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Rules for YouTube: Make Art, Not Bore

A scene from
A scene from "Yacht Rock," a 10-part serial about 1970s and '80s pop music that is among YouTube's best videos. (Youtube.com)

Your limitations

are your strengths.

Tiny frame, uneven sound, poor lighting, short attention spans -- even if a film is made under the best conditions, that's how it comes across on YouTube. The films that overcome what's worst about watching movies on a computer (or a cellphone or an iPod) are those that embrace it. Los Angeles filmmaker Mitchell Rose specializes in using dance and physical movement to create witty, poetic satires on contemporary life (one of them, "Learn to Speak Body: Tape 5" was recently a hit featured video on YouTube). Simply composed against plain backdrops, uncluttered and often narrated off-screen, these clean, easily contained images fit perfectly within the confines of a computer screen's constricted frame and flat, two-dimensional surface.

Similarly, for the medium that created PowerPoint presentations, Austrian art student Clemens Kogler has made "Le Grand Content," a witty and observant iteration of the PowerPoint form, in which a Teutonic-accented narrator soberly assays a grand unified theory involving love, death, beer and hamsters.

But a foreshortened, small-box format doesn't have to limit cinematographic ambition. In "White Plastic Flower," a podcast diary about the Sundance Film Festival made for Filmmaker magazine, director Jamie Stuart manages to get an impressive depth of field into the frame, deftly shifting focus from close-ups to sweeping shots of the Wasatch Mountains. Its wonderfully diverse imagery -- from the abstract (ski lift gears representing Sundance's star-making machinery) to first-person documentary (Sienna Miller giving Stuart's camera the finger) -- would probably look fine on the big screen, but as an immediate, impressionistic personal essay, it works even better on the Web.

Indulge the arcane.

I know what you're thinking: "God, Inc.," "Learn to Speak Body" and "Le Grand Content"? I love those films, too! Are we distantly related? With Web culture still free to the viewing public, it's gloriously rewarding to even the most marginal of niche audiences. One of the best things on YouTube is a 10-part comic serial called "Yacht Rock," a primitive, profane, raucously funny mock-docu-drama about 1980s pop music (think Michael McDonald, Kenny Loggins and Christopher Cross) that unfolds like the "Boogie Nights" of soft rock.

By YouTube standards, "Yacht Rock" -- with no production credits -- is a non-starter, its highest-rated episode enjoying hits in the tens of thousands. With the help of "sensibility aggregators" such as Snobsite.com (the terrific Web site for the book "The Rock Snob's Dictionary"), which act as all-important filters in linking their audiences with like-minded films, myriad tribes that make up Web culture can find their signal even amid the noise.

Could I sit through all 10 episodes of "Yacht Rock" at a festival, or even over the course of a season on Comedy Central? No. Its low-tech, bad-on-purpose aesthetic -- including crummy sound and laughable wigs -- is Web folk art, best enjoyed during stolen moments at the office, or enjoying a beer after cleaning out the e-mail "in" box.

Resist facile irony.

In other words, snark is easy, satire is hard. YouTube may be the ultimate postmodern medium, and as such it falls prey to postmodernism's greatest failing: pastiche. For every attitudinal teenager proving how well he can imitate "Jackass," YouTube has also allowed -- albeit in smaller numbers -- gifted artists-slash-essayists' work that both exploits the medium and engages the world. Take Ze Frank, whose site is a veritable trove of games, Web casts and dada-esque ephemera that comment on everything from politics to online culture to Frank's own peripatetic travel schedule.

Frank had a Web hit in 2001 when his video "How to Dance Properly" (made privately for 17 friends when he was working as an interactive media designer) went viral; now his daily commentary, "The Show," is by turns silly and trenchant; one of his specialties is connecting current political events to otherwise unrelated phenomena. (His Jan. 11 show, for example, drew provocative comparisons between lightning experiments and President Bush's speech the previous evening on his Iraq policy.) Even when Frank is singing an absurd ditty about Condoleezza Rice and her "magic satchel," his polemical intent is clear; his goofiest potshots are still fueled by passion.


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