Rules for YouTube: Make Art, Not Bore
Can YouTube rise above cute kittens, bad singing and goofy stunts? Sure. But this evolving chaos needs some guiding principles. Here's a Web-wandering critic's call to arms.

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
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:

Mean it.

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.

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 (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.

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, 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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