He took the presentation, which was like that thick, plopped it in front of me, and said, Leaf through it. . . . It was just like, This is the greatest thing since sliced bread. —Christian Cabanera, founding programmer, Kozmo.com
A long time ago it was about the Great American Novel. Then all of a sudden it became the Great American Screenplay. . . . It’s now the Great American Business Plan. —Stephen Carl, content editor, Kozmo.com
“Has he told you about his novel? The Great American Sheaf of Blank Paper.” —Don DeLillo, Americana
PROSPECTIVE SOUTH KOREAN BUSINESS PARTNER: By the way, what “Kozmo” stands for?
KOZMO INTERNATIONAL VP: Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
The whirling dervish at the center of Wonsuk Chin’s superb documentary, e-dreams, is Joseph Park, CEO and co-founder of the late, kinda great Kozmo.com. He shares some of the seven habits of highly effective people with Kaleil Tuzman, a fellow Goldman Sachs refugee who dominated last year’s Startup.com and the pay-parking-tickets-in-your-undies site it chronicled. But unlike the delusionaries at govWorks.com, Park actually thought to give the people what they want—videos and snacks delivered in under an hour. That the e-graveyard holds as many good ideas as bad is the cold comfort that Chin’s film serves up with style and empathy.
Park (no relation, though all Korean Parks claim descent from a radiant baby-king hatched from a golden egg laid by a winged horse circa 57 B.C.) also differs from Tuzman by not actually being an asshole. His bravado can’t hide his chubster’s chumminess, and the mixture lends him real charisma. His ardent desire is to avoid becoming like Kevin Spacey’s burn-out in American Beauty: “Someone who’s just very average, and I would live through my life and die and life would go on.” His credo is less that of the IPO seeker than the artist.
But art needs sorrow, which Chin provides—pinning down the haunted moment, the throwaway phrase. On the eve of Valentine’s Day 2000—and the announcement of Kozmo’s megadeal with Starbucks (the company gave the coffee chain $150 million for a store presence)—an apparently unattached Park watches youngsters bop on a Konami dancing machine, the panels lighting blue and red to guide their feet. He gives it a go, and every second is somehow saddened by the stout man’s gumption and lurch. Then it’s the morning of the big day, and Park is saying, “I was going through the motions last night while sleeping.” He means his impending bike ride down the aisle of the Starbucks auditorium, a bit of corporate showbiz. Or does he?
Park chatters almost all the way through, often in corporate cant. (The linguistic subroutines deserve an exegetical school of their own: “The last thing we want to do is play not to lose.”) He proves fundamentally incapable of shutting up even when his “alter ego” (co-founder Yong Kang) advises it during the quiet period preceding the phantom IPO. But if this makes him a flawed businessman, it also endears him. When he declares, on CNNfn, his wish to create a family of Kozmo millionaires, his cockiness verges on the unbearable—until Chin shows him playfully dissecting the absurdity over the phone.
Only after his ouster by the board of directors does Park (now “Chairman Joe”) fall silent, and his diplomatic stammerings to sympathetic Industry Standard reporter Kenneth Li speak volumes. “You’ve designed it this way,” says Li, in reference to Park’s withdrawal from the scene. Park seems less than convinced. The design here is Chin’s, locating the work of art in the midst of dizzying failure. Chairman Joe might move onto Act II; or he might need this monument. Typing in the URL of Tuzman’s folly still gets you to the company that bought it out, while Park’s brainchild fetches nil. That is to say, the page cannot be delivered.
From online peddling to pedophilia: Magnetic Fields maestro Stephin Merritt lends songs to James Bolton’s Eban and Charley (opens January 11), about a 29-year-old soccer coach and his 15-year-old innamorato. The cue-card delivery suggests one publisher’s recommendation that Nabokov recast Lolita as a boy and use “short, strong, ‘realistic’ sentences.” Preachy and humorless, Eban and Charley shocks only by the quality of its numbing solipsism.