In parallel with its own exponential growth, my fascination with YouTube has galloped into a raging obsession. Whole evenings, theoretically dedicated to writing, have been hijacked by a terrible need to click away from the Microsoft Word document, on to the Internet browser, and from there the lure of YouTube is irresistible.
What's not to be fascinated by? However slick or however rickety, the best of these mini-movies have an unmediated quality, a found-object realness that is completely lacking in anything available in the cinema or on TV. YouTube now has imitators:
Google Video, ifilm.com and putfile.com; for a growing number of people, time spent surfing the Web exceeds the time spent watching TV, so who knows if this way of making and watching movies might not become a huge and serious rival to the mainstream. Many contemporary movie-makers have become fascinated by the lo-fi video aesthetic, and by blank "locked off" camera work with a deadpan surveillance feel, which has risen in parallel to this Internet revolution.
The cinema has something in common with the confessional, video blog aspect of YouTube. The popularity of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez's The Blair Witch Project was inflamed by a vast, grassroots Internet campaign which mischievously suggested that the film's horrors were real. And there's a cousin to this blurring of fact and fiction in YouTube -- confessional blogs which turn out to be faked by ingenious actors. Documentaries like Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man and Andrew Jarecki's Capturing the Friedmans have YouTube qualities, in that the footage was shot by the participants themselves, but needed a professional cinema practitioner to bring it to light. If the unhappy heroes of these films were making their videos now, they would probably bypass these directors and take them straight to YouTube.
Where straight cinema and YouTube come more closely into parallel is the use of the continuous shot: the persistent, unjudging, almost uncomprehending gaze; an unedited, deep-focus scene in which our attention as audience is not coerced or directed. Some of the most remarkable clips on YouTube are from the Iraq war. Army personnel are increasingly editing their tapes and adding music (have a look at militaryvideos.net).
But in military or civilian life, the true YouTube gems are not the digitally carpentered mini-features. The most gripping material is raw, unedited footage in one continuous take. The legendary French film critic Andre Bazin would probably admire the genre, favoring as he did the spiritual purity of a single, unedited shot. An outstanding example is KBR Convoy Ambushed in Iraq (7 minutes, 6 seconds). I defy anyone not to be scared, really scared, by this extraordinary film, one of YouTube's flourishing "ambush" sub-genre from Iraq. Watching it, and going through it in real time, is genuinely disturbing.
The Dogme film movement of Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg explored minimalism, and film-makers such as Michael Haneke, Andrea Arnold and Christopher Petit have exploited the eerie, disquieting quality of video-surveillance footage. They might all be fascinated by, and even learn something from, what I think of as YouTube's snuff comedy genre: bizarre things captured more by accident than design, which often have a sublime quality.