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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Everything is Terrible is Terrible

The singing babies have been shuffled around...

SINGING BABIES! from Everything Is Terrible on Vimeo.

After taking a bit of a break from blogging over the summer, I thought I'd try to pick up the thread by starting with a summer disappointment. It came as a minor bummer that, early this August, Everything Is Terrible had their youtube channel shut down. The bummer is a minor one because, this being the internet, many of the banned videos are already available elsewhere -- but it still qualifies as a bummer because it's indicative of the anti-"fair use" climate that has grown at youtube since their purchase by Google.

Everything is Terrible (or EIT from here out) hosted videos that had been spliced together from the detritus of "ephemeral video" that still circulates in thrift stores and videostore cast-off bins -- exercise videos, children's programming, instructional videos, inept PSAs, crackpot religious propaganda, D-List science fiction and action movies, and so on. Sometimes the footage is remixed and distorted, sometimes it's simply whittled down to its absurd essence -- a "Body Flex" video, for instance, reduced to a series of convulsive breathing exercises and facial grimaces, turning the quest for aerobic beauty into a wheezy exorcism ritual. The "Singing Babies" video posted above layers some video effects on top of the original footage towards the end, but it's really impossible to top the horrific atmosphere of the untouched video itself. It seems to have been conceived as a scientific demonstration that the Clutch Cargo Effect is even worse when applied to living human beings. Cute always has a touch of the demonic, but yeesh.

The EIT channel reminded me of screenings at The Primal Plunge, a great bookstore and comic shop I frequented when I lived near Boston; occasionally, they'd set up a projector in the hallway just outside their door, and a film collector would screen old hygiene and driver's ed films, to the combined delight & horror of the audience, suddenly awash in the comically alien values of a bygone era. That sort of ephemera is always good for a swift kick of camp, but beyond that, I savored the slightly vertiginous undertow of cultural attrition, and the modest tragedy of misplaced earnestness.

In San Francisco, both Oddball Film + Video and the Prelinger Library are terrific archives of ephemeral films (Oddball sometimes has screenings from its collection, and the Prelinger hosts several of its films online, as well as providing a portal for "mashups" made from the hosted films).

EIT certainly weren't the first to start digging into the trash as connoisseurs of awful, stalking the VHS phantom zone rather than spools of celluloid, but they distinguish themselves with their excellent bad taste. I personally think most, and perhaps even all, of what they produce should be protected under "fair use" -- especially taken collectively, their videos amount to punchy and impolite cultural critique. That doesn't mean there's no legal risk involved, and they're certainly aware that their appropriation exists in a grey area. A compilation DVD they've made is for sale for a 1 cent donation (plus about 20 bucks for shipping) -- a pricing structure that seems to be arranged to ward off allegations of profiting from piracy. Some of the artists who contribute to EIT have given a few interviews, but they use fake names (noms de plume? noms de keyboard?) like Ghoul Skool and Future Shlock, giving themselves the same cloak of anonymity that vidders use.

The thing that, apparently, brought the EIT channel down was a video they titled "Hippie Weirdo Yoga Farmers," which featured clips from a children's yoga exercise tape, hosted by "Yogi Okey-Dokey" (and his pal, "Rasta Rooster"). The EIT edit of the tape came to the attention of the makers of "Yogi Okey Dokey," who requested to youtube that the video be removed, as they owned the rights the footage. Youtube, rather than pulling the single video, closed out the entire EIT channel. Fans of EIT began insulting the "Yogi Okey-Dokey" folks online, and then EIT tried to pour water on the flames with a conciliatory blog post. Clearly, they'd rather duck and weave than take their project to the "faire use" mat.

Here are a couple of my favorite examples of EIT videos (now hosted on Vimeo rather than youtube):

"Vitamix -- Catch the Vision" -- in which the mantralike repetition of the phrase "dust mite feces" helps induce us into a state where the Art of the Hustle crashes against the reefs of the cuecard slip and the the involuntary facial expression:

Vitamix - Catch the vision! from Everything Is Terrible on Vimeo.

"Two-minute Scanner Cop II" -- an exercise in "subtractive editing," which can probably be traced back to Joseph Cornell's "Rose Hobart," where Cornell excavated a mysterious and strange poem-film from the B-List action movie "East of Borneo." Here, they cut everything out of "Scanner Cop II" except the scanner cop "scanning" (which is to say, vibrating and willing his forehead veins into glistening prominence). EIT isn't chasing poetry here, but beyond the laughs that prolonged vibration is apt to provoke, actor Daniel Quinn's intense commitment leaves me both abashed and abject.

2-Minute Scanner Cop II from Everything Is Terrible on Vimeo.

Unfortunately, a video called "Worst Prop Comedian Ever," which might've been my favorite, seems to have disappeared down the "terms of use violation" sinkhole. Featuring a man with a bag over his head and two white paper hands affixed to his lapels, he attempts to guide his audience past their fear of public speaking through a "comedy" routine, but instead crosses the line where "motivational speaker" produces only the motivation to stick one's head in an oven. I have rarely had the urge to laugh uproariously and to die of depression in such quick, alternating succession.

The Onion AV Club, in their review of the EIT DVD (and the appropriation documentary "Rip!") said:

...both Everything Is Terrible! and Rip! have a lot to say in their separate ways about what kind of collage-art gets singled out and sued, and what kind doesn’t. Artists who use something popular, owned by a company with deep pockets, are likely to get in trouble, especially if the new work contains an element of sarcasm or critique. But if they stick with artifacts nobody cares about, like old “edutainment” programs, then they can fiddle away, largely undisturbed. Either way, the best way to avoid getting picked on is to keep a low profile.

EIT would like to dwell in the same dustbin of history (or maybe "dustbin of marginalia" -- where they reign as emperors of toenail clippings) that contains the off-the-radar junk they cannibalize. It remains to be seen if "off the radar" is really a place that can be found on the web. Or if the web is, in effect, all radar.

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