YouTube: the New Cinema?

My friend Gary sent me a Washington Post article that ponders the phenomenon of viral video vis a vis YouTube. The story features the disturbing yet funny grimaces of Brandon Hardesty, a teen loner who indulged his inner lunatic before a camcorder in the seclusion of his parents’ basement. Brings to mind De Niro’s brilliant Rupert Pupkin of Scorsese’s undersung “King of Comedy.”

Only Hardesty remained underground, entering the real world solely through the interactive lens of YouTube. There, he and his antics grew geometrically, reaching click levels that were only recently eclipsed by Susan Boyle.

The Post article explores the workings of viral vid, and how even Madison Avenue studies its mysteries. Sure. What eyeball hunter worth his pixels wouldn’t have designs on the formula. And if it’s vexing to Mad Ave., it’s maddening to serious musicians, filmmakers and artists struggling to keep their hard-earned heads above these electronic waters.

But so much for frustration. What of the phenomenon? Why is watching a low fi close-up of a subject — sans camera movement — so fascinating?

Think of it. Personal images like slides, home movies — we would cringe when friends pulled them from a dusty shoebox. How excruciating viewing these dull frames, pretending interest, praying the house would catch fire.

Then came “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” Viewers sat laughing at clunky home footage, because it contained a slapstick payoff. Now, enter YouTube, where loopiness gets real personal.

I have a theory. I think we crave intimacy in the footage we watch. In the early and mid-20th century, the camera paused on faces, lingered on close-ups. Picture Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca,” Piper Laurie in “The Hustler,” Janet Leigh in “Touch of Evil.” Then, the camera invited us in – to watch.

By this century, jumpy pacing and action took over, with hyper-managed production that became as boring and predictable as it was slick. Intimacy and authenticity — watching — were history.

Even in the 60s, in titles like “Midnight Cowboy” and “Blowup,” the camera dwelled on scenes, took time, allowed existential aura to breath. It was often a matter of what was not said.

Certainly, there were movements and schools of film that contributed to the resonance of actuality on celluloid: Rossellini and cinema verite, Bergman, Cassavetes. How about Clint Eastwood making our day more recently with entries like “Unforgiven” and “Mystic River.”

Maybe, with YouTube, we’re home again. Sort of.
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