you'll be sitting there watching Traceroute going "I don't even remotely understand what they're talking about," but one also has to acknowledge that Grenzfurthner has a gift for keeping everything accessible and yet also refusing to dumb it down for mass consumption.
Yep, it is possible to do both.
The people that we encounter are fabulous, from my personal favorite Maggie Mayhem (I'll confess I was crushin' a bit) to the likes of Matt Winston, Sandy Stone, Bruce Sterling and a whole slew of others. The journey itself is captivating as Grenzfurthner, a self-proclaimed nerd, takes us into or around nerd culture and nerd places across the country including Area 51, Stan Winston Studios and other delightful spots, many quite known yet shared through Grenzfurthner's delightful presence and unique knowledge.
In Grenzfurthner's own words, Traceroute "wants to chase and question the ghosts of nerddom's past, present and future. An exhilarating tour de farceinto the guts of trauma, obsession and cognitive capitalism." The film is ultimately the thinking person's journey through nerd culture, a fact that should be remembered before you sit down and watch the film. If you're expecting nothing more than your usual nerd doc with its cosplay cuteness and asocial gamers, you're going to be not just disappointed but probably traumatized. Grenzfurthner is clearly full-on willing to challenge culture, stereotypes, accepted thoughts and just about everything else. There's a healthy dose of sexuality in Traceroute, which one might expect, yet Grenzfurthner also immerses the film in politics, activism and social shifts.
It's challenging. It's thought-provoking. It's remarkably honest. It's well researched.
Oh yeah, I almost forgot. It's also entertaining.
Grenzfurthner's a delightful soul, a man who clearly enjoys being amongst those whom he interviews and a man who may not have been entirely successful at the usual documentary objectivity. If you could weave together the unique persona of a Werner Herzog with the enthusiasm and entertainment value of a Michael Moore, you might have an idea of what to expect from a Grenzfurthner documentary.
You should be aware that Traceroute is a low-budget effort, though anyone familiar with Grenzfurthner's work would expect as much. The film's retro vibe originally score further reminds you that this is a low-budget, alternative effort. This isn't a bad thing, though I'll confess I found myself getting a wee bit tired of the score by film's end, the retro vibe coming off more as a constant looping that started to distract from the film's goings on. While Grenzfurthner also nicely transcends the film's limited budget by stylishly adding visual effects to work around it, the film runs a good 15-20 minutes too long as certain scenes seem to linger past their impact point.
These are ultimately minor quibbles for a film that I found utterly captivating and more than a little informative. While my background is considerably different than Grenzfurthner's, I found myself enthralled with his intellectual curiosity and his willingness to challenge the norms of commerce and society. In reality, Traceroute really casts the net wider than nerd culture as Grenzfurthner looks into alternative society and the alternative spirits among us. Refreshingly devoid of the pretentiousness so often found amongst truly intellectual films, Traceroute is simultaneously a pretty wonderful personal journey and an immensely satisfying cinematic experience.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic