I was watching the Roundhay Garden Scene on YouTube the other day, which is an 1888 short film directed by inventor and early pioneer of filming technology Louis Le Prince. It’s the world’s oldest surviving film, and just over two seconds of pure joy.
The film features Adolphe Le Prince, Sarah Whitley, Joseph Whitley and Harriet Hartley in their sun-soaked garden, walking around in circles and laughing. Given the lack of terrorists, explosions and horse-drawn carriages corkscrewing through the air (in 3D), I accept that the footage is unlikely to get your pulse racing. But when you consider the excitement the participants must have felt at being told that their joyful actions would be captured by the curious little contraption pointed in their direction, it’s impossible not to watch the clip without a big smile tearing across your face (albeit briefly, given the blink-and-you-miss-it duration of the film).
If Louis Le Prince had also invented a time-travel machine, which could have transported him to the present day, giving him a tantalising glimpse of the YouTube generation of amateur filmmakers, he would no doubt have returned to the 19th Century – with the pull of a lever and turn of a cog – inspired by the wealth of video material that had flickered before his bewildered eyes. But had that actually happened I probably would have opened this blog post by talking about the world’s oldest film featuring a kitten being startled by a bee. Or the world’s oldest film of a youth guffing in the face of a sleeping friend.
YouTube has come a long way in the seven years since a video entitled ‘Me at the zoo’ was uploaded at 8:27PM on Saturday April 23rd, 2005. The 18 second video features YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim at the elephant enclosure at San Diego zoo, explaining that “the cool thing about [elephants] is that they have really, really, really long um…trunks…and that’s…cool”. It obviously doesn’t have the same charm as the Roundhay Garden Scene video (and in terms of providing obvious information, it’s right up there with: “the cool thing about the human skull is that it stops bits of brain matter from sloshing out of your ears and prevents your head from collapsing like a soufflé”) but it’s still a piece of video history, however underwhelming.
Sixty hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute (one hour of video every second) and the website had more than 1 trillion views last year – which equates to almost 140 views for every person on Earth. Jawed Karim co-founded a video-sharing monster that can deliver pretty much whatever you want to see at any given moment, however random. You could probably find video of a fox being sick on a swan if you searched hard enough. (Actually, you can’t. Mercifully, after seven years, footage of such a spectacle hasn’t yet been uploaded to YouTube’s servers. And this really isn’t something I want to see anyway.) But you get the idea.
For instance, if you want to ‘ROFL’ yourself gently to sleep by watching all manner of skateboarding fractures and face-plants, you’ll quickly discover that you’re spoilt for choice. (Apparently, if no one ever posted another video to YouTube, you would need about 1,700 years to watch everything currently on the site. I estimate that at least 800 years of that would be spent watching skateboarders writhing around in agony, while their friends sweep up fragments of shattered tibia from the pavement.) Alternatively, you can spend your time on YouTube searching for the opening titles of long-forgotten TV programmes and adverts from your childhood (or, if you’re me, searching for plane crash compilations prior to any flight I have to take).
If you so wish, you can even spend ten minutes staring vacantly at a video of muddy, rain-filled tyre tracks in a field, which actually makes a pleasant change to the abyss I stare into on a daily basis. You can even pass the time “watching a lonely bird named Lucy” which, ornithologically speaking, sounds like a desperately sad video title (but slightly more troubling if you imagine it scribbled down the spine of a DVD case belonging to a masturbating stalker).
YouTube has even played a significant role in the Arab Spring, and most recently the Syrian uprising. One minute you’re slumped in front of your laptop lazily watching the opening titles to Battle of the Planets, and the next you’re sat bolt upright, mouth agape, watching grainy mobile phone footage of the battle for Homs. YouTube is nothing if not a mixed bag.
However, I was quite concerned recently when a YouTube video entitled ‘The Last Day’ was featured on Sky News. Under the headline: ‘Shock Video Imagines Iran Nuclear Attack’, the article and accompanying three minute news report showed clips from an amateur Israeli filmmaker’s “apocalyptic vision” of an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel in February 2013. “This film has disturbed many here [in Israel],” concludes Emma Hurd, Sky News Middle East correspondent, “adding to the sense that time is running out for military action against Iran.”
Israeli filmmaker Ronen Barany told Sky News: “It took Hitler five or six years to wipe out six million Jews. Ahmadinejad will do it in five or six minutes with one or two bombs. That’s why I want to wake up the world.” Of course, Baranay’s assertion relies heavily on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (a) actually having nuclear weapons (which he doesn’t), and (b) being deranged enough to actually use them – even if he had them – knowing that it would lead to Iran becoming a smudge on a map.
I find it somewhat disturbing that an entirely fictional video, depicting Iran as a nuclear aggressor, can be plucked from YouTube and covered on an international news station…as news. Presumably, if I were to make a film about Switzerland abandoning its history of armed neutrality in favour of developing a Death Star made of cuckoo clocks (or an ‘Assisted Death Star’, if I were to make a crude Dignitas joke) Sky News might give some air time to that as well. After all, in my imagination the threat to the world from this Swiss superweapon would be substantial. Pre-emptive military action against Switzerland might be the only sensible course of action.
But on the other hand, maybe the news should just report the fucking news and leave the propaganda videos within the confines of YouTube, alongside videos of broken skateboarders and cats that sound like they’re saying “simples” when they meow.
Anyway, I’m off to stare at a muddy puddle for ten minutes.