Richard Linklater ended his feel-good Best Picture contender on a high. His star, 18-year-old would-be artist Mason, graduated high school and was ready to conquer the world. But what if Linklater had kept filming? And what if Mason wasn't an actor but a real teenage boy?
Meet Samuel Klemke. He, too, was the creative kid in class. But Sam was even more ambitious and outgoing. In high school in the '70s, Sam got a video camera and began recording everything himself — no Oscar-nominated director required. Starting in 1977, the year he turned 19, Sam's hobby became a vow: At the end of every year, he'd film a diary entry about the last 12 months. “The purpose of all of this is to stimulate growth and improvement,” Sam explained. “It can capture time, time that we'll never see again.” He expected to record his triumphs. He had no idea how bad his life would turn out to be.
The first year went fine. Sam's big goal was to visit New York, and he did. He also bought his first microwave, mourned Elvis Presley's death and started to pack a few extra pounds on his slender, Anthony Kiedis–handsome frame. Subsequent years were worse. By 1981, Sam was moaning that his life “is a fucking mess.” He was up to 200 pounds and couldn't get a job or a date. By 1983, he had moved back in with his parents and nightly gorged himself on nachos. By 1986, he hit 270, lived hand-to-mouth as a caricature artist at the mall and still hadn't written that screenplay. By 1987, he'd dubbed his project a “docutraumedy.”
Sam's story isn't uplifting. But it's honest. How many people have Hollywood happy endings? Not many of Sam's classmates. At his 10-year reunion, Sam re-interviews his old friends who, a decade before, were beaming with their future plans. They were going to be lawyers, geniuses, talents. He finds them humbled. Except for one: a kid who'd successfully become a choir director — the Sundance viewers were so relieved that they applauded.
To be human is to make mistakes. We've all let ourselves down somehow. Sam speaks for us all, even if he admits more than we want to hear, such as his early-'90s addiction to prostitution, his flirtation with diet pills (aka speed), his increasingly huge belly, which he jiggles naked in front of the lens. Off-camera, we learn that his obese ex, the one most comfortable lounging naked for his films, died at 42. “I want to take this to the year 2000, which means I'll have to get healthy if I want to live that long,” Sam sighs.
Despite his depression, Sam Klemke's Time Machine is oddly optimistic. He accomplishes one goal: He never stops filming. Even without good news, that he's alive and striving feels defiant. And every so often, we catch him in a hopeful mood. “I'm poised for greatness!” he chirps in 1988. Greatness never happens. But that doesn't keep him from promising it again and again in 1996, 2004 and up through today — and the very fact that he still thinks he can turn things around at 39, 47, 52 gives us hope that it's not too late for us. Even if we keep struggling, Sam shows us that moods can lift, people can fall in love again, weight can be shed, at least for a year.
The same year that Sam started his project, Voyager I blasted into space to film the corners of our solar system before whizzing off on a quest to find extraterrestrial life. Scientist Carl Sagan hoped that, if it bumped into any aliens, they would play a time capsule he had stowed inside. Dubbed the Golden Record, it was a survey of our world: the sounds of trees and babies and sawing wood spiraled alongside classical music and indigenous drums. The Golden Record was the story of humanity as we wish it were: It was all beauty and no war.
Director Matthew Bate splices Voyager's history into Sam's footage to make two points: First, that Sam tells the true story of humanity, and second, that telling that story is brave. Where NASA insisted on censoring Voyager's picture of a naked couple, Sam stomps around the living room flaunting his boner. If the aliens visited Earth based on Voyager's pitch, they'd be disappointed. At least with Sam's footage, they'd know exactly what to expect.
While the space detours grow irritating, the argument is apt. Bate hoists Sam up as a hero of a sort, though it becomes increasingly frustrating that the film doesn't trust that his footage itself will hold our interest. By the end, when Bate and Klemke meet to discuss their partnership and film themselves filming each other, the doc has spun itself silly. We'd rather watch a slightly more mature Klemke watching his old tapes and groaning, “Can you believe this guy? Shut the fuck up.”