Kevin Macdonald‘s gloriously free-form new documentary, “Life in a Day,” hinges around the uncanny conceit that you – that is, the thousands of people who contributed footage on a single day last summer – have co-authored the film. In an audacious promotional stunt/joyfully new age-y technological experiment, and partially in honor of the fifth anniversary of user-generated giant YouTube, users from around the world were implored to send in videos of their lives. They received 80,000 submissions from 140 nations, which resulted in a whopping 4,500 hours worth of footage. That footage, whittled down and sequenced and set to music (under the saintly supervision of Macdonald and editor Joe Walker), is what constitutes “Life in a Day.”
But what is it, exactly, this thing that people are referring to as “That YouTube Movie”? Well, it’s a compilation of people’s footage, and although it’s free of a traditional narrative structure, it is arranged in arcs and movements, complete with recurring “characters” like a woman being treated for cancer, a Korean man who has bicycled around the world for nearly ten years in an effort to unify his country. It loosely follows the course of a day – at the beginning, we see people at midnight, a full moon hovering overhead, followed by people waking up, brushing their teeth, etc. It’s here that some people might get stuck, with the navel gazing in full effect, but then the images take a sharp turn – a small Japanese boy is woken up by his father and forced to go to the bathroom. On the way back, however, they veer into a tiny room and we watch as the father lights incense for the boy’s deceased mother. These are the moments that the movie chooses to emphasize – everyday moments loaded with meaning or significance, even if they seem mundane on the outside – than the kind of out-and-out narcissism that undoubtedly made up for a lot of the submissions.
As a grand, globalized sociological experiment, “Life in a Day” is a fascinating, as a movie it’s even more gripping. Often times, when the movie zooms back, the whole thing takes on the feel of an updated “Koyaanisqatsi” – with people (and animals) rushing about while attempting to live their lives. And “Life in a Day” certainly has its own rhythm, thanks largely to the contributions of its composers – Harry Gregson-Williams, who is given the freedom to create lush, hey-listen-to-me orchestra pieces free of the burden of being placed in a narrative context, along with electronic music pioneer Matthew Herbert, who takes sounds from the video submissions (as well as aural submissions of things like people breathing and clapping) and turns them into their own, slightly surreal sonic landscape. Herbert’s contributions, in particular, give the movie an additional aural texture, often times blurring the line between sound design and score.
When Macdonald feels that the montage of beautiful/banal footage runs low on juice, a series of interactive questions are proposed that catapults things forward again – a pair of hippy musicians bring a board up to the camera, on it are scribbled things like “What is in your pocket?” and “What do you love?” It’s a nice way to shake things up and feeds into the already showcased footage – the love question was answered by a man who gets choked up talking about his beloved cat but it also accents the scene of a woman dressing up for her “date night” (via webcam) with her husband who is serving overseas or the awkward twenty-something getting advice from his mother about asking a girl on a date.
“Life in a Day” is filled with moments that are hilarious (a woman yelling at her husband for being “longwinded” while he quotes Walt Whitman) and gruesome (a cow getting slaughtered, a blood fountaining from its slit throat) and heartbreaking (an upbeat Australian man, frail and in a hospital bed, talking about his heart surgery) – a truly technological, kaleidoscopic look at the lives we live. If there’s one thing you can take away from the film, without being too schmaltzy, is how similar we really all are; it doesn’t matter if you’re a Ukrainian goat herder or a fifteen-year-old American boy shaving for the first time. Without a single stitch of computer generated embroidery or movie star swagger, “Life in a Day,” even while compiled of some occasionally crummy looking footage, is easily one of the more jaw dropping movies in the theaters this summer. Uncannily pieced together by Macdonald, the film is poignant, gorgeous, and totally now. [A-]