Director: Matthew Bate.
Playing Open City Doc Fest 2015 (June 16 2015 UK)
To make any film is in a sense to explore the concept of time, and filmmakers have long been interested in how cinema can more directly express this. One of the most acclaimed films of last year was Richard Linklater’s feature film Boyhood, which involved filming the same cast at intervals over a twelve year period, allowing them to age with the characters on screen before our eyes. In 1977 - the year Star Wars was released and the Voyager probe set sail into the stars - suburban Denver native Sam Klemke started a similar, albeit non-fiction project. He turned his trusty 16mm camera on himself, and started a project to record a summary of each year, every year. The idea, Klemke states at one point, is to achieve some kind of improvement, but in reality a huge chunk of this footage is made up of complaints about weight gains and career losses, dental problems, farting, eating nachos, and various loopy sketches.
Director Matthew Bate’s highly entertaining, poignant and funny documentary showcases highlights from all the hundreds of hours of footage Klemke stacked up, whilst exploring how Klemke came to eventually release concise extracts of his archive to the world via a video tool his 1977 amateur filmmaker self could only have dreamed of - Youtube. This is an odd documentary in many ways, not just because Klemke himself is an idiosyncratic, hyperactive host and subject, but because the film addresses the audience in so many ways. On one level it replays in roughly chronological order the highlights of Klemke’s freewheeling, yearly recorded round ups, but it also includes recent footage of Bate meeting Klemke to begin the process of turning the disorderly archive (spread out over 16mm cans, VHS tapes with peeling labels, and flash cards) into a documentary. At virtually every meeting, Klemke is filming Bate, who is in turn filming him, raising the interesting question as to who is the subject and who’s film this is.
Bate also threads throughout his documentary certain sections that focus on the Voyager probe, still out there somewhere, tumbling through space. Bate not only draws from historical footage of the probe launching on its historic mission to chart out solar system and beyond, but also deploys some quite visually impressive computer generated visualisations of the probe as it travels against star fields, planets and nebulae. The director implicitly links the purpose of the probe, which famously was designed to be time capsule containing a summary of life of earth in case of alien contact, with Klemke’s more ramshackle effort. A curious, French-accented voice over observes philosophically how this bizarre attempt to sum up humanity in just a few gold etched discs is so futile, that it is best seen as more an attempt for humanity to reflect on itself.
This admittedly is crediting Klemke’s work with huge, almost cosmic significance, and the portentous Voyager sections with their swish CGI do clash a little with the scratchy home video footage (at least, until we reach the digital era) the usually unkempt Klemke stapled together. But there is something admirable about Klemke’s commitment to his project, his amazing frankness (there is plenty of nudity and fussing about that growing beergut) and his interest in exploring the potential of film through splicing and garage-level special effects techniques. Klemke is an intense, restless figure who holds the attention, one who is always spinning out mini-narratives and sketches on screen, to the point where it becomes more and more obvious why he would want to be a filmmaker. And of course the film has at its heart that fundamental appeal of watching someone age before our eyes, as we wonder along with them what has changed for better or worse, and what has stayed the same. It is a question we see Klemke ask again and again in various years, and given there is nothing more human and flawed than that, maybe that makes his film worthy of travelling with the Voyager probe.