Saturday, November 22, 2008

Geektown on YouTube

Who amongst us has not been sucked into the vortex of YouTube?

One minute you're watching your friend's latest short film, and next thing you know, it's four o'clock in the morning and you're watching footage of Klaus Kinski screaming obscenities in German in the middle of the Amazon jungle.

While many of my friends list MySpace and Facebook as their time wasters of choice---for me, it's YouTube.

At first, I was completely un-intrigued by the America's Stupidest Home Videos of cyberspace. I've always been of the mind that movie cameras are like guns---they should only be placed in the hands of professionals. Amateurs should be relegated to nothing more than muskets and Super 8 cameras---both weapons forcing them to actually THINK about what they're about to shoot.

Oh, you may disagree, but if I forced you to watch the entire four-hour version of my family's Christmas 1998 shot by my mother the first time she picked up a VHS camera (including the unedited 20 minute scene of two of my great-aunts playing a mechanical fishing game on my Aunt Suzie's kitchen table)---trust me, even Charlton Heston racked with Alzheimer's couldn't sit thru this Doctor Zhivago of home movies . "Oh, Pauline---you dropped that fish again. Oh well."

There's something to be said for the old Super 8 camera. One roll of film was not only slightly pricey, but it forced the home filmmaker to limit their shooting time to two and a half minutes per roll. There was no rewind and tape over. No sound. No fancy editing software. Hell, you were lucky if it was in color.

But this time and financial constraint forced home filmmakers to be judicious in their cinematic choices. Footage of an Easter Egg Hunt consisted of a few token shots of the little dolls carrying their baskets, with the cameraman hoping and praying he could get the Money Shot of Little Timmy actually finding an egg. However, no sooner did my Mother purchase a VHS camera, than she thrust it into my hands and forced me to shoot the ENTIRE egg hunt.

Yes, I DPed an Egg Hunt.

You will not find this on my resume. In fact, like many other great filmmakers, once I finished the film, I never looked at it again. For this reason alone, when I hear filmmakers like Woody Allen say that once Annie Hall was done, he never watched it again---I believe him. After all, I was present at that Egg Hunt. I put everything I had into making that Egg Hunt Film the best it could be. I have no desire to watch it again to add a Director's Commentary where I would describe how my mother kept saying, "Oh honey, get closer. Get closer."

"Mom. I'm using the zoom lens."

"Oh. Okay." And then, a few moments later, repeating---"But honey, move in closer."

Apparently, Mom had no idea of the concept of a Zoom Lens.

And how tight of a shot can you get on a plastic egg? Where's the drama there? For me, the drama was in the long shot. The Egg Hunt wasn't about the eggs, but about the journey. And I wasn't about to let any Money Mom ruin my artistic integrity. Yes, she may own the camera---but she didn't own my soul.

Needless to say, I resisted the Home Movies of the World on YouTube for quite some time. It was only recently, while doing some research for a project, that I kept stumbling across YouTube clips of vintage films.

I am, admittedly, a film geek.

And my geekiness goes all the way back to the silent days.

Sure, I watch modern films and try to keep up on the newest TV shows, music and general trends. But, let me put it this way, I was once sitting at a bar discussing silent comedies with comedian, Emo Philips. Emo, I was surprised to discover, was just as much of an old film geek as me. Another local comic tried to sit in on our conversation. And, to his credit, the guy held his own as we tossed out references to Chaplin, Keaton and even some Harold Lloyd stuff. But once we started geeking out on Chester Conklin, Ben Turpin and "those horrible Larry Semon comedies" (which Emo swore weren't all that bad and about which I respectfully disagreed)---the other comic grabbed his pint of beer and quietly slunk away. Later, he admitted that he had been "out of his league".

An hour later, as Emo and I continued discussing Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle comedies, Al St. John's pratfalls and the recent added musical score to Sherlock Jr. by Vince Giordano's Nighthawks Orchestra, Emo turned to me and said, "Wow. I've never met anyone who knew this much about silent film who wasn't a smelly, old guy."

Sadly, this is the highest compliment I've ever been paid.

But it's not just silent film. Oh no. My geekiness extends to things like ragtime and 1920s jazz, early talkies, old radio shows, and yes, vaudeville. I walk thru life with a brain packed-full of useless vaudeville trivia that NO ONE cares to hear about. And this is coming from a gal who runs into Joe Franklin on a regular basis. Not even Mr. Nostalgia Himself seems to recall much of this completely useless information.

I could literally write the Wikipedia entry on acts like The Hilton Sisters. No, not Paris and Nicky. I'm talking about the great vaudeville act of Daisy and Violet Hilton. The Hilton Sisters were most notably known for being conjoined twins. Their "mother" actually bought them from their real mother (an unmarried, British barmaid) and taught them how to sing, dance and play musical instruments in between regular beatings so she could make her fortune off their fate. Violet and Daisy were talented and pretty girls who were proud of the fact that they were not just a freak show, but were talents in their own right. In their early twenties, they finally sued their family and took control of their careers.

One of my favorite stories about them concerns a young Jack Benny. Benny had worked with them in vaudeville, and, several years later with a hugely successful national radio show under his belt, ran into them backstage at a theatre. They walked up and re-introduced themselves. Jack Benny, always the gentleman, spent a few moments reminiscing with them about old times. Towards the end of the conversation, Violet finally turned to Daisy and said, "See! I told you he'd remember us!"

One of my other favorite little tidbits about the Hilton Sisters was the fact that when they started to get the big time vaudeville gigs, Daisy decided to dye her hair blond---so people could tell them apart. Apparently one always being on the left and one always being on the right wasn't enough.

This is the sort of useless knowledge I walk around with ALL DAY!

And, oddly enough, in my small bits of spare time, I love to acquire more of this completely useless shit for my head. I don't know why this all appeals to me. It means absolutely nothing to my life. There is no one in my immediate circle with whom I would even bother to share any of this useless information. It's not like I'm eighty years old. This isn't nostalgia for me. It's just more crap floating around my brain that no one wants to hear about. And I am quite aware of this. People like Emo Philips notwithstanding, if I broke out into a long, full-blown conversation about F.W. Murnau's cinematography in the 1927 release Sunrise...most people would look at me like I was completely insane. I know this. I am in touch with my inner-geek. And, over the years, have learned how to keep it hidden from view. And yet, the search continues.

Lately, I find myself constantly stumbling across wonderful treasures on YouTube. Other geeks like myself have posted these tantalizing tidbits of esoteric lore. Everything from still photos to film clips to vintage recordings can be found on YouTube.

In the past month alone, I have found old 78 recordings of Fanny Brice, early talkie shorts with Eddie Cantor, vintage Lumiere Brothers films, the entire 1935 Tod Browning film Mark of the Vampire with Bela Lugosi, outtakes of Abbott and Costello with Lou Costello belting out swear words to throw off the romantic leading lady and amuse the crew, and even a small blip of footage of Harpo Marx actually speaking!

For geeks like me, YouTube can be a treasure trove of completely useless clips to bore your friends into acquaintances.

It's also a revelation. Because the simple fact that people out there are posting this material online and commenting on it on the YouTube boards means that I'm not alone. There are others out there like me who thrill at the discovery of an obscure clip of an old Merrie Melodies cartoon from the 1930s called Page Miss Glory---which was a parody of the recently released Marion Davies film that same year. People putting an inordinate amount of time and effort into carefully placing an old Billy Murray 78 record from 1909 onto their antique gramophone and having a digital camera nearby to record the momentous occasion of the turn-of-the-century's most popular Irish-American Singer as his voice goes from 1900 analog to 2000 digital and then up online for the entire world to see. On the wall behind the gramophone hangs a lithograph of the RCA dog barking into a Victrola.

What was the dog's name? Nipper. How do I know this? I have no fucking idea.

These people are geeks. And proud of it.

And then, within moments, their fellow geek friends immediately comment upon their post---thanking them for posting such an awesome, amazing piece of history and direct them to their YouTube page where they posted an even MORE obscure video of their gramophone playing a recording of some old Edison 78 recordings of marching bands from the late 1800s...

These people scare me.

The same way I was scared in high school when I was cast in a production of Camelot, enthusiastically read up on the Arthur legends and then suddenly, found myself face-to-face with members of the local chapter of The Society For Creative Anachronism who came to one of our rehearsals to show us what a Medieval Joust was really like. Sure, I enjoyed being knighted by the "King". But when one of the St. Louis Knights began telling me how he wanted to "die on the battlefield"...

Well, I hesitated to remind him that they were using plastic swords. As a Mid-Westerner, he would be more likely to die from the "Death By Chocolate" dessert at the Shoney's Restaurant down on the Interstate.

Yes, I may be a closeted geek; but to be considered a sane, social human being, some things need to remain hidden.

After all, don't all geeks want to hang with the cool kids?