Sunday, February 14, 2010

An Experiment in Narrative

I wanted to let everyone know about an exciting new series that's premiering online today, called "Noir Bars: New York", a collaborative effort by Lloyd Fonvielle and Brooklyn-based filmmaker Jae Song which is exploring and challenging the traditional ideas of narrative filmmaking in the YouTube age. The premise of the series is deceptively simple: a different character in a small, dark New York bar speaks a few lines of voice-over dialogue. I say it's "deceptively simple" because each of these voice-over monologues conjures up whole back stories which may vary from viewer to viewer, each possessing the scope and richness of narrative found in the feature film, but in the compact format of the online short. I had the pleasure of acting in one of the segments myself, and I was amazed at the variety of tones that director Jae Song was able to get from me while coaching me on my line reading (I won't reveal any more than that-you'll have to wait to see the segment for yourself!) On Lloyd's excellent blog, Mar de Cortes Baja, he poses the question: "Can modern micro movies learn to tell real stories, just as directors of the nickelodeon era learned to tell real stories?" (Fonvielle, "Surfing the Microwave") This series is an effort to explore that question. By drawing the comparison with the Nickelodeon, I'm reminded of Tom Gunning's essay on the period of early film that he calls the "Cinema of Attractions". There are definitely some similarities between the infant medium of theatrical cinema, and the infant medium of online video. Lloyd goes into great examples of these similarities on his blog, so I encourage everyone to check out his writings on the subject there. The subject of narrative filmmaking in the age of the "short sharp shock" has been one that I've been considering for several years now, since first publishing with YouTube in 2006. As a narrative filmmaker myself, I had just recently finished a feature film, and found myself in the predicament that there was no market for it. Through my undergraduate work at Towson University, I came to produce a short film ("The Wrong House", 2006) which consisted of a short slapstick comedy bit. I decided to see what kind of response it would get at YouTube, and surprisingly, this simple little sketch of a film ended up a fairly popular title (it still remains my most popular film online). I was struck by the possibility of such a simple, short narrative finding such an audience. In producing short films, the challenge is to express your ideas with what Charles Tashiro calls "economy of expression". Tashiro was also one of the pioneers in the form of the "web series", with his pivotal "Video Haiku" series which premiered over the course of one year on YouTube from 2006-2007. The short, 30-second videos proved quite popular, combining Tashiro's signature visual style with an original haiku poem that provided a counterpart to the image being depicted, sometimes including hints of a narrative that seem to invite the viewer to imagine the events that led up to the scene. Tashiro followed this with the even more challenging "American Alphabet" series, which debuted in the fall of 2007 and played out at the rate of one per week for the following 26 weeks. This series combined visual style with the direct address format, posing a series of thoughts on a variety of issues related to American society. Tashiro has compared the short film format with other arts requiring compressed expression, such as the portrait miniature. In "Noir Bars: New York", Lloyd and Jae have found an incredible way of blending a narrative into the short mode that has established itself as the standard for online video. By providing key details, they allow the viewer to create a rich narrative in his or her mind, sort of a cinematic "Mysteries of Harris Burdick". I encourage everyone to check out the series as it unveils. It promises to be a fascinating experiment in narrative storytelling in the age of the viral video. Visit Lloyd's page at Mar de Cortes Baja, and Jae's page

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