Death of a Sales Ploy
Late in 1998, at the height of dotcom hysteria, Kaleil Isaza Tuzman left his job at Goldman Sachs to become the CEO of GovWorks.com, an Internet start-up that he had conceived with his high school buddy Tom Herman. Also along for what we know will be a turbulent ride (given the Internet meltdown that began last spring) was Tuzman's roommate, Jehane Noujaim, a fledgling filmmaker. Scenting a hot story, Noujaim picked up a digital camera and began to follow Tuzman around. Their friendship and his hubris gave her terrific access.
Noujaim took the project to Pennebaker Films and soon she had a codirector, Chris Hegedus, who gets top billing. The film they made, Startup.com, has all the hallmarks of a Pennebaker production. The editing is seamless, the drama builds throughout, and the arc of the central character is as shapely as in a Hollywood fiction. Great fun to watch, it's also more than a mite superficial, owing to the filmmakers' reluctance to include anything that might slow the pace. They pay too little attention to what's going on in the creative side of GovWorks, headed by the stiff-necked Herman, favoring instead the flamboyant Tuzman, who seems less like an entrepreneurial businessman than an overgrown kid playing the part. Tuzman's big baby face and his characteristic expressiona mix of belligerence and superciliousnessrecall a young Bryant Gumbel. He's a person you love to hate, and it's satisfying to watch him get his comeuppance. But the focus on him makes it seem as if start-ups are created out of pitch meetings and cell phone blather alone. At Sundance, viewers cheered GovWorks' fractious demise; the film makes it easy to forget that 200 grunts also lost their jobs.
The aim of GovWorks was to make interactions between citizens and municipalities faster and more efficient. Tuzman, a consummate snake-oil salesman, used as his primary talking point the number of people in New York City who pay parking tickets. They added up, he claimed, to an annual $500 million marketplace, which, as it turned out, was a wildly inflated figure. Tuzman even turns into a selling point the fact that two or three well-established Internet companies were also in the race: The competition makes the need for immediate financing more urgent. In what seems like no time, Tuzman raises $60 million of venture capital. Six months later GovWorks has burned through the money, the Internet bubble bursts, and the company collapses. But not before Tuzman has fired Tom Herman without so much as a penny in cash settlement, despite the fact that the software Herman and his tech team developed has turned out to be the company's only saleable asset.
Herman had been laboring under the delusion that he and Tuzman were equal partners. And even after he's locked out of GovWorks' lower Manhattan offices, he's loath to accept that Tuzman is not only a windbag but a slimeball. Rather, he tearfully voices admiration for his former partner's Machiavellian skill and justifies his actions as good business practice. As con artist and dupe, Tuzman and Herman are perfectly matched, and the film milks their breakup for every bit of emotion.
At one point during the early heady days of GovWorks, Tuzman, already a dotcom cover boy, is invited to the White House for a conference on government and the Net. It's even more absurd that Clinton would take Tuzman seriously than that venture capitalists would indiscriminately throw money at start-ups. The scene links Startup.com to its model, Hegedus and Pennebaker's The War Room. Both films take us inside an adrenalized hothouse, where everyone acts as if they were in showbiz and a sales campaign built around a dubious piece of merchandise is treated with high seriousness. And they both focus on a charismatic pitchman. The difference, however, is that The War Room's star, James Carville, is not only smarter, he has a better sense of humor.
From her early, fragile short films to her disturbing portraits of her mother (The Ties That Bind) and her father (Sink or Swim) to her associative but fairly straightforward investigation of lesbian girlhood (Hide and Seek), Su Friedrich has steadfastly attempted to balance poetic lyricism with structuralist rigor and to frame autobiography in a historical context. Her films have always been a joy to look at; she's a graceful editor and an expressive camerawoman, and she has an archivist's eye for existing footage. If some of her films from the '80s and early '90s seemed weighed down with voice-over text, she achieved a freedomeven an insouciancein the 1993 Rules of the Road, easily her most subtle and pleasurable work. Her last released film, Hide and Seek (1996), doesn't build on Rules of the Road so much as mark the beginning of a slightly more mainstream direction. (For one thing, it's the first film in which she collaborates with a cinematographer, Jim Denault.) But it also suggests that Friedrich may have exhausted the avant-garde tropes that she spent nearly two decades exploring.
Rules of the Road plays only once (May 15) with two much earlier pieces, but it's the must-see film in Anthology's series. The rueful but oddly exuberant account of a failed lesbian love affair is also a road movie set almost entirely in Brooklyn. At its center is an old beige Oldsmobile station wagon that belongs to the narrator's former girlfriend. The old car may look hulky and drably suburban, but as a metaphor, it's an astonishing shape-shifter. Fetishizing every detail from the fake wood paneling to the smoke-saturated upholstery, Friedrich obsesses about the car as if it were her ex-lover and their love affair rolled into one. And of course, she imagines that she sees it everywhere. The witty narration is matched with a flashy, sinuous visual style. Composed almost entirely of short moving-camera shots taken from the open window of a car, Rules of the Road displays not only Friedrich's familiar kineticism but also her surprising brilliance as a colorist. It is, in fact, her first color film; hopefully it's not her last.
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