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We Are All Auteurs: YouTube’s Channels of Reality

In his prescient 1967 essay “The Death of the Author,” theorist Roland Barthes celebrated the birth of the reader at the expense of the death of the author: “Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a text an Author is to impose a limit . . . to close the writing.” Coming during the expressive, anti-authoritarian energy of the counterculture, Barthes’ essay served as a manifesto for a democratic impulse that would transform the readers, in fact, into the creators of the text. This was also an era of radical experiments in cinema, when films like Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1968), and the work of directors ranging from Stan Brakhage to John Cassavetes shifted the burdens of interpretation to the viewer. By 1995, Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, in their Dogme 95 “Vow of Chastity,” could lay down a rule like this: “The director must not be credited.”

The emergence of “undirected films” into the mainstream — films that did not have formal directors in the classic sense — occurred simultaneously with the emergence of digital cinema and predicted, in a weird and indirect way, the rise and proliferation of online video, including the new YouTube channels, the streaming giant’s toward TV-like programming. Films such as The Blair Witch Project (the actors handled, operated and made decisions about what and how to shoot), Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten (two cameras mounted on the inside of a car with no director controlling the dialogue or action), Von Trier’s The Boss of It All (a computer controls the cameras), or Bong Joon-ho’s Influenza (the action is staged in front of numerous pre-existing CCTV surveillance cameras) — these and others like them experiment in various ways with the death of the author or, as the case may be, the death of the auteur. (Paradoxically, the removal of the director’s presence on the set as a human force only creates a stronger auteur force and aura; but that’s a subject for another time.)

When looked at as a collective, YouTube is an archive of reality different from previous cinematic archives in three significant ways: the archive is public and easily accessible from remote locations, the archive expands second by second, and, through tags, search queries, and category groupings, the archive is curated by standards associated with content rather than aesthetics. In this last regard, so much online video content (“Charlie bit my finger!”) hearkens back to the very beginning of cinema, when the Lumière brothers in short films like Baby’s Dinner and hundreds of others captured the simple, unmediated flow of time. In his 1961 essay “For an Uncontrolled Cinema,” filmmaker Richard Leacock suggested that if “we go back to the earliest days of cinema we find a recurrent notion that has never really been realized, a desire to utilize that aspect of film that is uniquely different from theater: to record aspects of what actually did happen in a real situation.”

The proliferation of online video today, the hegemonic expanse of the archive, the multiplication of auteurs into the tens and hundreds of thousands, poses a dilemma as philosophical as it is practical. For there is also the proliferation of meaning that lies not so much in the content of the videos, but in the fact of their physical medium, a medium that allows for a level of user customization unprecedented in this history of cinema: sound, video quality and screen size have become matters of preference that can be manipulated by the viewer. This modulation, as opposed to the previous trapped-in-the-dark-theater modes of spectatorship, is the latest advancement (and only the latest) that makes it possible for us to be our own video mix-tape auteurs, our own reality archivists, as we sample, assemble our playlists and obsessively fine-tune the inputs until what we are finally looking at, on YouTube, is nothing more than a narrow reflection of ourselves.

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