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In the introduction to the first part of this special issue, I argued that research and scholarship on online videos should be included in film studies’ core mission. Online videos, despite their plenitude, easy accessibility, and occasional lack of technical rigor, should be treated to the same kinds of rigorous analysis reserved for theatrically released cinema. Indeed, this last quality, often placed under the rubric of the “amateur” was the main focus of the previous introduction, in which I laid out an argument that amateurism is integral to aesthetic criticism in general and that the “mass amateur audience” is at least partly responsible for “the system of the arts” that groups together visual, literary, and sonic practices. In the introduction for this part of the special issue, I want to turn my focus towards another aesthetic quality that pervades online videos: the banal.

While so much of the aesthetic of online videos depends on the personal, the small, and the banal, this is not to say that online videos are automatically those things in the negative sense. As Siegfried Kracauer has famously argued, one of film’s “general characteristics” is its “revealing function,” to show to audiences “things normally unseen,” “the transient,” “blind spots of the mind,” “phenomena overwhelming consciousness,” and “special modes of reality.”[1] The articles in this special issue address all of these, from the phenomenon of autonomous sensory meridian response (Gallagher), the “dog’s eye” point of view enabled through GoPro cameras (Seegert), the middlebrow decor filling the background of Lego “brick films” (Brownlee), the cultural politics of camera phone surveillance and its incommensurability with the juridical (Stork), the abyss of uncertainty of health advocacy videos (Cante), the peculiar centrality and banality of cats to online video culture (Shafer), the racialized architecture of video aggregation websites (Cramer), the intersection of affect and authenticity in fashion “how-to” videos (Peterson), and the aesthetics of blur (White).

If it seems strange to invoke Kracauer’s work—so invested in the photographic and photochemical aspects of celluloid film—in the study of the digital, Miriam Hansen has reminded us that Kracauer positioned “film’s ‘affinity’ with ‘the transistory world we live in’ [as] an ‘elective’ . . . it has to be translated into an aesthetic effect by means of cinematic techniques.”[2] If the cinematic has an “affinity” for material reality, it “includes both film’s ability to record and its potential to reveal” abilities that are no less present in the digital era.[3] In rereading Kracauer’s work while preparing this special issue, I was struck by how much his preoccupation with film is also a preoccupation with the banal, even though throughout much of the book, the banal has been phase-shifted into “material reality.” One of the many contributing factors of the status of online video lies in its banality, in its association with the trite, the everyday, the commonplace, the ephemeral, and the disposable. These are associations that have more than a grain of truth to them, and I do not endeavor to argue that online videos are not banal. Rather, I think that an examination of the banal is crucial to understanding the online video.

Banality and Mass Culture

Associated with the everyday, the quotidian, the mundane, and the routine, banality can be seen as one of the defining characteristics of what Andreas Huyssen called “the Great Divide”—the exceptionality of high art on the one hand, and the routine commercialism of mass culture on the other.[4] While banality is but one of many aspects of mass culture, it introduces a dilemma for media scholars. Scholars want to pay attention to the exceptional, the extraordinary.[5] But in so doing, this concentration necessarily entails defining the exceptional against the banal. In this modernist sense, then, banality is necessary to the definition of what is worthy of media scholarship. Even studies of the banal and the everyday rely on this opposition, and these studies, ranging from analyses of music videos, television commercials, movie franchises, and social media, focus on the exceptional (or potentially subversive). The invitation to theorize the banal too often consists of the singular or remarkable event: “an extraordinary” exchange between a shabby-looking comic and the President of the United States, or the irruption of the personal life of a celebrity, or an artist collective’s takeover of a social media platform. This approach further embeds the opposition between the worthwhile “exception” and the everyday “beneath notice.”

But banality could be seen in another fashion, as a contaminant, a quality that pervades all of culture, from Eisenstein to emojis, from Welles to webcams, from Matthew Barney to Barney Miller, from Marina Abramovich to Blue Man Group. Likewise, banality contaminates audience practices, from the studied concentration of MOMA patrons to the practiced frenzies of Burning Man, or disaffected flipping through Tinder.

I take this distinction between two forms of banality from Meaghan Morris’s essay “Banality in Cultural Studies,” who clearly preferred the former over the latter, which is too tainted by Jean Baudrillard and the attendant collapse of analytic categories as well as any semblance of useful distinctions (not to mention the pervasive sexism in his writings).[6] But Morris also mobilizes the term banality to critique the runaway production of scholarship that attempts to prove the importance of the banal in mass media by focusing on the subversive and resistant practices of its audience, thus turning away from banal texts and towards extraordinary people. The preponderance of this sort of scholarship, Morris argued, turned academic engagement with the media into another example of banality. Morris’s double critique of banality therefore ends up reinforcing the dichotomy between modernism and mass culture (which Huyssen points out is surprisingly durable).

Banality of “Happy”

There may be no way out of this dilemma, no chance of moving past the dichotomy, as long as we have mass culture anyway. But I do want to suggest that there might be ways to think through banality differently using the video/website for Pharrell Williams’ 2013 song, “Happy.” This is a decidedly “professional video” shot by long-time camera operators with a paid and experienced production crew. At the same time, like so many videos released online, it inspired a rash of parody and imitation videos. Williams and, of all organizations, the United Nations, formalized this outburst of do-it-yourself “Happy” videos by introducing the “International Day of Happiness 2015” which encouraged people around the world to film themselves dancing to the song. These videos were then aggregated and displayed on the United Nations International Day of Happiness website.

The content of the video itself mirrors this mixture of professional and amateur. In addition to celebrity cameos, professional and semi-professional dancers, the video features a range of ordinary and everyday people dancing in the streets of Los Angeles. The twenty-four hour version of the video consists of 370 long takes. Each take consists of a steadi-cam operator filming each person dancing to the song in a single mobile framing shot. Had the video been released in theaters (alongside say Russian Arc, Victoria, or even Birdman) critics would be singing its praises and remarking on the wondrous long takes and mobile framings.⁠[7] Like the music video, those films are commercial ventures relying on the steadi-cam long take and mobile framing, and yet “Happy” was not greeted with similar acclaim. This may be due to venue. “Happy,” unlike Andy Warhol’s Empire or Christopher Marclay’s Clock, has not yet made it to the museum or university classroom, content merely to stay in the background of teenagers’ bedrooms and college residence halls. In this particular way, it is banal and ordinary. Regardless of its techniques or content, its easy accessibility and the ubiquity of the song itself relegate the video project to the realm of the banal. Its very common-ness meant it would never achieve the status of other cinematic projects with similar formal properties.

Fig. 1: Performer in 24 Hours of Happy dancing with bystander
Fig. 1: Performer in 24 Hours of Happy dancing with bystander
Fig. 2: Dancing past yet another film shoot in Los Angeles
Fig. 2: Dancing past yet another film shoot in Los Angeles

Furthermore the video was never meant to impress the same group that Sukharov, et al, so squarely set their sights on. It is not a cinemaphile’s film, there is no narrative or story, unlike Girl Walk All Day (another long-form music video featuring dancers in public spaces). And whatever its commentary on the human condition might be, it certainly never deepens through the course of 24 hours. Each shot is essentially the same: a backwards-traveling shot of a dancer or dancers moving down a street in Los Angeles. When the song ends, the camera tilts upwards to the sky or down to the ground, or pans to the side and then back again to find another dancer that has “magically” appeared in the center of the frame. Nonetheless there is a certain technical virtuosity involved in creating 370 separate dances shot over eleven days with no rehearsals and only ten re-takes.[8] What this creates, then, is a feeling of improvisation and spontaneity missing from the aforementioned films. Passers-by on the sidewalks of Los Angeles occasionally join in, gather around to stare, or walk by blithely ignoring yet another film shoot (Figures 1 and 2). In one take, with Williams dancing through Los Angeles’ Union Station, commuters and tourists gather to watch, some pulling out their cameras and camera phones to film the filming, and a group of young women seize the chance to shoot selfies of themselves with Williams in the background (Figure 3). In these scenes, the video captures spontaneous moments of community, formed through the exceptional power of celebrity (although in the world of Los Angeles, celebrity itself is ordinary), a desire to dance engendered by music (the song is playing from a boombox on a wheelchair behind the camera), or simply a kind of Durkheimian “collective effervescence.”[9]

Fig 3: Williams (left) dancing as people snap pictures with their phones
Fig 3: Williams (left) dancing as people snap pictures with their phones

The simplicity and repetition of the video highlights these moments of spontaneity. With no story, no dialogue, the sound track on endless loop, and every shot the same, the viewer is better able to concentrate on the minute, the background, the mundane settings. Of course, it is true that pop music in general is characterized by repetition. But the repetition in pop music is rarely, as the Violent Femmes once put it, “third verse same as the first,” that is, exactly the same every time.[10] Rather it is repetition with a difference: some slight change of intonation, emphasis, rhythm, or melody. Williams has, at times, rebelled against the need for variation; for instance, the Daft Punk 2013 hit “Get Lucky,” co-written by Williams, is composed of digitally “photocopied” takes of the guitar part, the chorus, and pre-chorus, which are all “exactly identical, copy-pasted in GarageBand” and “the four-chord loop never alters.”[11] By eschewing any sort of variation (and thumbing its nose at music critics), the song becomes the ground for the figure of the listener to move upon. Likewise, the non-variant repetition of 24 Hours of Happy allows for the song itself to recede into background like the music of a grocery store, mall, or hotel lobby. And like music in those spaces, “Happy” does not require concentration. This repetition is paired with spontaneity of movement in the performance. Performers knew they would only get one chance, one take, and while some clearly rehearsed and some were clearly professionals, many of the performances feel open to possibility, to the environment that they are passing through, to the banal and mundane parking meters, storefronts, lampposts, street signs, and fences (Figure 4).[12] For the viewer, one of the reasons the repetition is not as painful as one might initially fear is that watching becomes a pleasurable activity of picking out the details: how passers-by react, the occasional shadow of the film crew, the pleasure of “recognizing” the unremarkable and un-landmarked parts of Los Angeles. The banality of the video is linked, perhaps inextricably, to shared experience.

Fig. 4: Dancing with a chain link fence
Fig. 4: Dancing with a chain link fence

While many of the participants in the video may not be professional actors, they knew the custom of not looking directly into the camera (or perhaps they were instructed not to). On the surface, this may be meant to invoke the observational mode common to Hollywood-style feature films, in which the camera is merely looking in on people spontaneously dancing in the streets. The message of the video then becomes the ubiquity and accessibility of happiness. It is everywhere available, to anyone (and everyone), and expressing it can be a joyful thing (Figure 5). This is the message of the United Nations International Day of Happiness—that no matter who you are, what your circumstances are, happiness is available and possible and expressible. But in the video, the lack of visual reciprocity between the performers and the viewer invokes a kind of “inner space.” The performers seem lost in their own happiness, which comes from inside, since there is no visible source of music they are dancing along with. Many of the performers (although certainly not all) do not interact with or acknowledge those around them, and so the dance itself seems to be only a dialog or interaction between the performer and the song.⁠ So that while the lack of direct address and eye contact between performer and camera is fully in line with the Classical Hollywood Style, it also results in a video well suited for solitary viewing in a private space. On the one hand it encourages the expression of emotion through movement, gesture, and facial expression. On the other hand it becomes clear that this emotion, although performed in public spaces, is still personal and privately felt. In turn this encourages similar private expressions by amateur emulators, whose own performances work in concert with the professionally filmed, produced, and distributed “official” video. In other words, the formal style of the performances, the center framing of the performer, and the lack of editing within each iteration of the song encourages repeated imitative performances; the so-called “virality” of the video is built into its formal properties.

Fig. 5: The expression of joy
Fig. 5: The expression of joy

Because this inner space of happiness is so prevalent I found myself watching and being overjoyed by the moments of connection: when people would join in the dance spontaneously, or join in after being called out by the central dancer. Or those on the street who would appear to frown, looking dubiously at the spectacle, or pointedly ignoring what was going on only to start smiling, grinning, or laughing when the dancer pulled off a particular move, goofed off, or danced right up to them. If the video mirrors the relatively common experience of listening to music while walking—usually through headphones—it also represents the fantasy of dancing freely to that music, of expressing the sensations engendered by that music and therefore sharing those feelings and sensations with others through joyful movement. Or perhaps the dancers serve much the same function that Leah Shafer, in her essay on cat videos, argues that cats have online: “affective lures” to which we repeatedly return in order to produce joy.

And this is another way that the video embodies both the ordinary and extraordinary—the pervasiveness of pop music, the bodily reaction to those rhythms and beats are linked to breaking social conventions, acting out, and occasionally dispensing with propriety altogether. In a way this is how the video achieves its goal—to watch the video is to be consistently face-to-face with smiling humans. I honestly have never seen such a concentration of smiling people in my life. That is extraordinary in its own way, even if a smile is banal, a few hours of constant smiling is something else. And often watching the video I find myself smiling; if not exactly experiencing happiness, it does produce sensation.

Banality in Criticism

I am not arguing that 24 Hours of Happy is worth the same kind of attention paid to Warhol or Sukharov, because its intent is different, it does not aim at the professional critic, at the cinephile, at “the industry.” Rather it is a kind of mood piece. By featuring everyday people of a wide variety of body shapes, sizes, and ages in casual everyday clothing spontaneously dancing in public, the video is about banality, everydayness, and yet the extraordinary power of human gesture and expression to bring people together.

Rather than pairing exceptional cultural works with banal audience practices (as in say, apparatus theory) or, as is more common in media studies, banal cultural works with exceptional audience practices, I propose embracing the contaminant of banality. Leaning on the common origin of “ban” and “banal,” banality can be leveraged to think about what Morris called “edicts and proclamations”—bans against certain ways of thinking, certain artworks, certain styles.[13] This form of banality is constituted by judgment and distinction. Criticism, I would argue, is banal. Everyone does it (commenting on food, fashion, politics) and everything we critique is in part made banal through criticism, as criticism either upholds or challenges a ban (against the obvious or the crude or the cliché). Likewise, criticism places its object in a conversation with the addressee, thus making the object an object-in-common, recalling one of the early French connections of the word to the trite and unoriginal, and therefore commonplace.[14] Additionally, criticism renders its object as knowable and graspable, seeking to connect its object to other objects and other people (audiences). This is not to advocate for the abolition of taste or critique, but rather to acknowledge that critique itself produces commonality—banality—that should be emphasized alongside the distinction of taste. The contaminant of banality is therefore not a creation of the Culture Industry or the Great Divide, but of an encounter and a human impulse to understand.

The rejection of banality is thus also a rejection of collectivity. If banality is the quality of holding in common, it is actually that which brings us together rather than separating us. But banality is not common attachment to objects or texts—it is not a form of fandom; rather, banality operates at a level lower than that: a level of common experience that often goes unarticulated: walking down a sidewalk, riding a train or a bus, feeling, emoting, expressing, or perhaps more frustratingly, work, boredom, tedium, suffering, and even endurance. 24 Hours of Happy is both extraordinary in its length, technical achievement, and popular success, and yet also banal in its tedium and repetition. At four AM there is forty minutes of footage of an all-female motorcycle gang riding around the streets of Los Angeles, and there is another hour or so of a people driving a convertible around LA. But the other form of banality—commonality—is what gave rise to the International Day of Happiness, the thousands of DIY videos bringing people together merely to film themselves dancing to what at the time seemed like an inescapable pop song: an exercise in banality, to be sure, but a banality of common experience and collectivity. And it is this dialectic of banality—of being simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary—that characterizes so many of the videos under examination in this issue of Film Criticism.

Notes

    1. Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 46-59.return to text

    2. Hansen, “Introduction” Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), ixreturn to text

    3. Hansen, “Introduction,” xxvreturn to text

    4. Huyssen, Andreas After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.return to text

    5. Indeed the subtitle of Michael Strangelove’s Watching YouTube is “Extraordinary videos by ordinary people” (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010).return to text

    6. Morris, Meaghan “Banality in Cultural Studies” in The Logics of Television (ed. Patricia Mellencamp), British Film Institute Publications, pp. 14-43.return to text

    7. To be fair, Bright Lights Film Journal did exactly this, putting the video in conversation with Hitchcock’s The Rope and Marclay’s The Clock (see Adam Hofbauer, “The World’s First 24-Hour Music Video” Bright Lights Film Journal http://brightlightsfilm.com/worlds-first-24-hour-music-video-mapping-cinematic-geography-24-hours-happy/#.Vw1mKzYrLuA. The New York Times has published a few articles on the video, but like so many popular press and academic treatments of online videos, “24 Hours of Happy” was framed as a cultural phenomenon and a viral video with political implications, rather than an aesthetic object.return to text

    8. Kaye, Mary “How Pharrell and a cast of hundreds got Happy for a 24-hour interactive video” FasttoCreate November 22, 2013. http://www.fastcocreate.com/3022066/how-pharrell-and-a-cast-of-hundreds-got-happy-for-a-24-hour-interactive-video return to text

    9. Ryzik, Melena “Round-the-Clock Giddiness in a 24-Hour Music Video” The New York Times December 25, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/26/arts/music/round-the-clock-giddiness-in-a-24-hour-music-video.html; Durkheim, Emile Elementary Forms of Religious Life, The Free Press, 1995.return to text

    10. Gano, Gordon, “Prove My Love,” 1982.return to text

    11. Pallett, Owen “Ectastic Melodic Copulation” Slate March 28, 2014. http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2014/03/daft_punk_s_get_lucky_explained_using_music_theory.html return to text

    12. Kaye, Mary “How Pharrell and a cast of hundreds got Happy for a 24-hour interactive video” FasttoCreate November 22, 2013. http://www.fastcocreate.com/3022066/how-pharrell-and-a-cast-of-hundreds-got-happy-for-a-24-hour-interactive-videoreturn to text

    13. Morris, 41.return to text

    14. Morris, 40.return to text