Thursday, February 17, 2011

Cut-up technique for the digital age

YouTube's 'Life In A Day' project, a 90 minute film made up of thousands of clips filmed by users on one day last July was premiered in Berlin this month and has seemingly been well-received. Judging from the few clips available on the YouTube page, it has plenty of the raw material to make it a fascinating human document. My question though - and it's easier to ask before seeing and becoming emotionally invested in the film - is whether this latest frontier in film actually points to new structural possibilities for the form or will remain a glorious experiment, utterly of its time and seldom to be repeated.

Not a typical documentary, the film sets out to make concrete the human histories of one single day in 2010, splicing together cultures to find revelations in the humdrum routines that comprise a day. These become a string of multiple additions revealing what it is to be Moroccan, to be Argentinian, British, Japanese...

It also records the random pattern with which that one day becomes momentous for some of the film's subjects as they give birth, find themselves diagnosed with cancer, get caught up in the tragic events at German music festival Love Parade on 24th July, where 21 people died in a crush.

It offers a coming together of the personal and the social, the local and the global, the banal and the significant into a patchwork narrative of existential investigation which is made possible by our participative media culture. And it reconfigures the filmmaking process to make the editor the skipper, taking ultimate creative control, previously the domain of the director. (If nothing else, it certainly blows the auteur theory out of the water.)

So what does it mean for film? Clearly, this can be done again and filmed to coincide with major global events - imagine watching the impact of the announcement of war unfold across cultures or charting the effect of a major medical breakthrough on the lives of people across the world. But is there an opportunity for fictionalised narratives here? Could we crowd source an adaptation of Wuthering Heights?

I'm reminded of Penguin's attempt to crowd source a novel, generally considered to be an exciting experiment in form, rather than a satisfying creative product. In a user-generated environment in which endless contribution often leads to a relativistic tangle, we still need filters to tell a story or to make a film. Even to give an objective opinion on a hotel, if Tripadvisor is anything to go on.

'A Day In The Life' depends upon the work of its editor/director filters to conjure sense and narrative from the chaos of plurality - step up Ridley Scott and brother Tony, with their director ('director/editor'?), Kevin Macdonald. But could they make a decent story out of crowd footage if the brief were something like, 'shoot a film about a pair of doomed lovers on the run from the police'? You can't rule it out can you? There are analogue precedents in everything from the literary cut-ups of William Burroughs through to some of the filmic techniques of Godard.

What's certain is the raw material doesn't look like it'll be in short supply - it just remains to be seen what the editors can do with it.

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