HBO's 'Neistat Brothers': Musings worth meditating on

The eight-part autobiographical series follows brothers Van and Casey Neistat, groundbreaking New York-based artists and self-taught filmmakers, as they embark on adventures with family and friends. The mini-series premieres Fri., June 4 at midnight ET.
By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 4, 2010

Although we think of HBO primarily as a maker of high-end Emmy bait and a place to watch "Space Chimps" and "The Hangover" as many times as humanly possible, it's clear that the network has also become a cultural benefactor, like a MacArthur Foundation that bestows its own style of "genius grants" on a select and lucky spectrum of smarties.

Presumably way down the hall from its sports department and its David Simon department, this part of the network functions like a hybrid of the NEA and Sundance. Grants and film festivals and fellowships are now merely stops on the way to the final reward for comedians, writers and documentarians -- an HBO deal.

Which brings us to the new series "The Neistat Brothers," featuring Casey and Van Neistat, whose ineffable oeuvre of short, autobiographical films and Lower Manhattan artistic exuberance somehow work perfectly as "a handmade, home-video TV show." That's how the brothers describe it in a protracted introduction in the first of eight episodes (debuting late Friday).

Casey is 29 and Van is 35, although they will probably live out their lives quite happily seeming like the most crafty and interesting 17-year-olds you've ever met. The Neistat (pronounced NYE-stat) brothers first got media attention in late 2003, when they made a short, prankish film expressing Casey's outrage that his Apple iPod was designed to die from regular use, requiring him and all other Apple consumers to essentially buy new iPods instead of replacing the lithium battery once it lost its juice.

The movie was a viral Internet hit back before YouTube, which is saying something. (I wrote a Washington Post story about the Neistats and the iPod battery backlash soon after their movie went online.) It's odd to consider that kerfuffle 6 1/2 years later, watching people line up around the Apple Store for the slavish, addictive pleasure of buying the latest iPhone, iPad, whatever.

The Neistats, to my delight, have moved much farther on to other things. Success came intermittently with many dozens more films, art installations and commercial work. They were and still are devoted Mac fans; indeed, their TV show begins by telling viewers how their lives changed when they spent their tax refunds in 2000 on iMacs, the first desktop models that made film editing seem like a comparative snap.

Their TV show also feels, at times, sprung from the same hipster-indie gestalt that makes a good iPad commercial. In this ideal world of DIY, we are all young and creative urban guerrillas maxing out our credit cards with new computers and movie cameras, telling stories, working on projects and having "adventures" (as the Neistats like to call even the simplest road trip). Sometimes it's difficult to find the artistic merit amid all those boys and girls filming plastic bags caught in a breeze.

"The Neistat Brothers" has a Dave Eggers-style insouciance and wonder to it, at once old fashioned and high-tech; both punk and sweetly tender. In one segment, Casey helps his 9-year-old son make a film about a blue giant who attacks a boat filled with partying beatniks. Van and his wife go on a motorcycle trip through New England, ostensibly to replace Van's worn-out collection of novelty T-shirts, but actually so Van can finally meet his biological father. (This meeting takes place in the parking lot of the restaurant where his "biodad" works. "I'm doing really well," Van awkwardly but lovingly tells him, "and I'd like to thank you for my life.")

Personal storytelling is to today's bearded young men what radical anarchy was to yesterday's. Now every scruffster in Converse sneakers who's ever read Jean-Luc Godard's musings on cinema (which Van is fond of quoting) uploads his own ironic musings to an array of social networks. Whether they are building and racing toy boats or filming the strange, human-like articulations of Brighton Beach garbage trucks, the Neistats exhibit an enthusiasm for life that you can't help but love.

Nothing in "The Neistat Brothers" screams "hilarious hit TV show," which is why HBO is the perfect patron. The Neistats' fondness for time-consuming methods such as stop-motion animation (using trash or candy or matchsticks to spell out chapter titles) feels comfortably old-school. They use actual Super-8 cameras in some segments, instead of the software that makes digital video merely look as though it were shot on Super-8. It feels like Casey and Van could have had as much fun in the New York of 1970, or 1870. This is a show about exulting in who you are, wherever you are, using whatever's around.

The Neistat Brothers

(30 minutes) debuts at midnight Friday on HBO.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company