Rules for YouTube: Make Art, Not Bore
Sunday, February 4, 2007
YouTube turns two this month, which presents a fitting opportunity to decry it. The video-sharing Web site -- whose name has come to stand for every other such site on the Web -- has clearly emerged as the great new media drain catch, an uncurated museum of everything from dumb home movies to slick commercial calling cards, a behemoth that has gone from being part of mass culture to a mass medium in itself, whose reach, ubiquity and sheer volume of content make it easily dismissible as merely the latest purveyor of trivial, banal, repetitious distractions for an eagerly narcotized booboisie.
I recently decided to mark this anniversary by spending two weeks plunging down the virtual rabbit hole that YouTube has cornered the market on. What I found there may shock you. What I found there . . . was art.
Just as early tsk-tskers of such derided mass products as comic books (today they're called graphic novels), radio (people will stop reading books!), dime paperbacks (people won't read the right books!) and TV (two words: Paddy Chayefsky) were proven wrong, those who summarily relegate YouTube to the low-cultural ashcan are missing not only its artistic potential, but the artistry that can already be found there.
One hundred years ago, the first moviegoers ran screaming from a French theater while watching a train pull into a station; they were transfixed by quotidian scenes of a baby eating lunch, a man being sprayed by a sprinkler and workers leaving a factory. Today we have a baby passing gas in a crib, and teenagers mixing Diet Coke and Mentos and cats, cats, cats.
Conditioned by "magic lantern" slide shows and serial comics of the 19th century, the earliest filmgoers at first didn't see film as more than just a series of still images. But then -- and fairly quickly -- out of the random, the daily, the incidental, a cohesive aesthetic emerged, born of film's distinct visual grammar and narrative power.
Surely the same can be said for all technology-driven art forms (is there any other kind?). Who, using a radio to tap out Morse code in the early 20th century, could have anticipated Orson Welles and "War of the Worlds"? Who, when televised radio plays were broadcast in America in 1946, could have anticipated "M*A*S*H"?
YouTube reminds me of the "single slushy compost" a cranky critic in the 1950s called that era's burgeoning mass culture. But unlike him, I see sturdy -- if slender -- shoots of something better in the muck.
For would-be uploading auteurs, I propose some guiding principles for the new YouTube canon:
YouTube is rife with the accidental and indiscriminate, images grabbed from TV screens, bedrooms and back yards, offering nothing by way of editorial voice or vision. At first, the much-viewed baby panda sneezing in a zoo, momentarily startling its mother, seems typical of YouTube's desultory sensibility.
But upon reflection, it's clear that the videographer knew a decisive moment when he or she saw it. The panda, casually snacking, is perfectly captured in the frame so that every movement and reaction is clearly limned; all is calm as the baby panda snoozes during the setup; wait for it; bam -- the payoff. It worked in vaudeville, it works on the Web: Click, laugh, repeat.
Whether they are vagrant moments of found slapstick or the tightly constructed narratives of the serial comedy "God, Inc." (Heaven re-imagined by way of TV's "The Office"), or the plethora of clever stop-motion cartoons that are reviving that once-archaic form of animation, the best things on the Web, however short or seemingly spontaneous, are works of care and hard work.