These days, anybody can be a filmmaker. YouTube has proven that. But not everybody can be a good filmmaker, and not everybody has a great concept--one which, when you hear it, makes you think, Wow, I wish I had thought of that.
"Googling" yourself isn't exactly a national pastime, but a lot of people do it. Corporations and politicians Google themselves to make sure they're on top of what people in cyberspace are saying about them, so they can go into crisis management mode if something nasty pops up. But the average person just Googles him or herself out of curiosity. I have, and it's interesting to me that there's another James Plath in the Boston area who, like me, is a contributor to the Barack Obama campaign, or that there's a James Plath in the New York City area who is a film producer and writes CD reviews, a James Plath in the Greater Boston area who's a Massachusetts State Police sergeant, and a James Plath in North Dakota who heads Plath Aviation. And when I saw that there's also a Graham James Plath who lives in Bundaberg, Australia, I thought, How fun.
That's the difference between this Jim and Jim Killeen.
Killeen, a Los Angeles native, Googled himself one night out of boredom but then, after discovering there were a number of Jim Killeens, he did something more. The former wannabe actor turned entrepreneur contacted them and began trying to line up visits so he could make a documentary about his Googling adventure. To avoid wasting a year of his life making a film only to be slapped with a lawsuit, he contacted Google to make sure it was okay with them. Not to worry. Something like this hadn't occurred to them, but they thought it was "cool" because it spoke to what Google is all about. With their blessing, what began as virtual travel turned into something very real, and there was no turning back. L.A. Jim found 12 different Jim Killeens and ended up featuring six.
First, Killeen boarded a plane for Cobh, County Cork, Ireland, where he met parish priest Jim Killeen. The format for this visit was the same as it would be for all the rest: meet the person and in a short time try to get to know him by seeing his home life, sharing a favorite pastime or experience with him, and asking him a series of questions on-camera that are fairly consistent. Other Killeens he would visit: a former NYPD cop who retired after 25 years, a swinger who lives in Denver, a St. Louis father of eight, a CEO in Australia, and a traffic engineer in Scotland.
Though he's a brand-new filmmaker, Killeen does a lot of things right. He uses a digital camera to film, and so the picture quality is superb. Though the camera is hand-held much of the time, it's not jittery at all. Since this is a story about technology and the Internet bringing people together, it's also a huge plus that Killeen's production design incorporates not just Internet pages and Google Earth, but also CGI designs throughout which impart a feeling of actually surfing the Internet. Like Michael Moore, Killeen uses voiceover narration in which he shares his thought process with us and also appears on-camera as the interviewer and participatory journalist. In this respect, he's like a Food Network or Travel Channel host, accompanied by his camera crew and co-producer Jeannie Roshar, who also appears frequently on-camera. It's a nice balance, and Killeen handles the narrative elements well. He also moves things along at a brisk pace most of the time, and films in a style that's Internet-compatible so that we're constantly reminded we're in Google mode. Technology is never far away in this film. As a poker player, he also knows when to "up the ante," shifting gears so that we seldom lose interest. It starts with a "I had to meet them," then progresses to "they have to meet each other," and "what better place than to crash the 125th birthday party Killeen, Texas, was throwing for itself." Finally, while most of us would simply wonder if any of those sharing our name were related to us, L.A. Jim gets each of the Killeens to submit a DNA sample, so that the film ends in whodunit fashion over dinner, when it's announced whether any of the men are in fact related. The usual suspects? Far from it.
It's a nifty idea, and one that's well executed. We watch with interest as Killeen interacts with his namesakes, sharing "the crack" with one Jim at his favorite pub and golfing, going to a swinger's party, attending family events, and touring the countryside with the others. The only real misstep that Killeen makes is when he includes his own segment near the end. At that point, the judicious editor in him gives way to the sentimental son and brother that put his mother, younger sister, and mentally ill older brother and sister in front of the camera and, frankly, lets the shots go on too long. The focus shifts in this segment from Jim Killeen to the family of Jim Killeen, when by this point we'd like to hear more about the way Jim financed the picture through his poker winnings, or else we'd like to have the other Jims turn the tables on him and interview him the way he did all of them. Mom comes across as just a little too self-conscious of a performer-kind of like Dave Letterman's mom-but that's not her fault. It's her son's, who decided to run with cutesy staged moments toward the film's end. When the men meet in Killeen, for example, you have to wonder whether the scene where they all check in with the same hotel clerk was scripted.
If any segment of the film could have been longer, it's the time the men spend together in Killeen. After a series of interviews that illustrates how different the Jim Killeens are from each other, it's both surprising and refreshing to see how smashingly they get along once they're on neutral ground and wearing the same Jim Killeen t-shirts and cowboy hats. As the camera rolls, we hear the very funny quips that each man comes up with as they tease each other, make chili together, tour Fort Hood, watch a rodeo, and learn from the mayor that it was proclaimed Jim Killeen Day in Killeen, Texas, and we wish the cameras would linger more on this group having fun. Bringing people together is what Google is all about, and it would have made for a stronger film had L.A. Jim let this organically develop rather than heavy-handedly relying on a series of stock questions (including, believe it or not, "What is the meaning of life?"), to create a sense of relevance. That's another forced aspect of the film. So is Killeen's insistence trying to sum up every visit and his impressions, rather than trusting viewers to pick up on it. We can tell, for example, that he's not clicking with the ex-cop, or that he's put off by the swinging lifestyle, or made to feel slightly uncomfortable by the wholesomeness of the St. Louis Killeen family life.
But the positives far outweigh the negatives in "Google Me." I don't know how much repeat play it will get, but it's a fascinating and entertaining documentary that shows how people are initially guarded, but are giving once they decide to open up, and have the ability to come together despite some pretty severe philosophical and lifestyle differences and still relate to each other and have a good time together. That's encouraging, and after watching this film more than a few people might be tempted to Google their own name and maybe even email a few of their namesakes. It looks like great fun.
"Google Me" debuted on YouTube.com on Friday, April 25, and the DVD is available through Amazon.com.
I wish that more movies looked as good as "Google Me." Shot in Hi-Def, even the outtakes look fabulous, with bright, true colors and a startling amount of detail. For a DVD, it looks fabulous. It's presented in 16:9 anamorphic widescreen, probably 1.78:1 stretched to fit the average monitors.
The audio is also overkill(een). Most of the film is dialogue, so we probably didn't need a Dolby Digital 5.1, but it sure does sound impeccable. Like the video, it's a pretty flawless presentation--a lively soundtrack that's clear and bright. And Killeen does what I wish more studios would do: he gives you information on the box on the ratio and encoding (MPEG-2) that's right there in front of you.
The commentary track featuring Killeen and two co-producers is worth a listen, especially for would-be filmmakers. What's nice for all listeners is that he covers a lot of ground that's different from the voiceover narration.
Also included are four deleted scenes. The longest is really a deleted storyline that's fully edited and goes on for about seven minutes. It was a visit Killeen made to Tucson, Arizona to probe the recent death of a Jim Killeen there. Wisely, he cut the segment, because it tonally inconsistent with the rest of the film and it also was confusing. Throughout the film Killeen had inserted man-on-the-street interviews asking random people if they had Googled themselves, and there's a deleted scene with Jessica Han, who talks about the only other person coming up was the Jessica Hahn. Again, it was a wise cut, which illustrates the promise Killeen shows as a filmmaker. The other two segments, about as short (around two minutes) as this one, are outtakes from two of the "swingers."
It's not often that an independent film has the production values of a studio film, but "Google Me" does. The concept is fun, and the whole film feels like we're all Googling Jim Killeen and pulling these video clips onto our screens. It's a nifty bit of filmmaking, and while Killeen gets a little maudlin at the end and talks about "finding himself" (though it was never set up as a journey of self-discovery), when you think about it he really did find out one thing: he's a filmmaker. And being a gambler doesn't hurt one bit.