Thursday, November 10, 2011

Up with People: LIFE IN A DAY

Last year, the crew behind Life in a Day asked people all around the world to shoot footage of their lives on July 24, 2010 and submit it through YouTube for the chance to see it appear in the film. They call it a crowd-sourced documentary. The result doesn’t prove that the idea of a crowd-sourced film is doomed to failure, but it certainly proves that the way these filmmakers went about it created one.

The footage was assembled and edited by a production team under the direction of Kevin Macdonald (of fiction films like State of Play). The results, however, are directionless pap. It has been assembled into an attempt at a grand message about how everyone the world over is the same despite differences. It’s a movie that homogenizes diversity instead of celebrating it, a jumble of moments big and small padded out with pandering shots of babies, animals, and landscapes. Macdonald doesn’t seem interested in making you think or even in making much of a point.

It all starts with the sun rising, with people getting out of bed and starting their day from China to France to America and everywhere in between. We’re launched immediately into the fiction of the film, a thoroughly crass attempt to order people’s submitted footage in such a way as to conjure a false structure on which to build the film. It turns it all into a feature length greeting card commercial. Worse, it’s also like watching someone else click through YouTube with a broken concept of what is interesting and who refuses to let you click away. If you like a dog getting a newspaper or a mom saying her teen's room is messy, well this is the movie for you: moments you mightn’t buy in a bad sitcom served up under a veneer of vérité.

The footage features plenty of lovely people who would make perfectly sweet little documentary shorts or This American Life segments (a dad teaches his son to shave, a mom recuperating from some kind of major surgery tells her son “It’s okay to be afraid,” a gay man comes out to his grandmother, an Afghan shows us Kabul) were someone with more of a vision to focus on drawing out their stories. Here it’s a catch as catch can, which means plenty of screen time for clear narcissists. Too often I asked myself why in the world someone thought what they were filming would be worth the whole world seeing. It might be worth seeing on YouTube, maybe, but not as part of a feature film.

At best, Life in a Day is a tedious collection of moments, the best of which would have been better off as viral videos. It’s incredibly difficult to sit through. It’s trite and tripe. My disinterest slowly turned into dismay. Some may not like me coming down so hard on a relatively harmless documentary that only wants to be a sweet little time capsule. But what good are uncritical, contextless snippets of footage wrapped in a fake populism? It’s falsely upbeat, to the point where even poverty and war just get glazed over with the same syrupy gloss.

This is a movie ostensibly about how we, that is to say, mankind, live, but it’s lazily organized along a dawn-to-dusk timeline that homogenizes time zones and further loosely organized into little montage categories like “Breakfast” and “Brushing Teeth.” They stop short of actually labeling it thusly, but you get the picture. It’s a constructed idea rather than an observation. If I wanted to sift through tedious videos in hopes I’d stumble onto a gem, I’d just go to YouTube directly. But no, this is curated from the footage submitted, and in the compiling, in the attempt to shove it all into some vague, thoughtless, life-affirming message, that’s where it all went so horribly wrong.

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