Saturday, November 25, 2017

Time Junk


There are a million microbudget documentaries out there, for reasons I can't come close to understanding, but I still can't help but imagine that How to Build a Time Machine is one of the better ones.

2016 (weird film festivals for nonfiction films)/2017 (Hulu)
Written and directed by Jay Cheel

Spoiler alert: mild

Okay, so it's definitely worth getting my possible bias out of the way immediately.  The fact is, I would feel just awful if I had to say that How to Build a Time Machine sucked, because even though I've never met its director, and he sure as hell doesn't know me, I still feel like I know him well enough that I'm going to have to keep a real eye on myself just to keep from calling him "Jay," like he was my actual pal or something.  If that's completely opaque to you, then perhaps a little bit of background is in order: Jay Cheel is a documentarian of little note, it's fair to say; but Jay Cheel is also a podcaster and film critic of significant note, co-host of the very best of all Canadian movie podcasts, Film Junk, at the time of this writing 637 episodes strong, and somehow still going.  (However, it does pay to remember that the amazing Frank Knezic doesn't join till, like, episode 400—and they're nowhere near as good before he does.)

Well, that potentially could have affected my opinion of How to Build a Time Machine—if, anyway, it was bad.  The other side of that, however, is that if it was bad, I'd have no doubt simply let it slip quietly away.  It's not like anyone cares what I have to say about it, not even in comparison to my usual twaddle about movies (or anything else, for that matter).

This is simply in keeping with How to Build a Time Machine itself.  Hardly anyone cares about it, either.  I don't profess to know the first thing about the documentary scene—documentaries being just about my single least favorite kind of movie, outside of maybe middlebrow prestige biopics and "challenging"/bad art films, and even then almost solely because docs tend to be shorter; certainly, they're one of the lousiest ways to acquire actual information about damn near anything—but I really don't understand the dynamics that reward the feted few, while leaving the vast majority to languish in near-complete obscurity.

If you're a Film Junk listener, you know that Jay—excuse me, Cheel (I wasn't kidding)—has gotten some plaudits for his work, both this and his prior doc, Beauty Day, but he's never come within spitting distance of breaking through into mainstream appreciation, or even serious niche fame.  And you can tell that over the last six months or so this has been a burden to him, so that as much as he obviously plays up his bad moods for his wonderful radio persona, it really is genuinely painful for him to think that "top-notch podcaster, known for complaining about movie theater audiences, bamboozling corporations through arcane customer service ju-jitsu, and spending an outright staggering amount of time talking about his own cum" might wind up being the balance of his legacy.  "Cinema is dead," Cheel's fond of saying.  And he's kind of amusingly bitter about how much damn effort he's put into his alternative documentarian career—while at the same time openly wondering just how much of his life he's wasted watching a bunch of shitty blockbusters he doesn't care about.

At least 1200 hours, Jay, and may God bless you.

Meanwhile, How to Build's overall impact can perhaps be estimated by the fact that when you google the name, the movie doesn't even come up on the first page.  This is a terrible pity, because it's actually pretty excellent, and that's not bias talking, at least not a serious one: like I said, I tend to find documentaries mild wastes of time.  This one really wasn't.  Hopefully its long-belated appearance on Hulu will grant it something like the heat it deserves.

Still, I'll confess that, despite following Cheel for the past few years, I had some severely miscalibrated notions of what his movie was about: I thought How to Build was, like a lot of these things are, a sociologically-oriented science documentary, mostly revolving around goofball science-bros talking about the various ways they thought they could build an actual time machine—you know, Primer-style.

Now, it's not not that; but what it's actually about is something else entirely (at least once we're past its Godfuckingawful opening salvo, which takes Cheel to some crypto-white nationalist pagan celebration out in the Celtlands, in order to make some banal point about the human need to feel a continuity with our past).  You see, what it is actually about is the way that H.G. Wells' seminal sci-fi tale, The Time Machine, and its latterday adaptations, above all George Pal's 1960 film version, have intersected with the lives of a pair of men, and left an indelible mark upon their respective psyches.

In fact, if we're getting into the real nitty-gritty of it, it's actually-actually about a pair of men who have become, or who have always been, a certain kind of damaged, and about the way that their shared Time Machine fandom has been the major way they've dealt with it.

Well, the first man is Rob Niosi, a former stop-motion animator (which is fitting, for is The Time Machine not one of the masterpieces of both time-lapse and stop-motion photography?), and Niosi has dedicated close to a decade of his life to the recreation of the time machine prop from the Pal film, in detail beyond detail, working with nothing but the finest possible materials (and, it must be said, with a genuine surfeit of mechanical skill).  He pursues his hobby with a perfectionism that comes off as borderline-disabling.  It's very funny the way Cheel quietly cuts together his subject's repeated complaints about the too-dark shade of his machine's anodized aluminum backplate, for example—Lord, he mentions it at least four times, always with the kind of forced nonchalance that betrays, completely, the frustration it's making him feel.  (In fact, Cheel reveals Niosi's troubled soul quietly enough that I'm not entirely sure he cut it together, after all; it honestly might be Niosi simply mentioning it four times in a row.)

Niosi's objective, you see, is explicitly not to merely replicate the prop itself—which others have done many times, of course, and which (as we soon learn) takes maybe a couple of months max.  On the contrary, Niosi's goal is to replicate the feeling that prop gave him, the first time he beheld it on the screen.  Tall order, you'll agree.  Niosi refuses, pointedly, to even estimate how much it has cost him (interestingly, he remarks that he wouldn't have to, because he does have complete records of his expenses).  But it's obviously a lot, and one is just flabbergasted by the wealth he lives in (his house is astoundingly gorgeous); between him and Travis Knight, one starts to wonder if every stop-motion animator is a hobbyist heir.  It would certainly make sense.  (And, clearly, none of this is being paid for with Pee-wee's Playhouse residuals.)  By the same token, Cheel keeps you permanently aware that while Niosi does call his partner his "wife," and not his "ex," he never mentions her, nor his daughter, outside of that one stray remark during a discussion of the distant origins of his fannish odyssey—which he dates to 1999.  You surely never see hide nor hair of either woman, throughout all of Cheel's extensive records of Niosi's labors; and while I'm not sure if this is artful or merely manipulative, it's strong and subtle storytelling either way.  Regardless, you get the impression that if Niosi ever does manage to finish his long-gestating project, he won't have the first idea of what to do with the time he still has left.  Nor who to spend it with.

So Niosi's pretty great, but the second man is Dr. Ronald Mallet, whom Niosi knows through the Internet thanks to their shared fandom; and Mallet is even more interesting.  Understand: Dr. Mallet is an actual scientist.  (And maybe it's a modest indictment of the passive nature of the movies, that Mallet came upon The Time Machine by way of comic books, and through them to the novel, and thereafter went on to interact with the ideas underlying Wells' fiction, and to do some actual work that helps society—whilst Niosi did come upon it through the cinema, and subsequently went on to build a useless fanart sculpture that is impressively cool, but is also more-or-less an act of masturbation rendered in mahogany and metal.)

Mallet is building a real time machine.  It even kinda-sorta really works, and that's something right there.  But Mallet is in no sense less unhealthily-obsessive than his counterpart; the first thing we learn about Mallet is that his father died when he was young, and this loss has swallowed Mallet more-or-less whole.  Ever since, Mallet's grief and his interest in The Time Machine (and, indeed, in time machines) have been inseparable and, essentially, indistinguishable; Mallet's avowed goal, as sad and as mad as it is, is to build a functional time machine to see his dad again, and help him avoid his death.  Mallet is single, and childless.  His machine does "work," as noted.  Still, it's hard to call it functional.  Though Cheel delays the reveal, it's obvious enough that Mallet knows that there's a huge difference between frame-dragging a neutron around a laser cage and Wells' own high-flying science fantasy.  And Mallet must have known, from the instant of the inspiration that led to his achievement.   I mean, I knew it, the moment he explained how the device worked—that Mallet's time machine, even if he could get it to genuinely work, could only work well enough to send something back to, at most, the very moment the machine was turned on.  So much for causality violations.  So much for vanquishing loss.

Well, this is just how Cheel's film works, presenting its subjects as putatively whimsical, and that's definitely an unavoidable perception—sure, you can't help but raise your eyebrows at these men's passions, but they never fail to charm with the sheer low-key bittersweetness of their (more-or-less acknowledged) craziness.  You may not expect, however, that Mallet (and, even more surprisingly, Niosi) will actually be able to break your heart.  Cheel is cribbing shamelessly from the Erroll Morris playbook in How to Build: with only a modicum of input from secondary subjects (and with a misjudged but brief use of third-person narration to set the scene), Cheel's film is, almost entirely, just these two men telling their story calmly, in their own words and often directly to the camera, always without visible prompting.  The sensation of an objective record of their confession draws you in; and it is, of course, a palpable caution to withhold your judgment until the end of their tales.  In fact, you don't have to bother with judgment, for Mallet and Niosi's own self-awareness is frankly remarkable in context with their respective monomanias.  Cheel remembers what documentaries are good at: docs might be deeply flawed vehicles for conveying facts about virtually any other given topic, but they are unsurpassed at conveying facts about one particular thing—and that, you know, is people.  (It's absolute nitpicking, then, that my biggest complaint about Cheel's filmmaking—outside of that spectacularly bad and pointless prologue, anyway—is that How to Build's concluding frame indulges in a cheeky-yet-shitty dissolve effect, which just underlines how he's failed this entire time to engage in the slightest with the vastly cooler special effects of Pal's film.)

And so Cheel's Morris impression pays off, with a movie about neat weirdos that (practically inevitably) reveals them to be mere broken souls—but also reveals them to be especially beautiful and interesting ones, somehow still full of humanity long after they've narrowed their lives down into a single, nearly-imperceptible point.  It's quirk-as-insanity, yes, and that's nothing too terribly new; but it's always worthwhile to take a loving look like this one, at the kind of insanity that pretty much compels you to appreciate it, even if it is demonstrably harmful, simply because it's so pure.

Score:  7/10

P.S.: Hey, man, don't let my omission fool you.  Sean's one swell guy, too.

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