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A Web of Influence

by Jon Lebkowsky

   

Doug Block filming himself
Doug Block filming himself

In July of '97, I began online discussions with filmmaker Doug Block that were excerpted in the Chronicle a year ago ["Making Movies on Cyber-Location," Vol. 17, No. 25]. We had been discussing the making of Block's latest documentary Home Page, a film which showed how some people -- and specifically online diarists -- use the World Wide Web to tell their stories and to find and enhance relationships. At the start of his filming, Block became one of those people, setting up a home page and maintaining his own online journal. By immersing himself in the Web world as he filmed it, he went on a kind of odyssey through parallel online and offline realities, and like Odysseus, found his way home again. In this case, it was to an emotional on-camera encounter, interviewing his wife and seeing in the interview his own reflection.

Since then, Block has shown Home Page in several places, including this year's Sundance Film Festival, and last summer's Web'98 in San Francisco, where I finally saw the near-final cut with an audience that included many of the folks whose deeply personal Web experiences are depicted in the film. Not the least of those folks was Justin Hall, a charismatic and provocative online writer who wrote candidly about practically everything and everyone in his path. Hall will accompany Block to Austin next week, where they will both be present for four screenings of Home Page during South by Southwest. In anticipation of that event, Block and I regrouped recently for the following update.

Austin Chronicle:How was Home Page received at the Sundance Film Festival? Are people who aren't online "getting" it?

Doug Block: It was really well-received. Screenings were very well-attended with very few walkouts, which is pretty unusual at Sundance. Lots of people are trying to take in as many screenings as they can, and they don't hesitate to leave in the middle of films if they're not engaged.

We didn't come in as one of the more high-profile films. For some reason, folks were more breathless to see this gal banging 251 men [Sex: The Annabel Chong Story]. Or American pimps in action [American Pimp]. We also had to overcome a really lame description of Home Page in the Sundance catalog. It was filled with factual inaccuracies and misstatements and made it sound really boring and good-for-you, as if I went out to find out about the Internet and came back with all of the answers. But over the course of the week we kept hearing people saying, "Home Page? Oh, I heard that was really good." And two different publicists (neither mine) told me without solicitation that a lot of the press people were talking about it.

We had these great postcards with the URLs of all the characters on it, and occasionally I'd go down the long waiting lines for other docs and pass them out. It seemed like every few people would say they'd heard great things about it (or even that they'd seen it at an earlier screening and really liked it). So I tried not to get too bent out of shape that, say, The New York Times did an article about all the great docs at Sundance and didn't mention Home Page (they eventually did in a wrap-up article). Or that if any bigger distributors went to a screening, they certainly didn't make their presence known to me. There was no feeding frenzy.

I tried to relax and keep the big picture in mind (which is where having been there with two other films helped a lot). It's easy to get caught up in the hysteria that if you don't come away from Sundance with a distribution deal or an award you've somehow failed. I tried to remember that just being there with the film was the real validation (and when I forgot, others were very quick to remind me!), especially when everyone was talking about how it was one of the strongest years ever for documentaries. I kept my expectations low and, for the most part, enjoyed every sleepless moment of it.

A highlight was getting Roger Ebert to one of the screenings. He's a big Webhead and I figured he'd be into it, but it was a real coup to get him to see a lower-profile doc. When people heard that he liked it a lot, word spread. He stayed 'til the end of the Q&A and took a bunch of pictures of me and Justin. He later said he wants to write about Home Page for his column in Yahoo Internet magazine. Speaking of which, it was a hoot and a holler doing the Q&A's with Justin, as well as all of the interviews. We had a little bit of schtick, but mostly we improvised and riffed off each other just to mix it up and keep ourselves amused.

I sensed most of the people there weren't people who hang out a lot online, but most "got" it, I think. They just don't laugh as much as when the audience is a little hipper to online life (like at Web'98, for example). A factor may have been the sucko sound system in the theatre that plays 16mm film there -- it's notorious.

I worked very hard to encourage audiences to come to everyone's Web sites later and poke their noses around, check out what's become of us over the past few years, read my journal entries, e-mail us, ask us questions, make comments, become part of this grand experiment in interactive, multimedia storytelling. And that's the part that will really take time to unfold. The Salt Lake City Tribune called that aspect of it "revolutionary" and the best example yet of interactive filmmaking. And that aspect of it is still the most exciting to me.

I still haven't a clue where this is all leading, but I guess I'd have to say so far so good.

AC: When we interviewed before, you were editing, and still working out the shape and character of the final film. From your perspective now, having finished the film and previewed it, how would you describe it? (Another way to ask: If Sundance had asked you to write the film's description for their program, how would you have written it?)

DB: Oh, lordy! I think our press release for the Sundance press kit says it best (it was written in reaction to their lousy description), but I don't have it on me. For now, I'll just give you the one-sentence summary off the top of my head: "Documentary filmmaker Doug Block's fascination with the tell-all world of online diarists triggers a humorous, incisive, and unexpectedly personal look at relationships in the cyber era." It's concise, at least.

But I'd always emphasize the Web component of it -- I think it's that critical. The Salt Lake Tribune, bless 'em, finally provided the quote I've been longing for: "The revolutionary site follows the progress of the film as it was being made, with creative cross-linking that draws the reader into the experience. It is an interactive film experience unlike any other." That's me, a creative cross-linker.

Photo of a laughing Justin Hall

Justin Hall

AC:Yeah, sounds like they really got it! In the film you show that Justin's online journaling exposes the private lives of his friends, and some of them are uncomfortable about that. How about the private stuff you exposed in your film/journal? Are you getting feedback that anyone's had second thoughts about their presence in the film?

DB: The only person who complained about their representation in my Web journal was my editor, Debbie. It came about because the assistant editor, Jared, started reading my journals and complained (only half-jokingly) that he wasn't being mentioned. So I did something that turned out to be a big mistake. I wrote something that praised his work just to please him. But that got Debbie bent out of shape. She didn't really care that I didn't write about her, only that I wrote something that praised my assistant editor but not my editor.

I tried to make it up to her in a hastily written entry, which only made matters worse. Much worse. I thought I'd written something very complimentary, but Debbie saw it in an entirely different light and felt humiliated. It led to a long, heated discussion in which we eventually worked it through, but it certainly made me hyper-aware of how others might take my representations of them.

For entries that I think might step over the line (like my wife's interview or Julie's e-mail about her divorce), I make sure to get permission. [Julie is former HotWired editor Julie Petersen, who has openly discussed her marital problems and divorce at her home page, http://www.awaken.org.]

Justin, however, is a special case. Without it being verbalized, it's been understood from the beginning that anything goes between us, except if we share something (like when Justin once had a job offer pending) and specifically tell the other not to write about it. I'm less interested, anyway, in exposing the private lives of others. I'm all for giving them a forum for exposing their own, though.

AC:Any ideas where you go from here? It seems to me that you're hooked on digital storytelling as much as film ... do you have other plans that include both?

DB: No concrete plans, but you're absolutely right, I'm extremely excited about the possibilities of digital storytelling via the Web. It's one of the reasons I'm constantly emphasizing the importance of the Web components to Home Page, the movie. Maybe if I say it often enough, people will eventually understand that it's an interactive film experience, rather than just a film (or, as the exalted, visionary Salt Lake Tribune so pithily puts it, a "revolutionary, interactive film experience unlike any other"). And maybe some company flush with funny money will throw some of it at me and say, "Go at it, big fella."

I haven't really concretely thought, though, this is where my future lies. I just know I like telling stories -- all of the docs I've produced have had strong stories -- and I'm especially attracted to personal stories.

Filmmaking is still the most powerful forum for storytelling we have, but how can you not be excited about the potential of the Web for telling stories in a new and engaging way? It's one of the reasons why at SXSW you're much more likely to find me hanging out at the interactive conferences than the film festival.


Doug Block's online diary "The D-Word" is at http://www.d-word.com. Justin Hall's diary is at http://www.links.net..