Film: Jason Spingarn-Koff: Life 2.0 (2010)

Ideally, this sort of write-up can serve as publicity for a film like Life 2.0, which screened at Tribeca this spring and again last night at IFC, with director Jason Spingarn-Koff in attendance.  A three-year endeavor, the film radiates a calm certainty about its own agenda: a study of people engaging in Second Life, a do-it-yourself cyberworld, as a way of avoiding – or discovering – their own identities.  In the process of making the film, Spingarn-Koff has swallowed and digested this theme whole, and emerged with a first feature of disconcerting presence and grace.  At the very least, he deserves here a few words of unmitigated esteem, but ultimately he has made an exceptional documentary of extraordinary access, patience, and depth.

As a conceptual exploration – of the avatar and its potential purposes – James Cameron could take from Life 2.0 a lesson in empathetic stewardship.  Spingarn-Koff is a vastly superior thinker, and digs far enough into the idea of creating and using an avatar to bring it back full circle to the humanity that initially employed it.  Avatars are a masked projection of one’s self, sure, but they are also a method of grasping for what makes one terribly, complicatedly human: our wants, our needs, the calculus of self-examination that bears no binary notation and makes us uniquely, frustratingly unquantifiable.  There it is, a face: it says all we care to say about ourselves, and in this sexy age of virtually limitless interconnected ephemera, Spingarn-Koff implies, it can lift you up and carry you afloat so far beyond your 1.0 existence that it can’t help, from drag or push, but crack open rifts – some welcome, some profoundly not – in your real world.  Luck or divine intervention supplied Spingarn-Koff with a handful of Second Lifers of startling dimensions.  A screenwriter couldn’t craft better material, all the more so for its economy and restraint.

There is the couple who begins an affair in Second Life, carries it into the real world, leaves their respective families, and in short order discovers a few of the many distinctions between these worlds.  There’s the fashion designer who opens her own boutique in Second Life and makes a flabbergasting living at it – all out of her parents’ basement, wearing pajamas, at night.  And there is the 20-something fiancé whose 11-year-old female avatar dances her way into the lives of other men doing the same, as well as into a facet of his past that might otherwise, he thinks, have remained buried in his subconscious.  The arcs of these threads are defiantly dramatic; there’s the suspicion, moving along, that perhaps Spingarn-Koff has fabricated at least parts of them.  He seems to have too much access to these people, capturing too much blunt behavior too well to be real.  But this is the kind of documentary that feels impervious to that sort of criticism; even if he’d hired skilled actors to invent roles for his film, he’s still woven the parts into a complete tapestry, of astonishing moral complexity.  Life 2.0 is far less about its specific subjects than its musings on the ways in which they’ve orchestrated change in their lives, without passing judgment on the method or the outcome.

Indeed, much of the film’s footage is taken directly from Second Life, in sequences following the avatars through their homespun idylls (Spingarn-Koff’s own filmmaker avatar sits idly by, observing without comment).  The lovers meditate on lily pads, then transition, on their own time, into lovemaking on a canopy bed.  Their voices are their own, spoken on headsets in real time, as their 2.0s caress each other in stilted CG affection.  The scene, like much of the film, is curiously mesmerizing, a gorgeously self-contained dream sequence; it’s not hard to see the fascination with this thing.  Elsewhere, we drift across glimmering seas, through skyscrapers in the act of being created, across landscapes as thinking minds give them shape and physical properties.  It’s glorious, but it’s also tinged with the towering prospect of disappointment, as is a dream in the moment, still dreaming, when the dreamer begins to wake.  Imagination gradually gives way to self-delusion, at least in the viewer’s mind; Spingarn-Koff’s Lifers rarely seem to feel this.  In the brief moments when the illusion crumbles – the lovers, attempting a real relationship at her home in Westchester, dissolve into a petty squabble over the gardening (nicely shattering the tremulous suggestion of a “planting the seeds” metaphor) – these Lifers tend to quickly evade the problem, so invested are they in justifying the transition of their needs from one universe to another.

Other scenes suggest a legitimate solution in Second Life to real-life problems.  The woman in the basement revels in her idealized physical form online, but finds that in Second Life, theft is real and requires a flesh-and-blood lawyer.  What is property in Second Life?  Does intellectual property count if it has no real-world commercial counterpart other than the owner’s bank account (and if so, while we’re at it, wouldn’t a lawyer avatar suffice)?  To a certain extent, my disdain for Second Life began to fall apart as this story developed.  As unsettling as it is to see a person ignoring vast swaths of real life in favor of a perfected virtual life (Spingarn-Koff’s camera roams through her cluttered living space, lingers on her ashtrays, her disheveled bed, her girth), her tenacity seems to rule out the vaguely hopeless nature of Second Life.  It can still be what you want it to be, as long as you’re finding satisfaction in it.  We only see a few fragments, but the woman’s real life – including the parts that stem directly from her involvement in Second Life, such as a bewildering rendezvous with her new Second Life friends in Las Vegas 1.0 – appears to work.  Not for me, but for her.  Judgment is beside the point.

And then there’s the bittersweet and sobering aspect of Second Life.  It’s easy to suspect that the 20-something might be gay; he’s effeminate, his interviews are frequently in shadow, and his fiancée frets to Spingarn-Koff of his obsessive, closeted relationship with Second Life, holed up in his office for all-night virtual benders.  What emerges instead, when the 11-year-old avatar dons guns and explosives and starts a shooting spree and multiple self-detonations in dance clubs, is sadder, and revealing in a way that Spingarn-Koff might have exploited for its Hallmark potential.  He doesn’t; the thread suggests that behavior of any kind, fantasy or otherwise, is girded with psychological underpinnings we’re only superficially conscious of.  The fantasy life carried into Westchester is borderline tragic in its evasion of personal responsibility – on the part of both lovers – but the fiancé here makes a series of real-life choices based on the self-discoveries he encounters via Second Life.  I won’t say the whole thing doesn’t strike me as pathetic, but Life 2.0 makes a powerful case against judgment at all.  Second Life may be simple, but we are not, and can make use of its illusions.  As do painters, writers, filmmakers, musicians, advertisers…hell, anyone who uses Instant Messenger.

Spingarn-Koff captures everything with a steady and patient visual sensibility, his camera content to watch, to show us the ordinary details of the Lifers’ lives.  Street lights, tire tracks in the snow, cigarette smoke, cheap carpeting, poor soil, air travel, oblivious relatives, cell phones, sunsets, and all their attendant gestures and usages.  This unsentimental place is the world we inhabit, and in his accumulated real-world textures, juxtaposed with those of Second Life, Spingarn-Koff achieves a heartbreaking grandeur in the final passages of Life 2.0, one composed of the brick and mortar of human desire, in all its rough imperfection.

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