When YouTube launched six years ago, it opened the door to a new era of self-expression. It also became the de facto archive for adorable cats and newsroom goofs, among countless other viral memes now accepted as commonplace. (Just last week, an enthusiastic man made a fortune writing messages on his naked chest and posting them online.) A gateway to spreading identities far and wide, YouTube has hosted presidential debates and created stars, but it has brought plenty of digital detritus along with it.
“Life in a Day,” the Sundance-mandated project produced by Ridley Scott and directed by Kevin Macdonald, attempts to formalize multiple strands of YouTube expression into a single, cogent project. Users were invited to submit footage of their lives shot on July 24, 2010, a day of no particular consequence. Cobbled together from 4,500 hours of video submitted from 192 countries, “Life in a Day” turns July 24 into a moment of extraordinary meaning.
It begins with the midnight shot of an elephant, viewed in night vision, and nimbly drifts to another continent in a single cut. People wake up, brush their teeth, propose marriage, come out of the closet and simply mug for the camera in several language and temperaments.
“Life in a Day” is loaded (or bloated?) with haunting monologues, bittersweet conversations and heartfelt confessions. The filmmakers punctuate the humanity with shots of nature — a full moon, northern lights, clouds drifting across a barren desert landscape–among more tender moments, such as a father teaching his 15-year-old son how to shave. The mini-montages underscore a universality guiding each detail.
Co-presented by YouTube, the project succeeds as an authorized account of the site’s impact on globalization. MacDonald and his editor, Joe Walker, develop cogent structures out of this material by highlighting various motifs, but “Life in a Day” is a slick commercial for a top-down approach to user-generated creativity: If you put self-expression into the system, someone with better skills will make sense it. Macdonald (the director of “Touching the Void” and “The Last King of Scotland”) has created a glorified version of Microsoft’s superficially galvanizing “I’m a PC” commercial. It’s a pretty experiment with no apparent results, but plenty of marketability.
The selling point for “Life in a Day” is a form of crowdsourced productivity that has been done many times before. Jeff Deutchman’s “11/4/08” documented the last presidential election with user-submitted video and Brett Gaylor’s “RIP: A Remix Manifesto” argued for an open-ended approach to copyright law. “Life in a Day” stands apart from those projects by having a less specific aim. It recalls the experimental “The Qatsi Trilogy” trilogy, which matched sweeping images of civilization in progress to a cosmic Phillip Glass score. In both cases, visuals imbued with abstract definition create a kind of anti-narrative poignancy.
“Life in a Day” could also inspire sequels, but by that same logic nothing in “Life in a Day” is particularly unique. There’s no central nervous system aside from the passage of time. The project suggests that a collective voice doesn’t exist, and the future belongs to plurality.
YouTube has archived all the submitted clips on the official channel for the project, although that relegates the material that actually appears in “Life in a Day” into a feature-length highlight reel. Of course, you can always just create your own version with the click of a button.
criticWIRE grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? A hit on the festival circuit since its Sundance premiere in January, “Life in a Day” should generate strong buzz due to its production history and uplifting content, while continuing to receive a strong response whenever it hits the home video market. It opens in select theaters on July 29.