August 30, 2007

VIVA LA VIRAL! Close Up and Personal

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My studies at Cornell and jobs in the Manhattan Indie film scene and Hollywood have taught me two things. Firstly, I’ve learned a good deal about both film theory and the business in general; and secondly, that I’d much prefer to while away the hours watching videos of dudes kicking each other in the nuts and hillbillies crashing their pickup trucks into telephone poles on the internet than studying or working.
I shall now channel the Zen of a urinal cake nestled in the seamy receptacle of pop-culture that is the Internet: to become a target for a never-ending stream of What’s New. In my column both heavily produced Internet content (Turner Broadcasting’s; semi-pro YouTube dealies) and more cinéma vérité videos (the seminal Kid Who Uses his Broom Like a Lightsaber From Star Wars) will be vigorously analyzed using select critical theories, market research data, pop-culture references and bits of trash I have found on the street and put in my mouth.
So let’s get cracking. Put on your sport coats and Arcade Fire CDs, and follow me on a magical journey to Pretentious Land! Black plastic English/Film major eyeglasses are optional.
First on the ol’ Microsoft Outlook To Do List is what, if anything, can we trust with what we see on the TV and web? Our arbitrary test case will be the video blog format: one person talking to an audience through a self-positioned camera in a self-chosen environment with apparently little to no outside production help.
Video blogging is supposed to be giving people the chance to easily disseminate their most true inner feelings to the world. How does this work? I now call to the stand Bree, the star of YouTube series Lonelygirl15; and Lee Stroud of Discovery Channel’s Survivor­man.
Let’s get some things about the format straight. In the film lexicon the “frame” is dictated by the edges of the picture. (Example: Mikey throwing a baseball in a home movie is “in” frame, his step father cursing at him from off screen for throwing like a girl is “out” of the frame.) The money shot of the video blog format is a close up. This is where Bree and Stroud lean in until their noggins fill the screen to pronounce their innermost feelings on the situation at hand.
Some ideas from film critic Béla Balász shed some light on why this is such a popular way to convey emotional intimacy. The face is so capable of instantaneously communicating feeling, says Balász, that when we isolate it from it’s surroundings via close-up, we end up seeing pure emotions independent of physical reality. We end up perceiving the reality of close-ups with the “heart, not the eye.” Extrapolating, the whole notion of video blogs and their TV counterparts showing us the “reality” of their subjects’ lives has been greatly facilitated by the close up — where we can immediately strip away the exposition needed in written diaries (or even photographs) and zoom straight in on someone’s mug to be present in the emotion without even trying.
That said, we are obligated to acknowledge that even the sweetest smelling shampoo tastes bitter. By design, getting close to a subject in video-blog format (in both the framing and concept) enhances a very specific channel of information in the emotional register. What’s left out can tell a very different story.
Eventually it was discovered that Lonelygirl15’s Bree was, in fact, not a real person. She was played by actress Jessica Rose. The homey production values and the de-contextualizing aspect of Balász’s close up made thousands of viewers’ hearts warm to a cute, funny nerd who — if they had been paying attention — might have seemed too good to be true.
As far as Survivorman goes: if Uruguayan rugby teams cannibalizing each other whilst stranded in the Andes have taught us anything it’s that, when survival is an issue, you seldom hear “Check out the lighting on this low-angle shot of Roberto chewing on Alfonso’s femur” and “Cool bro, very Tarantino.”
While we feel for Stroud when he bitches, seemingly from the depths of his very soul, about the dangers of dehydration while wandering the desert, we forget the water and energy he’s wasting to produce the show — covering the same ground once for the shot, walking back to pick up the camera and tape, and once more to cover the same ground. This isn’t a big problem; Stroud frequently acknowledges on-air that he’s not really fighting for his life on the tundra when he walks back and forth with his tripods, but the apparent ease of stripping down reality to a visceral emotional blast on video has caused some TV survivalists to take the proverbial piss in their own Nalgenes. (Two urine jokes in the same column? Classy.)
Andrew Wallenstein of trade paper The Hollywood Reporter recently wrote that the Discovery Channel was investigating other reality survivalist Bear Grylls for sleeping in motels and faking some jungle exploits in Man vs. Wild — all of which took place off screen, and unbeknownst to viewers who thought Grylls was really roughing it.
So, when video gets close up and personal, it’s not a bad idea to take a second and think about all the surrounding stuff that’s getting cut out. Huh. I guess everyone already knows that. Oh well. Join me next time when I expose the Easter Bunny as a fraud and convince Britney Spears to eat another piece of cake.

Don’t know what Matt’s talking about? Google it, silly.