GoPro and the Film Journal

Again from the New Yorker (I may have to renew my subscription), a wide-ranging discussion of the phenomenon of the wearable camera.

As, personally, a huge fan of the work of Jonas Mekas, one of the major film journal-makers of the American Avant-Garde Cinema, this raises some interesting questions about the documentation of life as art.

The article paints, at points, what to me feels like a markedly dystopian view of people filming everything they do, and doing things only for the sake of filming them. Life as performance for an online audience.

At one moment it forays into the territory I’ve referenced on this blog about the Internet and the Underworld:

By now, so much video is being produced that it’s hard to imagine a fate for it other than obsolescence. Where does all this video go? If it’s in the cloud, will it all come falling back to earth, in an apocalypse of pets, babies, head-cam porn, flight lessons, golf swings, and unicycle tricks?

…Is there a distinction to be drawn between an artist filming scenes from real life, and an extreme sports enthusiast with a camera strapped to his helmet?

This brings to mind a famous quote that I remember from my film school days by Jean Cocteau:

Film will only become art when its materials are as inexpensive as pencil and paper.

This was welcome news to all of us who were deeply excited about DV cameras and Adobe Premiere, I believe 2.0, around 1998 – we could make anything we wanted to make; the materials were finally becoming as cheap as pencil and paper. Almost.

Everyone has had the tools at hand to write a novel for hundreds of years (assuming the important prerequisite tool of literacy, of course). Many people do write novels, few are published, fewer are good, and even among the good ones, we all certainly don’t have to agree about what makes for compelling content.

I think it’s a good thing that everyone can get their hands on an HD camera today, even if they want to strap it to their body and record themselves cross-country skiing.

They may shoot hours of footage, transfer them to a hard drive, and never look at the files again. They may get obsessed with editing and spend the next ten years going through their footage frame-by-frame in their basement, losing contact with the outside world.

And, they may find something beautiful in their footage, whether GoPro, iPhone, or DSLR, that gives them new insight into the human condition from their own point of view, and inspires them to share that image, that moment, that sequence, with others, in order to try to connect on a deep level through the process of making and sharing art.

They may go through all of this, the moment, the capture, the insight, the inspiration, the attempt to share – and find that still, no-one is interested.

The process itself has the potential for sacredness – as a practice, an attempt to understand ourselves and the world. And just like any other practice, the value isn’t in the outcome, the product, per se – it’s in the doing, the repetition, the seeking, the thoughtful effort.

The most poignant scene in the New Yorker piece, to me, is where the author describes his daydreaming son wearing the camera unselfconsciously, and recording, without realizing it, a beautiful and meandering record of life through his eyes for an afternoon.

Some years later, the unselfconsciousness is gone, the kid has trained himself (still with a GoPro) to shoot and edit in the genre of the GoPro sports video.

That feels like a loss, but maybe it’s a necessary stage that everyone goes through in the process of learning an instrument for self-expression, or art-making, or whatever you want to call it – whether it’s a guitar, a camera, or a pencil and paper.

Some of us will remain content to play the song the way it’s “supposed” to sound, the way the Beatles did it, or write the way Hemingway did, to the best of our ability. And some small percentage of people will get to that point and then think, “okay, now, how do I make this mine?”

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