Sam Klemke’s Time Machine Dir. Matthew Bate

[Closer Productions; 2015]

Styles: documentary, narcissism
Others: Shut Up Little Man, Winnebago Man, We Live in Public

The metaphysical dichotomy of macrocosm and microcosm has fascinated humankind presumably since we first looked upward from this planet into the vast expanse that surrounds us and wondered, “What is our place and our purpose amidst this unknowable stretch of existence we’ve called the universe?” Going at least as far back as the writings of Plato and Pythagoras and infiltrating popular culture through one of The Simpsonsmost memorable couch gags, man has routinely looked to the stars to understand himself just as he has turned to introversion to better address the grander philosophic questions which unquiet him. We are stardust, as both the song and science tell us, and we are of a piece with the heavens in ways both enchanting and chilling, depending upon your preferred flavor of existentialism.

Is that which we call infinite like an immeasurably wide ocean, or is it a repeating loop like a möbius strip or an ouroboros? Can space be cleaved from time? Are they divisible, or do we find ourselves trapped within the paradoxes of Zeno? These are not, so far as I am aware, terribly pressing concerns for professional caricaturist and compulsive self-documenter Sam Klemke, but they nonetheless inform Matthew Bate’s clever and thoughtful documentary Sam Klemke’s Time Machine, culled from almost four decades worth of home movies, video diaries, and public access television programs shot and cataloged by the titular protagonist as a means of both introspection and expression.

Bate’s previous documentary, Shut Up, Little Man, was also about the need to document, but the subject was not the self. Rather, it was a pair of elderly men — the flamboyantly gay Peter and his homophobic roommate Raymond — whose comically vitriolic spats were clandestinely taped by Eddie and Mitch, the tenants of the adjacent apartment. Like Ben Steinbauer’s Winnebago Man, it explored the proliferation of viral content in the pre-internet era and the cathartic joy one can glean from bearing silent witness to a stranger’s hyperbolic expressions of frustration. What made Winnebago Man great, however, was the discovery, humanization, and, in some ways, redemption of the real Jack Rebney, a narrative arc Shut Up, Little Man was unable to repeat (Peter and Raymond both died in the nineties). Instead, Bate chronicled the chroniclers and gingerly explored the ethics surrounding the cottage industry that sprung up around Eddie and Mitch’s tapes, indirectly — and through no fault of his own — condemning Peter and Raymond to perpetual otherness.

Enter Sam Klemke. In 2011, the same year Shut Up, Little Man debuted, Klemke uploaded a video entitled “35 years Backwards thru Time” to his YouTube account. The clip, which quickly went viral, comprised footage of Klemke from the present day moving back in reverse chronology to 1977, when the then nineteen year old aspiring filmmaker embarked on a lifelong project to film himself reflecting upon his existence at the end of each calendar year to “stimulate growth and improvement from year to year.” Bate was one of the over one million people who viewed Klemke’s video, eventually striking up a correspondence with Klemke, who entrusted the filmmaker with his enormous archive of self reportage.

Four years later, Bate has given us Sam Klemke’s Time Machine, a film which explores the slow accretion of the banal, the fitful starts and stops of life, and the frightening ease of self sabotage. There’s an overused adage to the tune of, The more things change, the more they stay the same. This could well be the tagline of Sam Klemke’s life. Every year we see Klemke, ten or twenty pounds heavier than the year before, making the same promises of self-betterment that he made twelve months earlier, sliding further into habitual despair. Every several years, we see a new love interest enter and, inevitably, exit his life; each one is a little more anonymous than the last, none more so than the string of prostitutes he patronizes throughout the nineties. During most of the eighties, Klemke is unemployed, stuck in his parents’ basement, living off of nachos and Mountain Dew. By 1988, things are looking up for Klemke: he’s got steady work as a caricaturist and a loving girlfriend named Claire with whom he’s finally gotten his own home. That they celebrate their first night in the new house with a dinner of nachos, however, should tell you that at heart, Klemke still has a lot of growing to do.

If Sam Klemke’s Time Machine were a more traditional film, the fact that this growth never really comes could be frustrating for the viewer (though surely not as much as it is for the subject). But Bate’s got other ideas, and his masterstroke is juxtaposing the record of Sam Klemke’s life against another human artifact minted in 1977: the “Golden Record” included in the Voyager spacecraft. Intended as a calling card for the human race, a demo reel of mankind’s greatest hits from whale songs to Bach to Chuck Berry, the Golden Record was an assertion to whatever lifeforms Voyager may encounter that we are here, alive, intelligent, and capable of beautiful and meaningful self expression. But the question which Bate directly raises is: Is Beethoven really representative of the human race? Is he not the exception, the gifted aberration amidst a mass of selfish, violent creatures who have disregarded and destroyed the very planet that nurtured them?

When we create a narrative about ourselves, what do we choose to omit? What do those omissions say about us, as individuals and as a species? Klemke can be seen as the ordinary to balance the extraordinary represented on the Golden Record, but his life as it is preserved on film, on tape, and now on solid state hard drives is itself an act of self curation; despite the depth, breadth, and candor of Klemke’s archive, it is still a fraction and a fiction. That fiction, however, is an increasingly useful one for us, as social media has proliferated, changing the way we engage with our concept of self. Later in life, Lacan revised his concept of the mirror stage, defining it not simply as a phase in our development of identity, but rather a permanent state of engagement with the world wherein we view ourselves as objects rather than subjects; poised midway between Lacan and selfie sticks is Sam Klemke.

At a time when society suggests to us that a life undocumented is a life unlived, it’s worthwhile to consider the case of Klemke. What can we really know about him from his Annual Personal Status Reports? We can detect a strain of narcissism, as well as some self pity, desire unmoored from drive, but would we say we that we know or understand Klemke from having watched ninety minutes of him? Is his life really a case study in arrested development, or by choosing to focus on “growth and improvement,” has he stacked the deck to privilege his stasis? We do know that he is a gifted caricaturist, which is a worthwhile detail. A good caricature is one which both reduces and enlarges its subject, quickly identifying his or her major features and exaggerating them to the very edge of grotesquerie; it must say something about a person’s interiority using only his or her exterior features. When Klemke is featured in a CBS News report, he is identified simply as “Man in video.” Are we the authors of our actions, or are our actions the authors of our selves? Chicken and egg? Microcosm and macrocosm? Neither Bate nor Klemke pretend to have any answers, but they do raise some interesting questions.

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