While “Gangnam Style” was an international phenomenon of unprecedented viral proportions, I’m not sure what the video has to say about the world we live in other than that the ersatz elements of both contemporary music and music videos have now reached global pandemic levels. On the other hand, the improbable spread of this utterly disposable South Korean pop artifact was a breathtaking demonstration of how a worldwide social media infrastructure can be exploited in full. Just imagine what the world would be like if such a network could be utilized to spread things of actual value.
With that in mind, let me use what small piece of the virtual ecosystem I have to shed light on five online videos that did more than just offer a moments’ distraction. Each of them left me with much to think about in how vividly they reflect the world we live in, and how they function as art in their own surprising ways. Taking stock of all of them at once, the prevailing theme is one of public vs. private. Putting Girl Walk // All Day next to Mitt Romney’s notorious “47 percent” video provides a stunning contrast between two classes of people and how they find their power in two types of spaces, closed doors vs. open streets.
Tensions between public and private also bubble up as a new kind of popular performance art: in a six-year-old’s recording of her first ski jump, and in a prankster’s punking of private online chats set to 2012’s most ubiquitous love song. At their best, online videos do more than let us escape into secret worlds (i.e. a pop fantasy version of Korea that doesn’t exist) but reflect back on our own lives, whether in public or private.
Thanks to Wes Kim, John Lichman, Bart Verbanck, Tom McCormack and others for helping me discover these gems.
Video essay: Essential Online Videos of 2012
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Girl Walk // All Day
Jacob Krupnick’s feature-length video dance-a-thon through Manhattan started in 2011 but was not finished until the start of this year, when Occupy Wall Street had crested. A democratic vision of rhapsodic bodies and celebratory streetscapes, the spirit of a movement lives on in these movements.
The Mitt Romney “47 percent” video
A privileged glimpse into the world of privilege. Aside from its impact on a major election, perhaps the most compelling spy movie of the year, and certainly the most revealing (the viral sex video of a Chinese Communist party official notwithstanding). Its fly-on-the-wall aesthetics seem ripped from our movies (Zero Dark Thirty) and TV shows (Homeland); it seems that the clandestine is now the prevailing domain of both politics and pop culture. And yet, that notion of power held beyond our view is refuted by this same video. The boundary between public and private have rarely seemed so permeable.
Girl’s first ski jump
Great as London 2012 was, these two minutes capture the transformative drama of sport more profoundly than any Olympic highlight. There are countless “first time” achievement videos on the web, but the combination of first person perspective, raw emotion and impeccable timing make it uncannily perfect.
Skyrim Macho Dragon Mod
The wormhole world of open source gaming platforms has set the stage for users to create their own alternative realities via modifications (“mods”), with Skyrim ranking as one of the most popular areans for user generated weirdness. Some have gone so far as to create episodic dramas within gaming platforms (see “Skyrim Cops”), but my favorite is the mod that reincarnates Macho Man Randy Savage as a disco-loving dragon soaring through this absurd spectacle set ablaze with improbable cinematic wonder. Yeah!
Call Me Maybe (Chatroulette Version)
The top American pop song of the year lampooned by an online prank that’s both unsettling and strangely celebratory. It exploits the workings of Chatroulette, a popular site where people can start random video chats with strangers. Steve Kardynal, the prankster in a beard and a bikini, mashes up a bubble gum hit with a virtual hookup spot. And in doing so, he zeroes in on a superficial fantasy impulse that’s shared in both our music playlists and our online social play. What’s both scary and sweet about this video is that just about everyone seems in on the joke.
Kevin B. Lee is Editor in Chief of IndieWire’s PressPlay Video Blog, Video Essayist for Fandor’s Keyframe, and a contributor to Roger Ebert.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Any great videos from this year that should be on this list? Let us know in the comments.