When I first saw this twisted comedic film, I laughed at its outrageousness. You might be horrified or you might guffaw. It speaks for itself in a mere five seconds. Here’s it is: 5SecondFilms’ “Magic Show Volunteer” (2009):
After I recoiled from the unexpected in this “magic show,” I immediately wanted to share it with others. I had the “you’ve gotta see this” reaction that compels so many of us to share these sorts of things online in social media. I copied the link and was ready to press “send” on my twitter account. But then I realized something. It was a magic show skit. Hadn’t I seen something like this before?
And I had. Many of us have. These kinds of films, which are everywhere on the internet because so many people have access to the technology to make them now, are identical to the very first movies ever made. Here, for example, is a famous example from about 115 years ago, when the early “one reelers” were being exhibited to public amazement: George Melies’ “The Magician” (1898):
Just as early film makers were exploring the creative capacity of the medium, today millions are doing the same thing — with a range of success and failure — using the ubiquitous capacities of phone apps, tablets, webcams, camcorders and similar devices which can point, shoot, edit and share with an audience in a matter of minutes. I have one myself, and I’m playing around with it quite a bit, which is also leading me to start researching this stuff on youtube (subscribe to my channel) more and more. What I’m finding is that the most successful of them exploit editing and sound in order to trick the eye and confound expectations, which give them a foot in the cinema of the uncanny.
In writing about early cinema, film critic Tom Gunning termed this genre the “cinema of attractions” — film’s equivalent to the circus sideshow, where the spectacle is everything and the narrative is scant or completely unnecessary. Before roughly 1906, film had not yet converted over to the dominant narrative format that we know so well in most Hollywood films today, which continues to draw from 19th Century narrative structure. YouTube makes no such pretense (perhaps because when it got started, YouTube would limit postings to 5 minutes in length, which led to widespread sharing of quirky videos akin to America’s Funniest Home Videos — which, incidentally, just aired it’s 500th episode — more than anything else). The bulk of the experience of such shared videos cues its viewers in much the same way as the early cinema of attractions, especially in its reference to the “magic” of what we are shown.
In her essay, “You Tube: The New Cinema of Attractions,” critic Theresa Rizzo does a masterful job both situating such videos into the tradition of this genre, but also exploring what marks online video sharing as unique: “although YouTube clips arrest our attention and encourage us to gawk similarly through novelty and curiosity throughout the course of a day, they also invite us to respond and participate in a variety of ways.” Thus, instead of turning to your neighbor in the theater seats and saying “wow,” we can say “wow” (and much more) right back to the filmmakers in an online comment or foment our own viral marketing campaign through an international form of “word of mouth” advertising on facebook, twitter, and elsewhere. Such shared videos can also be remediated — transported into different media or even remixed. “The cinema of attractions is ultimately about acts of display, or exhibitionism rather than storytelling in a similar way remediation is all about showing off by being clever and creative. It is a self-conscious practice that points to the producer, itself and to the power of the medium.”
I am, of course, fascinated and enthralled by short cinema and all the online activity we see with such texts. I think there is a grand democratization of art happening right now, which is wonderful (despite my skepticism about much of it — see my essay “Mock Band: The Simulation of Artistic Processes” for more on that). But the main interest for me is the role of the uncanny in communicating “the power of the medium”…which often is figured as a technology with autonomous, supernatural agency. This power is interesting to read as a symptom of social or personal anxiety, and often deifies technology in ways intended to either disavow agency or sell products through commodity fetishism (e.g. consumer technology IS a commodity). Melies wasn’t selling anything but himself. His “camera” was a magic wand. Today, magic wands are camcorders in the hands of the masses, available to all — for a price — and if we want, we can “magically” edit our stories, our personal history, our record of events. This is a manifestation of the popular uncanny.
In the Five Second Film about “The Magic Show Volunteer” our spectacular laughter relies on the taboos that are encroached here, regarding violence against pregnant women. It is not so difficult to give a feminist critique to something so clearly gendered in its representation of power. The male magician, a staging of authority, literally appropriates the “uncanny” nature of organic childbirth (“popping” the belly in a horrific way (clearly a balloon is pricked) — almost as if the woman’s body was something artificial, like a doll — before ‘birthing’ the child from his mouth). This topsy-turvy figuration of “male birth” is a common trope in uncanny horror film (and reaches all the way back to Shelley’s Frankenstein). It is an aggressive fantasy that a Freudian might read as an Oedipal nightmare as much as a gross-out joke, with the “father figure” of the fanciful magician responsible for “disappearing” the child, swallowing it off screen and “magically” pulling the newborn from his throat on its umbilical tourniquet. All of this “magic” — the taboo male fantasy of the text — is performed by cinematic technology, and its placement in the cinema of attractions renders it safe, domestic…and perhaps far too easily reproduced and reinforced as a social message.
Or maybe it’s just funny, and we’re invited to laugh at the male fantasy it presents. Perhaps the gimmicky magic it offers up is mocked, and this is a parody of itself. I’m uncertain. That, too, is inherent to the uncanny.
So…with this post I share it.