ISO Substance

The Craigslist documentary is sweet, but not very deep or interesting

Indian virgin seeks willing woman. Wanted: heavy metal chef. Redheaded family seeks redheaded pet. For hire: preop transsexual e$cort. "I am stalking shell-car guy." Diabetic cat support group. Flogging for flowers. Where can you find all of these announcements, in a single place, in a 24-hour period? One word: Craigslist.

Since 1995, when it began as an e-mail list, Craigslist.org has served as a community bulletin board and classified ad service for the San Francisco Bay Area. While the site now serves more than 200 cities, it remains a San Francisco phenomenon, an outgrowth of the pre-Web online communities that flourished here in the early '90s. Now, 10 years later, it's part of our lifeblood, our identity, and our infrastructure. Craigslist is not a source for merely everything we need in life -- after all, where did you get your last apartment, job, pet, couch, tennis partner, or date? -- but also for entertainment. At work and at home, we troll the listings for oddities and wait anxiously for the monthly archiving of the "best-of" posts.

In 2003, after whiling away two hours of his day reading posts for amusement, filmmaker Michael Ferris Gibson saw the opportunity for a film, and he seized it. With the cooperation of list founder Craig Newmark, Gibson selected a 24-hour period (Aug. 4, 2003) and invited all posters to volunteer for participation in the film. Meanwhile, Gibson posted his own listing, in search of camera crews willing to assist. Ultimately, eight film crews were sent to film 121 stories, and these stories were edited into a film: 24 Hours on Craigslist.

24 Hours on Craigslist offers a peek into the 
lives of the folks who populate the popular Internet site.
24 Hours on Craigslist offers a peek into the lives of the folks who populate the popular Internet site.

Yes, the title is a trifle dull, and the film itself leans in that direction as well. In many ways, Craigslist the movie is like Craigslist the Web site: genial, nonjudgmental, copious, quirky, human, and utterly decentralized. Also like the site, the film opts for breadth instead of depth, choosing to introduce dozens of characters, from dozens of postings, rather than delving deeply into any single one. There's a man who does a drag act as Ethel Merman, fronting a '70s-style acid-rock band that covers Zeppelin. (He's fabulous.) There's a young Chinese painter who reimagines the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with graphically sexual depictions. There's a rent-a-husband, a gay porn actor (Terms of Endowment), and a "420 nurse" who delivers pot to people's doors. These are, of course, our friends and neighbors, and the film appreciates them as much as we do.

But to what end? 24 Hours' scope reflects the tone and flavor of the site, and it gives a sense of the diversity in the community. But there's a price, which is drama. With the exception of a woman searching for a new roommate because her previous one was killed in a car crash (which is heartbreaking), it's all pretty breezy and light, worthy of a warm chuckle but not much else. As a result, 24 Hours feels inconsequential.

How to get around this problem? One approach would have been to look at the history and evolution of the site: its origins, its staff, its watershed moments, its most notorious posts. Gibson has purposefully avoided this route; almost everybody interviewed wonders who Craig is and (jokingly) whether he exists. In fact, Craig Newmark is not difficult to locate; his blog, to which the site links, sometimes shows pictures of him, and he often personally answers Craigslist e-mail. With a wink and a nudge, Gibson does interview Newmark late in the film, but not as himself, just as a (supposedly) random observer.

24 Hours has a mission: It seeks to mirror the open-source, community-created nature of the Web site. That's all well and good, but it works much better in a Web site than a movie. For instance, why can't we learn at least some basics about Craigslist, including the stats listed in the press kit? (Example: 2.5 billion page views and 5 million postings a month -- and growing all the time.) What about the mechanics of the site: Are all posts allowed? What percentage of posts are flagged for review by Craigslist users? What about crime and fraud? Then there are the sociological questions: How has Craigslist changed us as a city? What does it mean that thousands of people now read want ads for entertainment? Does it create a sense of possibility? Disappointment? This reviewer, for one, has noticed that Craigslist has a slightly corrosive effect: It gives me the nagging sense that my life could always be just a little better than it is.

None of this is to say that 24 Hours on Craigslist is a bad time. With gentle humor, big personalities, and some very smart edits, it goes down easy. It's certainly enjoyable to meet the people behind the posts, to hear about their desires and dreams, and to see whether at least some of their needs can be met through Craigslist. It's just that in the end, there's not much there.

 
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