MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1999
The World Wide Web is a strange, dizzying, sometimes dangerous but always fascinating environment. Unmappable and unknowable, it is like outer-space reinscribed as inner-space in millions of computers all across the world. It's a place where anything can happen, and everything usually does.
I just wish more of that had come through in filmmaker Doug Block's new-old documentary "Home Page." It's new because it premiered this year at the Sundance Film Festival, premiered on HBO this summer, and is finally getting a limited theatrical release in New York; it's old because the subject matter is, unfortunately, dated.
Block began making the film in 1996, the year that some people argue marks the time when the World Wide Web finally became a well-known public phenomenon. Some might argue that it was a public phenomenon several years before then. Regardless of when you want to establish its date of existence (when was it first mentioned in "The New York Times," anyway?), by late 1999 it is old hat. The fact that nobodies can become somebodies by creating a web presence (see "Ain't It Cool News" creator Harry Knowles and muckraking pseudo-journalist Matt Drudge as two primary examples) has almost become a clich*. And this is primarily what "Home Page" is about. Don't get me wrong--"Home Page" is a well-done documentary about an interesting subject. But, it should have been released at least two years ago when its explorations of web infamy would have been fresher and more relevant.
Block structures "Home Page" around the life of Justin Hall, an early web "guru." When Block started making the film, Justin--a lanky, long-haired kid whose ideas spew forth at a jumbled rate of a mile-a-minute --was already somewhat infamous. At the time he was as a Swarthmore College student with a 7,000-hit-a-day web page on which he detailed (in both text and images) every aspect of his life his own years of psychoanalysis to the most intimate details of his sex life.
It is in these early portions of the film that "Home Page" is most engaging--when Block uses Hall's fame-by-personal-disclosure as a means to question notions of identity, privacy, and fairness. Is it fair that Hall discloses everything about his life when much of it involves other people who may not want to see their most personal details digitized for the world to see?
The movie becomes decidedly less interesting once Hall leaves college to pursue a career working with early web innovator and author Howard Rheingold. Block's camera eventually winds up in the offices of "HotWired" online magazine, another early web creation. Here, Block finds almost more material than he can handle in one film. These scenes make it clear that Hall is hardly unique; it seems like everyone in the "HotWired" office has a personal web page where he or she spills the beans about everything, including one woman (Julie Petersen, the webzine's managing editor) who wrote about an extramarital affair on her home page for all the world to see (including her husband, who also works for "HotWired).
To Block's credit, he gives some of the admittedly eccentric characters in this film a great deal of respect. He even ventures into cinema verite territory by including himself and his own attempts to create a personal home page as part of the film's text. After all, "Home Page" originally started off as a video diary of Block's eight-year-old daughter before it morphed into an exploration of the Internet. Therefore, it's only fitting that he (and his family, as it turns out) be an integral part of the film itself.
©1998 James Kendrick