On YouTube and the Democratization of Cinema

“The motion picture has potentialities as a people’s art – when it is controlled by the people and serves their interests. But no such democratization of the art is possible under capitalism.” – John Howard Lawson, 1958

“And, even in the clouds, where formerly ideas and dreams dwelt, they now want to print advertisements – for improved toilets, I suppose.” – Maxim Gorky, 1896

It took me a long time to warm up to YouTube. How could a “professional filmmaker,” as I saw myself, ask to be be taken with any measure of seriousness when placed among Charlie Bit My Finger and The Keyboard Cat in the cyberspace queue?How could the existence of a website primarily composed of (and catering to) tween-generated video blogging and amateur iMovie tributes to everything from Tenacious D to The Secret possibly be good for the future of the moving image?

YouTube is the closest thing we have to what John Howard Lawson referred to as the “democratization” of cinema. Lawson, the blacklisted former head of the Communist Party in Hollywood and the first president of The Writer’s Guild of America West,  saw the potential for cinema to become a “cultural weapon” for the classes but was cemented in an era where making films required keys reserved for monopolists who used the medium as a vessel to communicate the interpretation of life as seen (and felt) solely by the social elite.

History tells a recurring tale: those most in need of an agent of social and cultural change are always those least in the position to acquire one, and such was the case with cinema in 1958, the publishing year of Lawson’s consummate essay, “Film in the Battle of Ideas.” One need only review the public impact of Leninist propaganda films produced by Sergei Eisenstein or the German fascist work of Leni Reifenstahl to recall how motion pictures elicit the most immediate and visceral reactions of all the art forms.

When we look back at Lawson’s America, hindsight begs the question, “Why were no films made exposing the hypocrisies of institutionalized racism?” Precisely because they were institutionalized.

If you wanted to make a film in 1958, you must first have money, and lots of it. You must also have a talent for telling stories with pictures (a key ingredient often overlooked by today’s YouTube generation, of which I am a part). Finally, you must have a means of exhibition, which in the fifties meant having your film miraculously blessed by the elite – one of five major Hollywood distributors. Though this was the era of The Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers – founded to fight the exclusive practices of studios presiding over the amnesicly-monikered “Golden Age” of Hollywood – it would still be another eleven years before Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda would bring us the first entry into the American independent movement with Easy Rider (1969).

If you somehow magically conquered all the roadblocks of producing a pro-Civil Rights film in 1958, one institutional failsafe was still in place: Why would a racist studio executive in the 1950s purchase and distribute a film exposing his own prejudice (much less a film produced by the injured party, a black man)? More likely would be the release of a film in which, as articulated by V.J. Jerome, “the white spectator is taught to regard the Negro people as ‘unfortunate’ beings, toward whom the whites should exercise ‘tolerance’.” (A review of modern films such as The Green Mile, Amistad and The Blind Side suggest that this is still commonplace in a system which claims to confront racism upfront – but not in a manner that makes whites uncomfortable.) Due to the triumph of technological innovation through to the twenty-first century, this totalitarian system of crooked gatekeepers is no longer the death knell of our would-be cultural weapon.

We live in a world of revolutions being carried out on Twitter, the president of the United States keeping a Facebook profile and future pop stars (vomit-inducing though they may be) being discovered on YouTube on a seemingly monthly basis. Though purists may groan at these developments, I believe they are the recrudescent side effects brought about in any democracy. When the gatekeeper is rendered obsolete, to a certain extent the inmates run the asylum. But this also allows for a true democracy to take shape. You want to say something important using moving pictures? Now you can! – easier than ever before in history. Sure, we’ll have to endure a myriad of “[Insert fluffy animal] Falls into Toilet” videos, but that concession will buy us things like the cell phone video of Neda, the Iranian woman shot to death at an uprising protest in Tehran in 2009. The totalitarian regimes of China, Morocco, Thailand, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and Libya all recognize the democratic power YouTube possesses, as indicated by their transparent decisions to block the website within their countries at various points since 2005.

This is not to say that things couldn’t stand improvement. I have a personal distaste for YouTube’s willingness to disable the “comments” section under videos at the uploader’s request. One recent example of this contemptible practice was GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry’s hateful “Strong” campaign ad where he equates the persecution of homosexuals to the non-existant war on Christmas. Perhaps more egregious (and of personal interest to me) is a video uploaded following the death of world-famous polemicist and atheist Christopher Hitchens which professes to show a photograph of Hitchens praying on his deathbed. How inconvenient it would be for the slime who made this video to have his/her lies exposed directly beneath the video if one were allowed to reveal that the “incriminating photograph” is in fact Hitchens bracing before a bikini wax for his investigation into the limits of self-improvement for Vanity Fair.

My speculation is that the folks at YouTube intended the “no comments feature” to attract more business memberships (since corporations seem to be deathly afraid of criticism), which would echo the perversion of similar democratic advances after the corporate class got hold of them. But I’m not ready to throw in the towel just yet. We have taken another giant leap toward total democratization of cinema with YouTube (and its newer competitors) – a feat culminating in the awarding of a 2008 Peabody Award to its founders – but this is no reason not to demand more in the future.


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