Judge Mike Pinsky rubs his hands with glee as a dot.com company falls down and goes boom.
"I'd rather see govWorks fail than risk personal relationships."—Kaleil Tuzman
What is wealth? One theory: Wealth is the disparity between actual value and perceived value. A worker produces a widget, investing the object with value by the power of labor. Of course, this assumes that labor has an essence and that such essence is transferable to other objects, but let us imagine for a moment that such a power is possible. Thus, according to this theory, the widget has one sort of value—that imparted directly by labor. Then along comes the salesman, and he puts the widget in a store. He adds a little to its value, marking it up to account for his store rent, advertising costs, and a little extra for his pocket. A collector sees the widget, finds it aesthetically pleasing, and imagines that in the future, such widgets will become terribly useful.
Of course, today none of these three people has a consistent idea of what the widget is for. The widget does not actually do anything. But it seems to have value, because everybody worked very hard to make it. And that must be worth something, right?
What is freedom? One theory: Freedom is the ability to exercise natural rights. Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and Tom Herman offer a list of such rights: "to attend a town meeting in your underwear"; "to not miss a day of work just to renew your driver's license." But what is natural law, and what makes it so natural? The theory of wealth we accounted for above assumes that objects we create and sell are imparted with "natural" value, when in fact their value is based on speculation. When Kaleil quits his job at Goldman Sachs to start an internet company, he leaves one form of speculation for another, following the notion that value imparted by his own hands—the widget he makes himself—will be worth more.
But what sort of widget will he make? At Goldman Sachs, Kaleil was a broker, merely speculating about value. With Tom's help, he will create govWorks.com—if they can even agree on the name. What does govWorks.com do? Tom and Kaleil mostly offer rhetoric—"we help government work" and "we facilitate interactions between local government and their constituents"—but pinning them down to specifics is another matter.
Jehane Noujaim and Chris Hegedus follow Tom and Kaleil with a digital camera, producing virtual film of a virtual company. Kaleil and Tom talk in virtual terms, once arguing in an open meeting in their imagined "confrontation and debate space." Kaleil remarks, "We should never be in that space in front of anybody." They negotiate with venture capitalists, who offer to impart value based on business models and future potential. After all, govWorks.com does not actually make any widgets yet, and when they do, those widgets will only offer virtual value over virtual space, always deferring their payoff until the future.
In Michael Lewis' book, The New New Thing, the author speculates that the Internet is based on virtual value, that the boom in "dot-coms" is fueled by the promise of value deferred. The value of a dot-com increases based not on what it actually produces, but on what it promises to produce in terms of uniqueness in the future. In other words, if you produce an object that somebody actually wants, you are just another company among many. But if you offer to produce something in the future that nobody has produced before, even if nobody is quite sure what that thing is yet, then your new "killer app" is worth a fortune.
Months before govWorks.com begins operations, Kaleil is already granting interviews to CNN, and he and Tom are negotiating to buy out their absent third partner—all based on the potential of a company without a clear function. Perhaps govWorks.com does do something, but Noujaim and Hegedus only show us its ability to pay parking tickets over a web browser. Is this worth so much drama? In Hegedus's 1993 film The War Room, the drama in the Clinton campaign was not what Clinton actually did when he got elected (of course, the film came out long before we were able to imagine what happened in the Oval Office with Monica Lewinsky—a virtual scandal in the fullest sense), but what the Clinton campaigners imagined as part of their election strategies. The virtual Clinton became the man on stage, as in any modern election, threatening to erase the human Clinton (who would later bounce back with a vengeance) underneath.
Indeed, what draws our attention in Startup.com is not govWorks.com, whatever its "killer app" is supposed to be, but the human drama within the virtual spaces of this company. Not merely what govWorks.com might be worth to the venture capitalists, but what Kaleil and Tom might be worth to each other. Kaleil and Tom both imagine value—whether the value of the company, the product, family, or relationships among friends—and they struggle with their ability to cash in that value as it fluctuates over the course of their year-long ride. Kaleil's relationship with his girlfriend Dora merely evaporates, without melodrama to even mark it as ever having even imagined potential. When Tom's relationship with Kaleil begins to disintegrate, Kaleil prays (suggesting another sort of virtuality), then warns the staff of a potential security threat from his former friend. Startup.com revels in these moments of imagined value, coded as moments of miscommunication, financial speculation, and ego-driven blindness. The voyeuristic cinema vérité camera allows the audience to make its own misreadings, and we judge the value of Kaleil's actions on our own: Is he meddling in product development or reining in a project out of control? Is Tom a real threat to the company, or has Kaleil become paranoid, treating his best friend as a pawn?
Producer D. A. Pennebaker and wife Chris Hegedus, whose distinguished careers include documentaries like Monterey Pop and The War Room, jumped aboard Jehane Noujaim's attempt to follow fellow Harvard alumnus (and roommate) Kaleil Tuzman and his business partner and friend Tom Herman. Behind the scenes, the filmmakers predicted that the volatile chemistry between Kaleil and Tom "would lead to something combustible." Of course, the worst difficulty Noujaim and Hegedus had (according to the production notes essay included on the DVD) was to refrain from interfering, especially during the host of misunderstandings between the two friends.
Artisan's DVD release of Startup.com, perfectly mastered from the digital footage and presented in 5.1 or 2.0 audio (but no subtitles, unfortunately), includes a commentary track by the directors. They offer a good number of cute anecdotes, filling us in on how they captured so many supposedly secret meetings and personal interludes and even taking note of what events did not end up on camera. They spend a lot of time defending their subjects, mostly Kaleil, with whom they display considerable empathy. Much like our public sympathy with the visionary Walt Disney over his pragmatic brother Roy, the filmmakers seem enamored with Kaleil's charisma and grand plans to create a better world.
Noujaim and Hegedus are clearly fascinated by the tension between real events and the idealistic stories we tell ourselves. In a ten-minute featurette, "Documentarians on Documentary," the two directors muse on how their vérité techniques allowed them to compress long-term events (like the final series of meetings between Kaleil and Tom as Tom was forced out) into intense moments, and how chance events (like Kaleil's encounter with Bill Clinton) resonate more effectively because they are true and not concocted by some screenwriter. Such events take on the impact of powerful drama—just consider the two trailers, which punctuate the film's story arc with dramatic Hollywood music. But within the film itself, the director's keep their overt sympathies at bay, allowing the actions, rather than exposition, to carry the day.
Leaving the audience to impart value on the rise and fall of govWorks.com is a crucial move by Noujaim and Hegedus. While the temptation may be there to force the camera into an editorial mode, they allow the characters to carry the story. Toward the end of the film, when Tom and Kaleil take Tom's daughter to the circus, we find the most conspicuous, and apt, metaphor in the film. The dangerous high-wire acts are fun to watch from a distance, but as Tom and Kaleil sit apart and rarely talk, it is clear that they no longer find the risk exhilarating. Only Tom's daughter is excited, but she does not know yet the toll that speculation takes—merely that we are drawn to it, looking for the thrill of success that might come around the next corner. But the real secret to value is that the payoff is never as exciting as the anticipation.
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