Local filmmaker and Webby Awards founder Tiffany Shlain has been trying to get her head around what it means that technology brings the world together. She knows it's both a blessing and a burden, and she can't help but take it personally. That's why her new film is called Connected: An Autobiography About Love, Death & Technology.
It began as a loose collaboration with the filmmaker's father, the late brain surgeon and author Leonard Shlain, whom she evidently adored. Part of her inheritance, tabulated here, is an ongoing survey of human communication vis a vis the evolution of the human brain.
Shlain also is kindred with the distinct Bay Area breed of warm-hearted, wired-in public intellectual -- a breed, it should be said, that sometimes seems long on keynoters who like to hear themselves talk. But chatter does give Connected some of its thrust, with the optimistic idea that one way to tackle personal and societal problems is by thinking about them out loud, talking them through.
The proceedings get under way with breezy sophistication. John Muir's aphorism, "Tug on anything at all and you'll find it connected to everything else in the universe," becomes Shlain's epigraph through the minor trial-and-error travail of condensing it into a sufficiently attributed tweet. A riff on the familiar "Ascent of Man" illustration, this one not a straight rising line but conspicuously a downward-bending arc, begins with an ape on all fours and ends with a human hunched over laptop. Addressing the camera directly, that weird photo-shoot-lamplight glow in her eyes, Shlain confesses that one time, over a rare in-person lunch with a far-flung friend, she faked a bathroom trip just to check her email.
A peppy, practiced collagist, Shlain goes on interrogating her dubious sense of connectedness by repurposing old footage from home movies and the public domain. Sometimes she narrates, or Peter Coyote does, with animator Stefan Nadelman keeping vividly busy all the while. And if the film seems somehow at once too on the nose and too digressive, it can at least be said to reflect that special brain-hurt of being at sea in information, the unsettling awareness that it's all somehow at once too personal and too impersonal.
In any case, the more connections Connected makes, the more restless its maker appears. She's not very Zen about it all, but that's part of her charm -- and maybe a strength she should have played to more thoroughly. Fretting over causality and repeatedly wondering how we all might curb our self-destructive impulses, Shlain seems sometimes to be desperately seeking pattern recognition. Or maybe just recognition. Her slickness of technique tends to trample on essential emotional turning points, like her own risky pregnancy, visually equated to a cresting roller coaster; or news of her father's brain cancer, equated to a surfer pounded by an overwhelming wave. It's better, maybe, than continued direct-address narration, as the latter might get bathetic, but by now -- in film history and in this film's history -- the cheeky irony of stock-footage suggestiveness can become cheapening, by converting sagacity into kitsch.
As has been the documentary fashion for some time now, Connected makes a good faith effort to wrap up on a hopeful note, with swelling major-key music and platitudes and reiterations. But canned inspiration can't hold a candle to the truer trick of Shlain owning her own groping anxiety. Consider her drolly dreary observation about the epitome of organic connective tissue: "There are 300 chemicals found in umbilical cord blood," she says, "and half of them are believed to cause cancer."
Shlain wants to stay light and keep the flow going, and who can blame her? After all, what began as a quasi-academic philosophical inquest has recombined into personal catharsis. All that's left for her to do is bear witness, and be true to her amiably neurotic worrywart self. We'll all be right there with her.
Connected opens in Bay Area theaters Friday, September 16, 2011.