By Elias Savada.
Australian director-writer Matthew Bate (responsible for the fly-on-the-wall 2011 documentary Shut Up Little Man: An Audio Misadventure) took an interest in his latest film’s central character after watching a video by him on YouTube that year. More on that later. Sam Klemke’s Time Machine, a work compiled from hundreds of hours of homemade amateur movies shot over 35 years by Sam Klemke, and padded with a few extra somethings, is a rather interesting tale about a compulsive personality. After we see Sam the teenager grow out of his acne, through a years-long attachment to his dental braces and into a growth of facial hair, an odd, destructive feeling begins to emerge. Maybe a medical opinion might be in order, rather than a film review. Bate tosses multiple warts-and-all clips into the air. Then, with the help of editor Bryan Mason, something mesmerizing falls into place. Sure it’s a mishmash of monumental proportions, covering so many years in just under 90 minutes of Earth screen time. I can sympathize because I have 40 hours of my dad’s 8mm home movies in the basement — few ever approaching the let-it-all-go attitude in many of the shots taken by the self immortalizing Klemke.
Yes, I did say Earth screen time, because the film parallels the movement of the Voyager spacecraft (particular spotlighting its Golden Record which compresses the history of human achievement) through the Universe, a journey begun the same year (1977) that Klemke, then a 19-year-old Colorado optimist, would pick up a camera and start filming his hokey “annual personal status report” series. Bate makes every effort to link the wonder of man and the surprise of space, existentially comparing one man’s fate with that of the cosmos. At any time in the film, the director’s concept switches between widescreen computer-generated imagery of the spacecraft careening through space, low resolution, Academy-ratio, film-to-digital conversion of the Super 8mm Klemke time capsules (in later years moving to video, then digital), and a French movie that provides generally emotionless English-subtitled narration about and what’s on the disc.
That Gallic film in the film is affectionately credited to Le Verrier, a star-gazing mathematician who predicted the existence of Neptune. That French “director” died in 1877, perhaps a coincidental 100 years before Klemke began his project.
Yes, there’s fun in the nostalgic side of Sam’s life. First year highlights include microwave ovens arriving in our kitchens, Elvis Presley dying, and the first Star Wars film dominating the box office (and a franchise continuing to rake in billions and billions of dollars).
I suspect Bate wants us to compare and contrast the story of the evolution of life (as purportedly recorded on Voyager’s Golden Record and how it might be more accurately reflected by the director) with Klemke’s collected celebration of his largely overweight existence, pathetic as it may be (depending on the year about which he’s reporting). As Voyager’s history lesson ends when it lifted off in 1977, there’s a sense that Bate wanted to continue to provide fodder for the next interstellar time capsule, and that would be, naturally, Sam Klemke’s Time Machine.
Now, damned if I wasn’t curious about finding out what happens to Sam (soon, even you will call him by his first name), as he survives too many bowls of nachos in between shooting his memoirs and little pieces of light fiction, such as Drab Days in Suburbia: An Existential Fairy Tale from 1987.
By the end of 1988 he leaves his parents’ house (again) and heads to Denver (briefly) with a working vehicle, a girlfriend (Claire, one of several we spot over the years), somewhat of a career (he’s good!) as a roving carnival/mall caricaturist, and maybe on the verge of losing more than a few pounds (nah, it takes another eight years for that, and apparently thanks to a woman named Esther). Eventually, at 39, he gives up carbonated beverages, television, and prostitutes. But the fat and beard come back, the very next year. More girlfriends come and go. And he still wants to write, and direct. Sorry Sam, I don’t see that in your future.
So, 3½ decades on (and with about a half-hour left in the feature to burn), Bate starts to glorify his subject. Let’s see how YouTube took a liking to Sam, and show that many other people are finally doing what he has done for decades: vlogging about themselves. Let’s show the viral fame being showered on him through CBS News segment covering his six-plus minute online video 35 Years Backward Thru Time. It has over 1.1 million views, but the trailer for Sam Klemke’s Time Machine has only 2,031 (as of this writing). It becomes a little too cloyingly self-referential, when, in June 2012, Klemke and Bate meet, where they’re BOTH shooting the experience.
In Sam’s cluttered archival lair, the VHS tapes are piled along the walls from floor to ceiling. Probably deteriorating (they have a shelf life of 10-15 years — the same as a goldfish), but the childless caretaker believes it will all end up “in a dump” when he dies. Now, this lonely American’s life’s work has been framed by an Australian filmmaker from Adelaide. The context, as I already have figured out, deals with that French film, and the Voyager flight. Ultimately the spectators for all of Sam’s films will stretch way beyond the realm of our planet. What kind of audience exists out there is anyone’s guess.
I’m not sure Sam Klemke has acquired greatness or wisdom, although he does resemble a enlightened Buddha for most of the movie. In the words of the Grateful Dead, what a long, strange trip it’s been.
The documentary played at Sundance early this year. It premieres worldwide on Vimeo on November 30th.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning.