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Published: Thursday, 3/23/2006

Recipe for a viral video: Chop, blend, and reconstitute

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

They are free.

(Got your attention.)

You download them.

(Attention waning.)

You watch them online.

(Hey, where you going?)

It only takes a few seconds.

(Welcome back.)

You ll bust a rib laughing.

(Thanks for staying.)

And the content (what you watch, in other words) until copyright lawyers step in with a cease and desist, and Hollywood producers step up to offer a job exists in a grayish legal zone. It carries a faint whiff of being illegal. Or at least, a 21st century hipster folk art from pranksters.

No wonder viral video is so ...

Viral.

And by viral video, I mean the buzz phrase for those three and four-minute (often shorter) clips posted online that get forwarded to two friends, who forward to three co-workers, who e-mail the clip to six relatives until seemingly everyone has it and the video has proliferated like a viral inside joke. Some are lame. Some are clever. A number are simply snippets of bizarre television footage coincidentally videotaped then circulated ad nauseam; the Web site iFilm, in particular, has a collection of local TV newscasts going very bad.

But the most popular viral videos the ones that seem headed to becoming an art in themselves are appropriations of existing pop culture detritus, sliced and diced and mashed up in a digital blender like Photoshop or Final Cut Pro until some third piece of pop emerges that never existed. The urge to tweak someone s art is ancient, but these digital tools are making it fiendishly simple.

Think, visual remixes.

And worth taking seriously:

They suggest you and I and everyone we know have become so steeped in pop culture, we understand its subtexts and manipulations, and especially its marketing, as if it were our DNA.

They take two forms:

No. 1, imagined movie trailers using images and dialogue from one movie juxtaposed against images and dialogue of another, wildly different movie. (Brokeback Mountain meets practically-any-other-movie-not-about gay-cowboys has been especially popular lately, everything from Brokeback to the Future to The Empire Breaks Back.) No. 2, short films that mash up the sensibility of one pop form with the sensibility of something else entirely.

These are mashups in spirit.

For example, the two viral videos that brought the phrase into the mainstream are courtesy of Saturday Night Live, specifically cast member Andy Samberg s Lazy Sunday and A Day in the Life of Natalie Portman convincing gangsta raps about eating cupcakes and seeing The Chronicles of Narnia, and how Portman s squeaky-clean image is a front for an Ice-Cube reality.

In both cases, what s cut-and-paste is the posturing of a lot of hip-hop videos. Portman s short works because the actress is surprisingly believable (do her dry-cleaning or she ll smoke you), the video (in black and white) knows its straight-faced rap nihilism, and not a single line can be heard in full.

There are too many bleeps. Lazy Sunday gets its laughs from being no less urgent but also because that urgency is a droll commentary on the transparency of gangsta rap. There s no way, for example, 50 Cent lives up to his deathless posture 24-7. But if he did, it might look like Samberg and Chris Parnell on a lazy Sunday:

Samberg: Let s hit Yahoo Maps/ To find the dopest route!

Parnell: I prefer Mapquest!

Samberg: That s good, too!

The best recent example of a spiritual mashup, though, is Must Love Jaws, which reframes Steven Spielberg s 1975 classic as a sort of Free Willy feel-good adventure about a sheriff (Roy Scheider) and his oceanographer buddy (Richard Dreyfuss) trying to protect their precocious great white from a murderous hunter played by Robert Shaw. Instead of John Williams ominous dun-nunt-duh-nunt, the shark glides through the frame to crooner James Blunt s You re Beautiful.

If you have never understood what editors do, how the pace of a film is affected by the length of the shot or how the sequence of images defines the meaning of a scene, this plays like a painless lesson. Cut together any three scenes of Scheider and Dreyfuss making silly faces. Add the gentle strum of an acoustic guitar. Slow the scenes on the boat the shark hunt that closes the film to gapes of wonder. You have revealed the fault line in movie marketing, and easily removed the complete context of the film.

If you take trailers on faith if you re prone to leaning over and saying Looks good or Forget that this shows your naivete.

Last year Demis Lyall-Wilson recut scenes from Sleepless in Seattle to the beats and narration of a thriller. He used abrupt black screens. Amplified shouts, removing them from context. He picked up the pace until the juxtaposition of black screens and shots of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan took on a strobe effect. Ta da: Sleepless in Seattle is a hair from Basic Instinct. Or chop Stanley Kubrick s long, unblinking cuts into snappier edits, replace the oppressive soundtrack with Peter Gabriel s jaunty Solsbury Hill, and take out anything threatening, and The Shining appears to be a Jack Nicholson comedy about a blocked writer.

You can find both online.

But Lyall-Wilson aside, with good reason many of these mashup artists post their videos anonymously: Entertainment conglomerates protect copyrights with fierce legal fists, and if the question of digital piracy has been mostly settled in the courts (generally, you can t do it), the question of digital tweaking remains ripe. It looks a lot like it could be the next front line in the debate on intellectual property rights. Particularly for mashups who take, say, dialogue and images from Top Gun and combine it with the plaintive theme from Brokeback Mountain and title cards that say things like, Their love soared high above it all. Depending on how much of Top Gun gets used, fair-use clauses might apply if courts could agree on what fair use means.

It s not a small point:

The mashup artist is possibly the Digital Age equivalent of the collage artist, who borrows from existing works and combines to create something new, often ironic. Rap artists have been called collage artists. But a rapper who samples the hook from someone else s song that s clear cut, comparatively. The song is being used commercially. The rap artist gets permission or pays royalties or both. But the mashup artist who is using other people s work to comment on it typically does not make a cent from the film. At best, the mashup becomes a calling card for employment from a studio.

At worst, a fresh legal frontier.

Where to find viral videos?

NBC recently issued cease and desists to the hundreds of sites that hosted Lazy Sunday and A Day in the Life of Natalie Portman. So now your best bet is looking like www.nbc.com. A good general site for trailer trashing is www.ilfilm.com. It has a section dedicated to Brokeback spoofs. One spot for the latest virals is www.youtube.com.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com or 419-724-6117.



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