I debated watching “American Blogger: The First Journey” for a long time. Initially, I couldn’t wait, but that was when I planned to see it via a Google Hangout with Get Off My Internets. In other words, I wasn’t going to pay to see it. Unfortunately, the host had technical difficulties streaming the video. I got impatient and logged off after three hours although she was eventually successful.
The reason GOMI held the screening was so viewers could make fun of the movie with each other while watching it. “American Blogger” became easy snark fodder as soon as its trailer made the rounds on social media. The filmmaker, Christopher Wiegand, got the last laugh because many people were willing to pay $9.99 to see if it was just as terrible as the trailer promised.
I did not want to be one of those people.
On the other hand, I knew the movie would be great subject matter for this blog and it certainly wouldn’t have been the first time I’ve paid to see a movie I already knew would be terrible. I present exhibits A, B, and C, and that was just one weekend. At least those were rentals.
I finally gave in after weeks of waffling. This is my journey through “American Blogger: The First Journey”.
The movie starts with some sentimental music and home movie footage. Christopher Wiegand as an infant; his sixth birthday party; his first bike ride; playing in Little League; playing high school football; his sixteenth birthday; and many, many other events. There’s a brief detour where he shows photographs of his parents, grandparents and great-grandmother. Then it’s back to Little League.
Christopher shows some of his own home movies; his proposal to his wife Casey in front of her preschool class; their subsequent wedding; their OB-GYN visit with the sonograms of their first child; and their drive to the hospital. All of this footage is necessary for Christopher to make the point that his video recording life events is his way of telling his own story.
When Christopher and Casey’s daughter was born, she had to be put in NICU for two weeks. Our storyteller decided to film it and include it in this movie. He says that recording it helped him process the event. I’m glad that he benefited from it, but I feel uncomfortable about the whole thing. Someone should have given him and his father copies of On Photography a long time ago.
Casey dealt with her daughter’s emergency by blogging about it. The movie’s title is now applicable.
Two years and two kids later, Casey is still running her blog and it is very successful. It inspires Christopher to travel around the country visiting other bloggers at their homes to talk about blogging. He buys an Airstream trailer so he can drive in style. Why the Airstream instead of a compact car with great gas mileage? He says it’s because he wants to tell his story the way it needs to be told. Casey adds that he’s always wanted an Airstream anyway.
He also makes a wooden map of the United States with nails representing each city he’ll visit. He plans on winding yarn around them because it’s adorable.
Obviously, the next logical sequence in a movie called “American Blogger” would be five minutes of Christopher remodeling his trailer. He explains the process as he goes along. At long last, he reveals a polished trailer with all the amenities a family would need to travel the country. Except that his wife, the actual blogger with no set work schedule, is not going. Neither are his kids, even though they’re not school-age yet so it’s not like that would be an issue. Christopher says that blogging is a huge part of his life, so I guess that explains it.
The long-awaited introduction to the American Bloggers who aren’t Casey. They are all women. They all live in minimally but probably expensively decorated spaces with sunny windows and white furniture. They like wearing mismatched prints. With the exception of three women, they are all white. Most of them have straggly blonde hair and thick black eyelashes with matte red lipstick.
Christopher asks a few of the women to define the word “blog”. They seem puzzled by the question and most of them answer with some variant of “an online journal”. Bridget Hunt says it’s a website you run yourself. Charlotte Roy calls it “today’s version of yourself.” Anna Liesmeyer says that a blog is what you make it.
I think Christopher expected more from his question.
The serendipitous introduction of Laura Wiertzema’s delightful children. They love garbage cans. They have a collection of miniature toy versions. They wait for the garbage pickup every Wednesday so they can follow the truck down the street and greet Tyrone, the driver. There’s a slow-motion montage of them playing with a dump truck and a carpeted skateboard. Laura watches as her straggly blonde hair and tie-dyed shirt move with the wind.
A blogger with a gingham sundress and tattoos puts on a record and dances with her daughters in slow-motion. Her name isn’t shown and I’m not sure what’s going on.
Another unnamed blogger with cat’s-eye glasses and tattoos makes pancakes with her daughter on her vintage stove. I sense a theme here.
The bloggers categorize their blogs. Jen Lula talks about how she started blogging about fashion. There’s a cardboard deer head on the wall behind her. Anna Liesmeyer talks about how she just writes about her life, so she has a lifestyle blog. There’s a delicate toy tepee and a vintage-looking play kitchen set behind her. Promise Tangeman talks about something but I’m too distracted by the video playing on her computer to pay attention. Cara Loren Van Brocklin wakes her toddler son from a nap and says, “Let’s go see your tepee.”
21:33 – 22:04
An unnamed blogger’s husband/life partner plays the banjo while their son plays the tambourine and their daughter tap dances in front of the fireplace. They’re like a hipster Partridge Family. I love it.
Danni Hong explains the origin of her blog’s name. Although the exact name isn’t mentioned, I’m guessing it has something to do with friends. “There’s actually a name that my friend and I would call each other in high school. We simply called each other ‘friends'”.
I prefer to call my friends “adversaries”, but to each her own.
Back to Casey. This interview took place before the trip. He asks her, “What do you think about me doing this documentary?”
“I think it’s amazing. You got the Airstream and you get to go camping and see the whole United States.”
He follows up with a question about what she thinks he’ll learn from the trip. He asks his kids how much they’ll miss him. I notice some clouds in my coffee.
More home movies. These were taken with our storyteller’s first camcorder. He says that when other kids were inside playing video games, he was working on his camera skills. Good for you, Christopher. He shows his early videos and talks more about how his dad introduced him to filmmaking. He goes on about his family’s camper and how he now wants to travel with his family in his Airstream. Apparently he needs some one-on-one time with it first. This is followed by a montage of the Airstream driving through various places. It’s unclear who’s driving or who’s behind the camera, so maybe it’s a good thing his family didn’t come on this trip.
Christopher goes to Boston on the Fourth of July. He films himself thoughtfully looking at the fireworks. He calls the experience “as patriotic as it gets”. I’m guessing that he’s never gone into battle for his country.
Lauren Jimeson brings up the fact that blogs can take topics that women used to only discuss quietly among family and close friends, like breastfeeding and miscarriages, and generate support networks that never existed before. Natalie Falls talks about her son’s Down Syndrome and how blogging gave her a way to express herself and reach out to other parents of children with Down Syndrome. As expected, her interview is intercut with footage of her sons running through the sprinkler in slow-motion.
Next, Ashley Hackshaw talks about how blogging helped her when her father unexpectedly died. She was diagnosed with cancer shortly afterwards and used her blog to share the gritty details of her treatment. She’s now in remission.
This is what the entire movie should be like: honest, inspiring and thought-provoking. I have a feeling it’s already peaked.
As a counterpoint, other bloggers give the “just because my life looks perfect on my blog doesn’t mean it really is perfect” spiel. I’m being snippy because the bloggers saying this are ones who said in the beginning of the movie that their blogs are relatable and “real”. Bloggers are responsible for their own images. They’re their own brands. It’s fine to take an aspirational approach to a blog. Not every one has to be a story of adversity. It’s just that those who choose not to show the imperfections of their lives should not expect their readers to identify with them. Take Martha Stewart. She may have risen to fame before blogs, but she’s still a quintessential example of someone whose popularity didn’t come from people identifying with her.
Back to the argument for transparency. For Joy Prouty, blogging is about sharing the bad as well as the good moments in life. She loses me when she gives the quote of the movie: “If we’re not sharing it, if we’re just keeping it private, why are we experiencing it?” (Later on, I looked for a corresponding Sartre passage and found this 2009 social psychology study. Joy’s statement isn’t so crazy now.)
Joy then gives a tour of the trailer where she lives with her husband and three children. It’s a tiny vintage thing with flowers painted on it. Of course
Just as the movie starts to get meaningful, it comes back to Christopher. He makes a campfire and watches videos of his kids while saying in voiceover how much he misses them. I suppose I can’t really fault him for not bringing the kids along. At least one of them isn’t toilet trained yet and it can’t be fun to drive around with stinky diapers or have to make frequent stops to dispose of them (the diapers, not the kids). I’m not a parent, so I don’t know how that works. It may not have worked if Casey and Christopher went together, either. That would mean the kids would have to spend 48 days away from them. By the time they returned, the kids would be calling the dog and the mailbox “Mommy” and “Daddy”.
Besides, the full title of the movie is “American Blogger: The First Journey”. This is his journey, after all.
The softening of my feelings doesn’t last long because it is immediately followed by a montage featuring:
- Time-lapse footage of the stars, the moon and the beach.
- A crane-like bird flying in slow-motion
- A river flowing at regular speed
- Another time-lapse beach
- Regular-speed mountains
- St. Louis through the Gateway Arch
- Another beach with Christopher’s foot kicking the water in slow-motion
- A time-lapse city skyline
- More stars
- Christopher driving along a tree-lined road
- Drainage along Broadway
- A duck in a lake
- A slow-motion pigeon
- Another slow-motion bird, possibly a pelican
- A newspaper blowing along a New York subway platform
- A San Francisco trolley
- A slow-motion seagull
- More canyons (time-lapse this time)
- A slow-motion ocean sunset
This is all set to some sappy music that pleads, “Run away with me to the other side.” I do want to run away to another side, but I doubt it’s the one the singer’s describing.
Dealing with “bullies” and “haters”. Watch out, because I’m about to go Ayn Rand on all y’all:
First, I haven’t read any of these women’s blogs, so I don’t know their definitions of bullies or haters. I can say that those definitions are extremely subjective among bloggers. Most people would agree that leaving a comment like “You’re a fat pig who should die in a fire” on a blog constitutes bullying. However, there are bloggers out there who think that anyone who disagrees with them is a bully. “You shouldn’t post on Instagram while you’re driving”, for example, is not hateful. Even if a blogger does find a comment offensive, the comment should be treated graciously. If it’s true bullying, it should be deleted and have it left at that. If it’s simply a disagreement, the blogger should politely explain her viewpoint.
Several bloggers in the movie mention deleting any comments that simply aren’t positive. Ashley Stock goes so far as to completely ignore her unsubscribe list. The justification is, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
No blogger should do that.
The point of the comments section of a blog is for feedback and interaction. It’s not a place to show off how many people love you. A good example is the recent controversy over the Noonday Collection-sponsored Style for Justice trip to Rwanda. (One of the bloggers in the movie, Jessica Honegger, founded Noonday Collection.) Ignoring legitimate questions only makes the situation worse because you lose your readers’ trust.
Smart comment moderation is especially important if you’re making money off your blog. Your readers are your customers. Telling them to go read another blog if they don’t agree with you is like telling a customer to shop at another store instead of dealing with the problem. You need to listen to constructive criticism. You need to look at the unsubscribe lists. That’s what professional social media managers do. It may not feel good, but if your blog is your business, then you should run it like a business.
Back to you, Christopher.
The bloggers discuss social media’s role in creating audiences, which leads into the subject of using blogs for business. Most of their businesses involve handmade products that make children resemble Wes Anderson characters.
Erin Mercado makes leggings from start to finish. Christopher loves his Airstream so much that he films it through her window while she’s sewing. To be fair to him, anyone who’s ever seen leggings can already guess how they’re made.
We watch Leslie Joy make headbands. Again, anyone who’s ever looked at a headband knows how they’re made.
I gather that the trailer must not have been visible from the window.
Casey gets a package in the mail. It’s some kind of handmade headdress for her older daughter. I can’t tell if Leslie Joy made it because it’s much more intricate than her strips of cloth.
The little girl puts it on and twirls in slow-motion.
This movie is ridiculous.
Montage! This one includes:
- A lake
- The Chicago skyline
- Times Square
- A New York subway car
- A bridge
- A coastline
- Another coastline
- An oil derrick
- Slow-motion footage of Christopher running barefoot in sand. (I can’t tell if he’s going for a Baywatch thing or if he’s demonstrating his soles’ high tolerance for heat.)
- A tire swing
- A barn
- Christopher driving
- Two views of what may or may not be the same sunset
Allison Johnson talks about her dog and how she (the dog) sometimes feels the need to discuss things on her (the blogger’s) blog. Christopher films his Airstream through the window again. I love how he’s bored by own movie.
Laura Dulcos takes her daughter to the Palm Beach Zoo. Slow-motion otter. Slow-motion flamingos. Regular-speed emu. At another blogger’s house, a little blonde boy jumps up and down in slow-motion while wearing a Batman mask. It’s even creepier than it sounds.
Kristen Rogers has a pet chicken and a rabbit. The chicken runs in slow-motion. This movie has become a parody of itself.
Casey meets Christopher at a beach in San Diego. Voiceover Christopher talks about the majesty of the ocean because this movie is about bloggers.
Blogs’ ability to influence people. Wynne Elder, a blogger who uses a hat for a lampshade, talks about how fundraising through her blog allowed her to adopt her daughter. When Chelsea Carver’s daughter was diagnosed with leukemia, she started her blog so she could share her experience. Through the blog, she met Ashley Rae Christensen and Whitney Holland. The three of them started another blog called P.S. I Adore You, which features the stories of different children with cancer and raises money for their treatments.
Lauren Jimeson goes into more detail about her miscarriage and how her blog readers gave her the emotional support she truly needed. Now she’s the one they turn to after their miscarriages. Then we see her kids playing in slow-motion.
Montage of Christopher driving. He looks thoughtful as he slowly turns his head from the sunset next to him to the road in front of him. Voiceover Christopher says that he’s learned so much, etc. He mentions that he shot over 5,000 hours of footage. It’s too easy to make a joke here so I’m just going to leave it.
- A beach
- American flags in different areas of the country waving in the wind.
- The Statue of Liberty
- Katie Shelton (gingham lady)’s arm tattoos
- Bloggers in front of their computers
- Bloggers with their cameras.
He then says that blogs can be used for good or used for evil and that with blogging comes great responsibility. Those things may be true, but it’s sounds weird when phrased like that. I’m half-expecting Spiderman to come swinging across the screen. In slow-motion.
Christopher sets up his tripod. Flashback montage of him setting the scenes for the interviews. Voiceover Christopher says that he learned that he and the bloggers are a lot alike because they both share ideas, their stories and their lives. In a remarkably clever scene, he talks about bloggers sharing a common thread while he winds the yarn around the nails in his map. Thanks to this trip, Christopher now understands what his wife does for a living and why she loves it so much. He also now knows that the world’s great-great-grandchildren (?) will know why we didn’t keep our lives to ourselves. I’m not sure if he’s aware of the unfortunate implications of that last part.
We see Christopher’s dad’s home movies; the same ones shown at the beginning of the movie. The circle of life is complete.
Casey reads from her blog to her children. They slowly play in the snow. She tells them how much she loves them, how sometimes they squeeze the insides of her heart so deep (?) and how much she wants to be there for every part of the crazy, beautiful adventure that will be their lives. As she finishes her monologue, she sweetly tucks them into bed.
Overall, “American Blogger” doesn’t seem to have been made for anyone besides the people featured in it. I have no doubt that the bloggers are all Casey’s friends; it explains why they all have similar lifestyles and tastes. It also explains the conspicuous lack of racial diversity, which is what put the movie on social media’s radar in the first place. (The backlash was so bad that he had to issue a disclaimer.) I’m not saying that Christopher is a racist or even that he meant to exclude anyone. I think he just didn’t seek out any unfamiliar territory when making his movie. That includes subject matter as well. There’s no mention of political, entertainment, or news blogs. Many people may care about upper-middle-class white women’s daily sartorial choices, but those aren’t the blogs that truly make a difference. Learning about the ones that do would require extra work, though. It’s a lot more fun to take 5,000 hours of road trip footage.
Christopher Wiegand is passionate about filmmaking. That much is clear. And I give him credit for choosing blogging as his subject. I can’t think of any other documentaries about it. Unfortunately, he was too ambitious in thinking he could appeal to a wide audience. Someone should have given him honest feedback. Or if that happened, he should have listened to it. It can only be hoped that if there’s an “American Blogger: The Second Journey”, Christopher will take in account the negative reactions to the first journey. I know I’ve torn him to bits throughout this whole post, but truthfully, I don’t mean to be a bully or a hater. Despite blogger Kim Miller’s implication in the top quote, I don’t want to kill his filmmaking dreams. I’m just being a critic while trying to entertain. That’s what my blog’s about.