Late last summer a DVD of August, which features David Bowie in a cameo, showed up at the office where I used to work. If you haven’t heard of this movie, you’re not alone: it was released in one theater in New York last July before making a quick exit to video the following month. If not for that promo DVD, I doubt I would’ve heard of it either.
Directed by Austin Chick, August isn’t terribly compelling, due in large part to Josh Hartnett’s emotionally distant yet gratuitously beefcakey lead performance, which practically screams, “Don’t look at me! I mean, check out the six-pack, of course, but don’t ‘look at me’ look at me.” (Do you get the feeling Hartnett tortured small woodland creatures as a child? I do. Somebody needs to cast this brooding hunk as a serial killer — or at least a young Tommy Lee Jones — ASAP.) Howard A. Rodman’s script has some clever touches, though, like how it never explains what dot-com guru wannabe Tom Sterling’s (Hartnett) company actually does. I worked for a start-up for just three months in 2000 before being laid off, and during that brief time I had trouble justifying the company’s existence to my friends and family.
The press release that came with the August DVD said that the film “follows Josh Hartnett as a young dot-com entrepreneur who fights to regain control of his company from Ogilvie (David Bowie).” Based on that description you’d think Ogilvie is a major character in the movie, but as I said, the part-time actor only has a cameo. His single scene — at the film’s climax — is an important one, but he’s in and out of August in less than six minutes.
“It was the end of an era” is the film’s tagline, the era in question being the dot-com boom, which went bust in 2001. August is set, naturally, in August of that year, when Tom’s company, Landshark, is on the verge of collapse. By that point in dot-com history, most of the start-ups that generated more publicity than profits had already gone under, and unless Landshark can attract investors like Ogilvie, it will too.
Having its story take place in the weeks leading up to September 11 lends August some poignancy, and luckily the film never overplays its hand in that area, only showing the World Trade Center in the background of one shot at the beginning of the film. Reports about Aaliyah’s fatal plane clash and Ben Affleck checking into rehab flash across TV screens, reminding us that the events of 9/11 made America’s obsession with celebrity culture seem incredibly shallow in comparison. (Coincidentally, Hartnett, who played a dot-com employee in the 2002 comedy 40 Days and 40 Nights, hasn’t starred in any big hits since Pearl Harbor, costarring Affleck, and Black Hawk Down, both of which were released in ’01.) Thank God we got that out of our system.
Oh, right — we didn’t. The start-ups remained a memory, but MySpace came along in 2003 and quickly became a cultural phenomenon (in ’06 CEO Chris DeWolfe told Vanity Fair, “This generation wants to be known, they want to be famous … This generation is self-involved, but they’re also self-aware”), only to be overtaken by Facebook in the past couple years. Now there’s Twitter, and soon we’ll all be using one thumb to type “mine r opposable, whatev that meens” as we walk obliviously into oncoming traffic.
At the midway point of August, Tom gives a speech at an “e-symposium” and makes the following challenge to his tech-savvy audience: “Are we making the world a less sucky place? Or more sucky? How are we, every day, impacting the suckage?” It’s not Shakespeare, but then, neither is the majority of what you find in the blogosphere. August may be nothing more than a speck of dust in the film universe, but if you’ve ever read a bunch of self-aggrandizing Facebook status updates in one sitting and wondered why most people can’t come to grips with the fact that we’re all just specks of dust in the grand scheme of things, then you may enjoy its subtler points.
Below is the second disc of Bowie’s “Baton Rouge” bootleg, recorded on April 11, 1978, at Louisiana State University. Classics like “Rebel Rebel” and “Suffragette City” are performed, as well as one of my favorites, “Hang On to Yourself” — good advice in 1971, good advice after 9/11, and good advice now.