Useless Beauty

“Life in A Day,” directed by Kevin Macdonald

The opening shots in Kevin Macdonald’s documentary Life in a Day are fetching. We see a full and gorgeous moon, a pair of elephants bathing in the still dark morning, a wonderfully spindly tree, a happy drunk claiming the embryonic day to be the best of his life, the faces of beautiful dark-skinned children resting in the bottom of a fishing boat, a golden sunrise in a sparkling Asian landscape. It’s as if we’re watching pages from *National Geographic *magazine come to life (it isn’t surprising that National Geographic Film purchased the distribution rights to the documentary).

Throughout the next 91 minutes, Macdonald will insert these beauty shots (he is especially fond of the moon) as transitional images in his travels from one theme, country or situation to another. Joe Walker, the film’s editor, calls them “natural pathways,” which better captures their peripatetic sense of movement. One section of the documentary shows pairs of feet walking hurriedly in various countries in the world. This point-of-view would be expected among the uploads received by the project organizers; that it would become part of the film is pedestrian in quite an other way.

Macdonald’s title, though, is a clever inversion of the cliché that has characterized everything from folk wisdom to the songwriting wit of the Beatles. (As I think of it, “Woke up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head” shows how close* Life in a Day* is to A Day in the Life. Film and song share each of those activities.) Macdonald and his partners put out a Google call, along with some directed questions, asking for footage that recorded what people were doing on June 24, 2010. The response was tsunamic; 80,000 people from 192 countries provided 4500 hours of tape, uploaded onto YouTube. Along with Ridley Scott, Youtube was one of the film’s co-producers. The problem became how to shape this mass of undigested material into a coherent story.

Macdonald took advantage of the organizing temporal framework. Everything takes place within a 24-hour period, which means that the film begins in the morning (mornings actually, because we move all over the world). A woman tells us she is awake because the veil between this world and the next is the thinnest in the hour between three and four a.m. “Often during this time I hear the sound of my name uttered by an unseen presence.” The documentary ends with a young American woman speaking into a camera four minutes before midnight, offering a lengthy explanation of what she would have wanted to do had she been able to do it earlier. In between, we are supplied with a collection of familiar human activities and attitudes: working, playing, eating, sleeping, celebrating, worrying, making love and making war. Some are included in the form of short sequences: a blessing ritual in Malaysia, a young American man’s first shave, the early morning pattern of a Japanese family living in a pod house. The longest of these lasts two and a half minutes.

There are also stories that Macdonald returns to repeatedly: a mother recuperating from a cancer operation and the effect her illness has on her husband and young son, a group of Slovak goat-herding cheese makers, a Korean man who is nine years into a bicycle trip around the world. These individuals and their circumstances are used as narrative anchors.

The other way of giving shape to the material was through posing a series of particular questions: “What do you have in your pocket or handbag?” “Who do you love the most?” “What do you fear?” The responses are often the source of the film’s humour, some of it unintentional. A man in India says, “I actually love my refrigerator; it’s such a cool thing and it keeps its mouth shut.” These people are introduced by a pair of woodland hipsters, a musician who doesn’t play his guitar and a young woman who holds up handwritten signs announcing the question. It’s an awkward and unnecessary device, the film equivalent of the village explainer. But taken together, the answers to these questions, either directly on camera or shown through action, take up a considerable amount of time and give the filmmakers a luxurious number of possible connections. Walker describes their options as coming from “millions of coincidences and rhymes,” and his hyperbole is understandable.

In the section of the film where people respond to what they fear the most we go from children listing witches, ghosts and zombies to adults articulating concerns about abandonment, loneliness and death. They are variously endearing and heartfelt and quietly speak to our shared emotional and psychic vulnerabilities. A little girl says she fears growing up; a cowboy with a time-wrinkled face says, “I guess politics scares me more than anything”; a woman worries that, “No one will ever call me ‘Mummy.’”

Occasionally the generations cross over and the child becomes mother to the woman. A young girl considers a huge question, “I believe in God, but what if he isn’t real, and we’re just going to lie in the ground, dead forever?”

The film has few of these poignant moments both because of where the material has come from and how it has been organized. (There is, however, a separated sequence of a young soldier’s wife dressing up for a Skype date with her husband in Afghanistan that is genuinely heart-wrenching. When the link goes down and she begins to cry, you can’t help but respond in kind.) Macdonald told the Wall Street Journal that he viewed the movie “as a metaphor of the experience of being on the Internet, clicking from one place to another, in this almost random way.” This method is most successful at delivering pretty pictures, and they occur when a paper boat floats towards a girl playing in the water, or in an electrifying skydiving sequence. Among the most magical is the release of a series of lanterns that drift magically into the night sky. This sequence follows directly on a cluster of beauty shots showing fireworks exploding over, and cascading into, a shiny harbour.

Things come down; other things go up. This combination of events underlines Macdonald’s consistent tendency in Life in a Day. Since he really has no governing story except what happened in the world on a certain day, he is free to make whatever connections he chooses. He advances by association, sometimes occasioned by an idea, at other times by an image. We see a chick in an egg, its small beak opens twice; minutes later we see a hand open and there is the chick, newly arrived in the world. The hand becomes a device; it picks a fly off a wall and walks to an outside door where it is released. The insect salvation ties in with observations made by Okhwan Yoon, the cyclist, as he watches a fly drowning in a vat of thick liquid. When he introduces himself he denies that it matters whether he is from North or South Korea. But the more we see of him, the more his denial seems to be a case of protesting too much. He says, “uniting Korea looks impossible, looks out of my hands,” and he becomes philosophical, wishing for world unity. We next see him getting a haircut, after which he says, incredibly, that he will set out on his journey feeling “born again because of my haircut.” What’s incredible is the inclusion of this banality. That Yoon said it is irrelevant; a lot of things were said in the course of 4500 hours of tape that didn’t make the final cut. Life in a Day is not a transcription of reality but a series of carefully considered choices about what the story is and what parts get told. Yoon should have been left the dignity of meandering through the future of his country and the state of the world of nations. The film presents him as a bit of a fool.

In Macdonald’s case, the kind of association he makes between one thing and another is complicated by an essentially binary approach. We get the good and the bad, the celebratory and the destructive, luxury and poverty, religious fundamentalists and complete hedonists, the utopian and the narcissist. We meet a destitute hoarder who has lost everything and a man who waves a keychain in front of the camera, telling us smugly, “This is a Lamborghini and this is my life in a day.” If the chick lives in America, in the Philipines it is eaten alive in its soft shell; a father declares undying love for a daughter and we see a wave wash away the “I love you” message written in the sand. A man kneels down to offer his fiancé an engagement ring in America; in Africa a woman shows her respect by kneeling in front of a man every day.

Every utterance, position or event is countered by its opposite. One of the characters in the documentary is a news photographer who lives in Afghanistan. He introduces us to his family, shows us their garden, and then takes us on a walking tour to the old city of Kabul. He tells us his country is completely safe and that “there is no danger, for us anyway.” A bit later, an older man says his biggest fear is not getting home safely. “No Afghani expects to return home safely,” he says. Where does that leave the news photographer? In the logic of the film, he is either a propagandist, a liar or a fool. Macdonald doesn’t really care; the photographer is just the device that gets the film from the turquoise T-shirt the army wife will wear on her techno-date to the same coloured fabric in the Kabul market. He points to cages of love birds, named because “they are always kissing each other,” and we see the wife waiting expectantly at her computer, a white flower in her hair.

Rather than providing the viewer with a sense of the complexity of the human condition, this constant undercutting of meaning and authority has exactly the opposite effect. Ultimately, it is self-cancelling. Macdonald finds the ideal negation in the Love Parade that took place on June 24 in Duisburg, Germany. The massive crowd at a celebration of love and electronic music got out of control, and 18 people got kicked or crushed to death. The tragic contradiction that occurs when a love tunnel becomes a death trap suits the easy trajectory of Macdonald’s narrative of binary association.

This is how the film proceeds. Nothing is reliable; no one has any authority. All that matters is how things look. Macdonald said that his intention was “to take the humble YouTube interview and elevate it into art.” He succeeded, but the content Walker emphasized in his upload instructions paid a drastic price. More matter and less art would have been instructive. We could have done with much less Polonius and heard from many more hamlets.

Finally, the way Macdonald uses his subjects and their material as fodder for his infatuation with how the film looks rather than with what it says, is profoundly manipulative. He may well believe in the social issues touched on by the film’s myriad mini-directors. On the basis of his previous work, this would be a reasonable assumption. But what he has done is making this unprecedented form of documentary is to take all the vaunted content he and his collaborators were given and arrange it into a visually brilliant and irrelevant montage. He is the Walter Pater of social documentary; his motto is “film for art’s sake.” Life in a Day is a very attractive film, which poses a question from yet another pop song. “What shall we do?” Elvis Costello asks in a lyric that could easily be the documentary’s theme song, “What shall we do with all this useless beauty?” We should do what the film does. Nothing.

Volume 30, Number 3: Photography

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #119, published September 2011.

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