Ever since its inception, video has led a double life lying somewhere between the realm of art and entertainment. From the earliest silent films all the way through to the sound era, film has been controlled by a cultural elite. For every visionary there are hundreds of suits and investors backing a film leading it as a financial vehicle. That is not to say art couldn’t have been made under these circumstances, it's just highly unlikely.
Up until very recently, many “art” and “experimental” films were not a far step away from the name driven world of Hollywood. Most conceptual pieces were controlled mainly by artists that have already built up a name for themselves and often contain very little or no entertainment value whatsoever. Factor that with the rules and conventions of continuity invented by the Hollywood system and it’s absolutely impossible for the Average Joe to make a film that’s widely popular without any formal experience or “knowledge” of the rules of cinema. That is until now.
In its earliest 2005-era inception, YouTube allowed ANYONE to upload a video to the Internet that could be viewed by a mass captive audience instantaneously. Due to the limits of a very poor video and mono audio quality, this format has been limited to low-brow videos of people getting hurt or web cam diaries. That is until very recently when YouTube added “High Quality” and “HD” formats to its repertoire as well as the emergence of competing websites such as Vimeo which offer higher bit rates that are ideal for artists.
Fast forward to 2008 when Internet speeds and compression codec’s have finally caught up to make the landscape of the Internet a comparable experience to viewing the film on a DVD or in a theater. In this, the playing ground is finally neutralized and as a result true “art” videos can finally emerge. In the short film, “Where the Hell is Matt? (2008)” we follow Matt Harding on a fourteen month journey around the world in a paltry four minutes. The creator, has never attended college and his only past career was working as a game designer. He only received average grades in high school and by our societal standards; one could call him a “reject”. Most of his world travel was funded by Internet donations and a late sponsorship by Stride Gum, he had no real background in the world of film.
The “Where the Hell is Matt?” video works because it takes a simple premise and blows it up beyond any feasible expectation into the realm of something extraordinary. In each shot we’re presented with text giving us a vague idea of his location along with him performing a “silly” dance in the center of the frame. This captures our interest and is quite humorous perhaps placing it firmly into the entertainment category along with web cam videos like “The Numa Numa Dance” but the joke quickly changes into light-hearted insight while only providing a few details along the way.
In its simplicity and repetition of “man in center of frame, with text set to music” we’re forced to take in the differences of each location. The film also uses this visual structure to set up a clear beginning middle and end. When the short starts, we see Matt quickly telling his cameraman to keep the frame steady and him in the center. We see a few sequential shots of him alone in the frame and then as soon as the music picks up, we see crowds of people run into the shot and dance with him. The effect of this is powerful because no matter how different the locals and the cultures are of the places his dancing, common people would be willing to join him in something that looks like a total joke. The short ends with the clips slowly moving more towards the evening versus the day as we're treated to one last shot of hundreds of people joining him in Seattle, Washington followed by a brief credits sequence which serves as a curtain call to the piece.
The rhythm of these crowds is occasionally broken up with segments that give us a subtle clue as to the story and the setbacks on his journey. We see him awkwardly dancing in a demilitarized zone in North Korea next to a security guard that seems less than pleased as well as a shot of him in a French maid fetish cafe in Tokyo. Pair this with real dancers from Native areas of New Guinea and cultural dancers in India. We even get to see him getting knocked down by a tremendous tidal wave, in Zero Gravity and in front of the orchestra providing the background music for the video.
As talented as many of the artists that create experimental and “surrealist” films are, I feel there is often a reason why these don’t catch on with the general public. In their rejection of convention, they can come off as pretentious and as a result are only really watched by other artists or people who follow the “art” field very closely. The "Where the Hell is Matt?" video quickly became the most viewed clip on YouTube of the year 2008 (keep in mind this was released in the Fall) and received such honors as being featured on NASA's website as well as being named best short film of the year by blogs such as AOL's Cinematical. This film, despite being non-conventional, caught on with audiences in ways few advertisements or short films really could. How many "art" films are able to obtain such widespread success? The reason why I consider video such a tremendous success in the artistic sense is that its able to convey a complicated message without trying to be too “profound” and by definition, isn’t the simplification of complicated issues from the use and manipulation of a few tools what defines art?