We Are a Camera
THERE was an air of experimentation in the odd 15-minute television show starring Jonathan Winters that NBC ran weekly in the 1950’s. Broadcast live, like nearly all television at the time, the program was largely unscripted, reliant on its star’s dependably unpredictable comic imagination. Mr. Winters would amble out in front of the camera, and a stagehand would toss him an everyday object — say, a pen and pencil set — as the sole prop for a wholly improvised comedy routine.
Thus the audience was prepared for the unexpected and the occasional misfire when, 50 years ago this month, it was told the network would be conducting a test of a new technology. The musical interlude in that week’s show, a two-and-a-half minute song by the ever-bubbly Dorothy Collins (then beloved as one of the stars of “Your Hit Parade”), had been performed the day before the broadcast, captured through an experimental process called videotape recording, and inserted into the otherwise live telecast. The video era had begun.
At the time, the networks thought of videotape mainly as a solution to a shipping problem, more a means of transportation than a radical new mode of communication. Their product, live television, was manufactured in New York, and their system of transport, the airwaves, could not carry it all the way across the country. The idea was that programs packaged on spools of videotape could be flown to the West Coast and rebroadcast the following day. This, in 1956, represented mass communication of unfathomable speed and reach.
Jonathan Winters saw something more in that R.C.A. tape machine the size of a Frigidaire sitting in his studio. Within weeks of that broadcast of Dorothy Collins’s recorded tune, he concocted a routine using videotape to appear as two characters, bantering back and forth, seemingly in the studio at the same time. You could say he invented the video stunt, planting the creative seed for the wild overgrowth of gag clips that last week earned YouTube a sale price of $1.65 billion.
It is a neat coincidence — perhaps a wrapping up of things by the fates — that YouTube had its big payday exactly half a century after it was found that a sequence of action could be documented cheaply and easily, viewed immediately, disseminated widely and replayed endlessly. But it is also a sign of something America has lost; not our innocence, but instead our sense of awe — the idea that technology should be used to challenge our creativity rather than as a crutch for quick fame or easy laughs.
Like the small, hazy box of free images that YouTube provides, video recording derived its appeal not from its technical quality, but from its immediacy and its economy. TV critics derided early broadcasts of taped sequences for their “bleached” hues and “cloudy overcast.” Magnetic recording improved with time, of course; still, video would never look as good as film until the digital era. Its tonal range was limited, and its definition was restricted by broadcast standards, and no one seemed to mind.
Video gave us Super Bowl instant replays, the Eyewitness News and “America’s Funniest Pets,” as well as countless moments of instant iconography, from the moon landing to Sept. 11, 2001. The mere mention of such images is a cliché, a banality; such is the effect of the endless repetition videotape made possible. It diminishes the power of the images it documents, steadily desensitizing us to the events, much as each pass of a videotape across the heads of a VCR weakens the picture.
After the moon landing, two of the three TV networks and innumerable local stations erased their tapes to reuse them for subsequent newscasts of press conferences and fires. The fact that video could be erased ensured that it would be, and so did the ephemeral quality of the invisible patterns of magnetism into which video rendered scenes from life.
As Jack Gould, The Times’s TV critic from 1947 to 1972, tried to explain video recording: “The picture is translated into a succession of bursts of electricity. By magnetic means, these bursts are preserved on the moving tape. When the tape is played back, the tape recreates the original bursts of electricity.”
In the 1980’s, the early days of home video, I happened to hear a monologue on video’s technical weirdness by the director Martin Scorsese, who said the medium made him nervous. While a great deal has always made Mr. Scorsese nervous, he appeared to find video acutely wracking. The preservationist in him found the fragile images of video unbearable, and the workhorse in him found the technology’s ease of use unacceptable. With video, he said, the making of moving images was too easy.
Indeed, the emergence of camcorders in the 80’s began to make moviemaking treacherously simple and inexpensive, within the grasp of nearly everyone. A generation has grown up with its childhood documented in near real-time on videos too long and dull to replay.
With digital cameras, camera phones and the Web to disseminate everything now, moving images seem nearly as commonplace as written language. The world has become an inversion of Orwell’s long-dated vision of a future ruled by video; instead of being the objects of observation by a great totalitarian eye, we are all running about pointing digital video cameras, watching each other.
Among the recurring characters Jonathan Winters played on his show was a man on the street being interviewed for television. He would be struck dumb by the camera, his eyes all whites, his lower lip flapping in panic. The character is still funny today, though as foreign to us as Chaplin’s tramp.
We have become so accustomed to cameras everywhere that we know how to behave on video as well as we know how to order a burger. And we all know what such familiarity breeds. It is no wonder that, for the generation raised on video, the au courant way to address the camera is to exude contempt for it, degrading it. This is the YouTube aesthetic; and with it, Martin Scorsese’s fears are realized.
To announce the sale of their company to Google, two of YouTube’s founders, going by their first names — Chad and Steve — posted a video on their site. It was shot outdoors, in front of their building, with a handheld camera. We hear the sound of cars driving by in the background. Chad and Steve yak and ramble, and the camera keeps rolling after they’re finished, waiting for a blooper moment that the fellows finally provide.
In its meticulous, ritualized casualness and indifference, the video is as formal and predictable as a presidential address from the Oval Office. Like a great many of the people on YouTube clips — Jonathan Winters notwithstanding — Chad and Steve treat themselves as a joke without bothering to be funny.