‘Sam Klemke’s Time Machine’: Sundance Review

Sam Klemkes Time Machine
Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
Habitual over-sharing on camera may have a longer history than you might think

This documentary on one man’s three-decade dedication to recording annual status updates draws some interesting parallels with trends in current Internet culture

Australian Matthew Bate appears to be taking on a role as curator of electronic ephemera for the digital age with his most recent films. His 2011 documentary Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure featured an inquiry into a series of heated arguments between two mismatched San Francisco roommates that were surreptitiously recorded by their neighbors. With Sam Klemke’s Time Machine, Bate again makes an unusual choice: Collating decades-worth of video recordings that subject Sam Klemke has shot focusing almost exclusively on himself.

Often strange, sometimes repellent, but rarely mundane, over more than 35 years these self-referential installments have accreted to form the portrait of a quixotic artist clumsily seeking to articulate some of the more ineffable qualities of life. By turns both engrossing and frustratingly repetitive, Bate’s film is a good fit for avant-leaning film festivals and will doubtless find an outlet via online platforms, which was how Klemke was originally discovered. 

Beginning in 1977 at the age of 19, the Denver-area resident began adding “annual personal status reports” on his life to his burgeoning collection of home-animation and movie footage. The purpose of the project, Klemke said at the time, was to “stimulate growth and improvement year to year.” In these initial Super-8 clips Klemke mentions major current events over the past 12 months and discusses his personal accomplishments, or more often his lack of accomplishment. Blessed with a fertile imagination but not much motivation, Klemke thinks he’ll eventually become a professional filmmaker, but he instead settles for the uncertainty of chronic under-employment as a talented caricature artist, a lifestyle that forces him to move back into his parents’ basement at one point just to make ends meet.

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In 2011, Klemke edited together a seven-minute retrospective compilation of his annual missives and titled the video “35 Years Back Through Time,” which he posted on  YouTube, where it reportedly accumulated more than 600,000 hits. After watching him morph from an overweight, middle-aged guy back into a fit young teenager as the clip rewound through Klemke’s life, Bate contacted him about the viral video and the possibility of converting the full archive of updates into a film.

In between clips of Klemke’s annual updates, Bate layers in segments of archival footage from his French-language documentary on NASA’s Voyager 2 space mission, Voyage to the Stars. Voyager was launched in 1977, just as Klemke was starting his documentary project, with the mission of exploring and photographing the outer limits of our solar system before shooting off to beam back data from the interstellar void.

Onboard the spacecraft, NASA scientists led by renowned cosmologist Carl Sagan, placed the so-called “Golden Record,” a gold-plated audio-visual disc intended to communicate a selection of data about the human race to any extraterrestrial lifeforms it might encounter. In particular, Bate’s film focuses on the contradictory curatorial process involved in determining the contents of the disc, which involved the selective exclusion of certain facts and representations regarding humanity, particularly any unflattering information. 

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Similarly, Klemke’s video archive represents an incomplete documentation of the filmmaker’s life, although he seems to have little hesitation about including unpleasant details about his personal history. Almost every annual check-in includes an assessment of how much weight Klemke has gained (or lost, but not for long) and his generally slovenly eating and personal habits. Reports on failed relationships, job terminations and a periodic predilection for prostitution are not omitted either. “This is what I’m all about,” Klemke says at one point, “capturing reality.”

Reliant on more than 35 years of footage from Klemke’s archive and NASA’s mid-70s film and video documentation of the Voyager mission, Bate's film is typically characterized by a preponderance of low-resolution color imagery, which is sometimes more interesting for its tactile quality than the content included. Bate covers most of Klemke’s annual reports from 1977 to 2014, demonstrating another concern that both filmmakers share: The passage of time and the human tendency to reflect back on it, as Klemke’s video record manages to document so comprehensively. “I’m fascinated by time,” he says, perhaps a major under-statement.

As the universal force holding the film together, Klemke makes a singular interlocutor, but throughout the film he remains neither especially relatable nor entirely compelling. While his project may have anticipated the emergence of our current selfie-obsessed and update-dependent culture, the degree of self-absorption, and lack of introspection, on display are sometimes gratingly familiar. Klemke and Bate have created an absorbing and sometimes touching digital time capsule of more than three decades of personal and planetary history, but it’s not likely to represent a significant cultural artifact when this period is reexamined from a future vantage point.

Production company: Closer Productions

Director-writer: Matthew Bate

Producers: Rebecca Summerton, Sophie Hyde

Editor: Bryan Mason

Music: Raynor Pettge, Jonny Elk Walsh

Sales: Visit Films

No rating, 94 minutes