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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)

Take us to

another world.

When a lightweight, more portable version of the Arriflex camera was introduced in the 1940s, it made possible whole new generations and genres of filmmaking, from the postwar Italian neorealism movement that created "Rome, Open City" to such classics of 1960s cinema verite as "Primary" and "Gimme Shelter."

The Arriflex of today, the cellphone camera has introduced a whole new version of verite, delivering spontaneous, intimate, unedited footage. At their best, and sometimes at their briefest, these slices of life -- devoid of structural conceits and often of narration -- transport viewers to places and situations they would never otherwise be privy to. And they can land unexpected emotional punches. No CNN report and few feature-length documentaries could capture the stark terror of a two-minute video recently uploaded to Metacafe.com, in which a U.S. Army convoy on a routine run dodges a bomb on an Iraq street.

Be a star.

But not a solipsist. Or a shill. Since YouTube's inception, it's already produced its share of phenoms, from Lonelygirl (a teenaged vlogger, whose "outing" as the fictional creation of actress Jessica Rose barely made a dent in her popularity) to Lisa Donovan, who just joined the cast of MADtv on the strength of her YouTube performance as Lisa Nova.

Rose and Donovan are examples of young actors on the make for whom YouTube is simply another means to the age-old end of being discovered -- the virtual equivalent of Schwab's drugstore. But the quintessential YouTube star is Noah, a young man who took a photographic self-portrait every day over six years, and whose haunting, elegiac video has become one of the site's early classics, and will most likely exceed 5 million hits by this weekend.

What makes Noah the YouTube version of Garbo? Mystery. Who is this man we come to know intimately but not at all over the course of six years? Is that the briefest glimpse of grief, regret, growing wisdom we see in the nanosecond portraits? Notice the way his eyes never move from the center of the screen (op. cit. "care and hard work"), the ruminative music, the rhythmic editing. What could have been an exercise in puerile narcissism becomes a poignant representation of universal longing and loss. (And brings home the reality that, as much as YouTube creates a virtual community, it is ultimately experienced alone.)

You've made us laugh,

you've made us link,

now make us think.

YouTube has brought the funny. And the site's early classics -- say, the video of the band OK Go executing complicated choreography both hilarious and impressively precise -- share a few essential qualities. They've been short, punchy, amusing, occasionally sublime. Even at their most ephemeral, they've connected to film's own past: OK Go and the sneezing panda would both be right at home in the nickelodeon.

But for all its quick, gestural power, the deeper potential of YouTube has yet to be fully explored. The panda bit was played for laughs, but where is the Web's Henri Cartier Bresson, that pioneer of the decisive moment, who found such lyricism and grace on the Paris streets? If YouTube is in want of anything, it's a sense of reflection, of gravitas even, a poetics.

Of course, even as this is being written, filmmakers somewhere -- everywhere? -- are probably creating just that, bullying a novelty into an art form. The grammar is still being written. Who knows, maybe someone will create a feature-length YouTube video that's actually watchable. (The site's co-founder annouced last week it would share revenue with contributors, which may spur creativity.)

For today, though, some fundamental rules apply: Just as brevity is the soul of wit, brevity and wit should never trump soul.


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