YouTube’s worldwide invitation for contributors to submit personal diary footage on a single day — July 24, 2010 — results in an emotional and problematically assembled feature-length compilation, “Life in a Day.” Though some will view the film, overseen by director Kevin Macdonald and shepherded by Tony and Ridley Scott, as honoring YouTube’s global-village possibilities and democratic ideals, others will criticize the pic as violating YouTube principles of unedited, personal videos that resist feature movie rules. NatGeo is an ideal domestic distrib, sure to nab curious auds during the pic’s July rollout following a YouTube online preem.
In truth, the most important player in the project is editor Joe Walker, who has melded more than 4,500 hours of footage into a surprisingly coherent whole. Pic is structured into two conceptual forms, one wrapped inside the other: Clips are assembled in a chronological form, from post-midnight darkness to daytime and into evening, while certain detectable themes (including the things people love and fear the most) are edited into mini-montages that serve either as bridges between sections or as discrete sections themselves.
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Both forms are held together, to a distressingly excessive degree, by a score composed by Harry Gregson-Williams and Matthew Herbert that mixes minimalist cliches with songs and cues that sound close to lullabies. Besides intruding on the individual clips, the music tends to overwhelm and homogenize the clips — arguably the opposite of the ideal, unfettered YouTube viewing experience.
The film revels in diurnal pleasures — slowly rising from bed, making breakfast, prepping for the day, working, taking midday naps, domestic squabbling and cuddling, partying and dating (though there’s not a moment of sex in this family-targeted doc). Most daring, for squeamish Western auds at least, are moments of cattle slaughter, while the most exhilarating clip is unquestionably one of a female skydiver in freefall, as shot by her partner via a fish-eye lens camera.
Emotions run thick through “Life in a Day,” with each viewer sure to relate closely to some captured detail (whether it’s domestic clutter or a son’s first shave, among countless others) or stated remark (a husband’s fear of his wife’s recurring cancer, for example, is certain to stir many). The problem with this patchwork quilt is that such moments come and go, almost arbitrarily, while Macdonald’s aesthetic backs away from drawing out any big ideas just as it retreats from a more radical collage approach.
Auds willing to lose themselves in a kind of Internet-style armchair adventure will doubtless be swept up, though more critical eyes will note that the Western world is considerably on greater view in this assemblage than contributions from Latin America, Asia and Africa. Whether this is due to the quality of clips supplied, the filmmakers’ cultural choices and biases, or a combination of these, all will be fodder for conversation. For the record, 21 languages are spoken onscreen.