Sundance Film Review: ‘Sam Klemke’s Time Machine’

Sundance Film Festival Sam Klemke’s Time

A unique docu hybrid that turns one man's decades of self-filming into an existential message in a bottle.

The latest act of subterranean cultural excavation by Australian helmer Matthew Bate (2011’s “Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure” and several shorts), “Sam Klemke’s Time Machine” compiles, examines and elevates the “life work” of its titular compulsive filmic autobiographer. Since 1977, Colorado native Klemke has chronicled the ups and (mostly) downs of his frequently hapless existence, and Bate turns that often less-than-flattering mountain of footage into an offbeat artifact packaged as a non-PC explanatory memo to any interstellar beings — one that encompasses all the very human flaws left out of standard time capsules memorializing today’s humanity for the future. This adventuresome, unclassifiable feature will be most suited to artscaster slots and niche download sales after it tours the fest circuit.

Bate’s gambit is to contrast his subject’s very homemade, microcosmic audiovisual journal with the grandiose musings of a documentary about the Golden Record — those discs containing representative sights and sounds of Earth life that have been aboard the Voyager 1 for nearly four decades. Their “message in a bottle” is intended to enlighten any alien life forms that might encounter Voyager about our planet and species as the spacecraft continues hurtling ever farther from Earth. The seemingly vintage French-language docu interspersed in faux excerpts here is in fact one of Bate’s own devising, as it uses archival and new footage (including motion graphics) to illustrate and critique the Golden Record’s sanitized, officially approved view of human history and society.

The same year that craft launched into space, a skinny, long-haired, 19-year-old Klemke began making annual “personal status reports” on film (and later video) from his parent’s suburban Denver home, recording his lofty ambitions (often to invade the entertainment world in one form or another), his contrastingly humble achievements, and his frequent setbacks. He’s a class clown with a significant streak of self-loathing, and by 23 he’s already admitting (not for the last time), “My life is an (expletive) mess.” He battles recurrent weight gain, joblessness, return stays at the parental manse, and new girlfriends who turn his life around yet are invariably gone by the next year. His humorous willingness to bare all (often quite literally) never quite trumps a pervasive air of desperation and depression.

Since we’re limited to Sam’s own archived views of himself, sans external commentary, a number of questions remain as to why an evidently bright, outgoing man from a seemingly secure middle-class background would fail to make anything of his life over several decades’ course. Before YouTube arrives to make him a minor celebrity, his apparently only success has been as a street-corner caricature artist, sketching passersby and showbiz stars for a few bucks a pop.

Intercutting between these two strands — the Golden Record meditation and Klemke’s chronological self-portaiture — in deliberately jagged, channel-surfing form, Bate finally arrives at the present time about 15 minutes before the pic’s end. At this point he becomes an onscreen participant himself, collaborating with Klemke (whose archive he and many others discovered on YouTube) to shape the film we’re now watching. Subject’s wariness about putting his life’s record into a stranger’s hands is alleviated when Bate reveals he’s broadcast those materials in a way that makes the Voyager association quite immediate, giving Klemke a cosmic measure of the recognition he’s always chased.

The result has something of an avant-garde edge while being quite accessible, if potentially discomfiting for those who might wish Klemke were a little less chronically self-revealing. If the sum doesn’t deliver quite the same degree of pathos and amusement that “Shut Up Little Man!” did, this docu hybrid nonetheless confirms Bate’s as a distinct sensibility whose ability to articulate larger ideas lurking behind private expressions-turned-viral pop phenomena is welcome in the age of the selfie.

The quality of the archival materials ranges greatly, but assembly is accomplished.

Sundance Film Review: 'Sam Klemke's Time Machine'

Reviewed online, San Francisco, Jan. 15, 2015. (In Sundance Film Festival — New Frontier; Rotterdam Film Festival — Bright Future.) Running time: 89 MIN.

Production

(Documentary — Australia) A Screen Australia presentation in association with South Australia Film Corp. and Adelaide Film Festival of a Closer production. (International sales: Visit Films, New York.) Produced by Rebecca Summerton, Sophie Hyde.

Crew

Directed by Matthew Bate. Written by Bate, Sandy Cameron. Camera (color, HD), Klemke, Bate, Bryan Mason; editor, Mason; music, Jonny Elk Walsh, Raynor Pettge; music supervisor, Matthew Cormack; sound designer/re-recording mixer, Pete Best; animation, Pettge.

With

Sam Klemke. (English, French dialogue)

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