Sunday, 22 January 2017

The Genius of Yee

A few months ago everything changed; like millions of others I stumbled on Eljolto's Important Videos playlist and became trapped in its orbit. Since then it has spread over the internet, enlivening the lives of all and sundry, to the extent of being mentioned on the BBC. Important Videos is no longer our special secret. Now it is the world's special secret.

Eljolto didn't make any of the videos in his playlist and some of them were famous long before he picked them; nonetheless they are his now. Today I'd like to write about the first video, "Yee":

"This is the time, and this is the record of the time"

It's a masterpiece of comedy that could only exist and spread in the modern age. Back in 1975 sci-fi visionary John Brunner published The Shockwave Rider, an early classic of what would become the cyberpunk genre. As a work of fiction it has none of William Gibson's pizzazz, but as prophecy it remains startling. The dumb terminals and wired telephones are outdated, the notion of Future Shock remains debatable, but the cloud-based internet, zero-hours contracts, even Wikileaks are all recognisably modern. One concept that seems strange nowadays is the Hearing Aid, an electronic telephone line that listens but does not transmit. In Brunner's book it is an electronic confessional booth; the last and only refuge of fugitive thoughts. Unlike the booths in THX 1138 is is genuinely anonymous. "Only I heard that", it says.

Back in 1998 Brunner's concept - also called "the Ten Nines", after its telephone number - inspired a chap called Wally Glenn to start up his own, internet-based Hearing Aid, which sadly doesn't work any more. Alongside this Glenn also set up an "open Web diary", which would nowadays be called a Blog.

The social aspects of the World Wide Web have always been driven by two conflicting desires. Firstly the desire to connect with and be respected by others, to become the big shot we wish we could be; secondly the desire to be anonymous, or to have a distinct internet persona, in order to shield oneself from bad things. Journalists and pop cultural figures from the mainstream media generally do not have the luxury of anonymity, which is one thing that separates traditional media from new forms. Doxxing, or de-anonymising internet stars, is one of the most powerful weapons that traditional media has against the internet.

Eljolto himself was unmasked by the BBC as a young man called Eddie Jolton, but unlike internet trolls and naysayers he has nothing to be frightened of, because he has righteousness on his side. Important Videos is a force for good, and a man - or woman, although Eddie is a man, but he could have been a woman - a man who could create such a thing cannot be all bad.

But let's talk about "Yee". All comedy stems from the subversion of expectations. A scenario is set up, and then the punchline violently subverts it, and we laugh. The more violent the subversion, the funnier it is. "Yee" is structurally reminiscent of Monty Python's famous "Fish-Slapping Dance", which is often cited as a masterpiece of minimalist comedy:

Two men dressed in British colonial desert gear stand beside a dock. The first man does a little dance which culminates in him slapping the second man across the face with a small fish. We expect the second man to do the same, but instead he pulls out a much larger fish and wallops the first man, knocking him into the water. There is no dialogue and we have never seen the characters before, but it is funny because the punchline was unexpected.

The Monty Python team were students of comedy. They often built their jokes around multiple subversions. The "How to Defend Yourself Against Fresh Fruit" sketch initially subverts the notion of a self-defence class by giving the instructor an irrational fear of an attack by fresh fruit. When the instructor finally demonstrates his self-defence technique we expect him to hit the assailant with a giant pineapple, or something - instead he shoots the attacker dead with a concealed revolver. The sketch further subverts this during the second demonstration, in which instead of using the revolver again, or finally using a pineapple (or something) the instructor crushes his attacker with a 16-tonne weight. But let's talk about "Yee". It's simple. Refresh your memory:

The footage is taken from Abenteur im Land der Dinosaurier (2000), a cheap German dinosaur cartoon of no lasting worth by itself. The film is three-quarters of an hour long; "Yee" extracts ten seconds of worth from this wasteland. It consists of just three shots. The first is six seconds long:

A pleasant-looking quadrupedal dinosaur sings a happy, silly tune. Just as the tune reaches a crescendo we cut to a second dinosaur, who looks tetchy:

He says YEEE in a tone of irritation. His interjection brings the first dinosaur's song to an end. We then cut back to the first dinosaur, who is silent and has a crestfallen look on his face. This shot is held for a few seconds:

"Yee" is a masterpiece of minimalist cinema. The three shots set up a scene, deliver a punchline, and show us a reaction. It has the structure of a classic pratfall. We have no idea who these dinosaurs are, or what history has transpired between them, but in the space of just ten seconds the clip introduces us to a new world and new characters, sketches out their relationship, and tells a short story. It is a work of genius.

On a narrative level there is an ambiguity. Is the quadruped unfairly put-upon, or is the second dinosaur's irritation reasonable? What little we learn of the pair suggests a relationship akin to that of Sesame Street's Bert and Ernie, in which Bert is a happy sort who occasionally and unfairly needles his friend Bert, while Bert is prone to bouts of anger but is, on a fundamental level, a good man who just wants to be left alone. Critical analysis of the relationship between Bert and Ernie tends to focus on their suggested homosexuality, but in my opinion their portrayal of passive-aggressive codependency is at least as fascinating. It's notable that the supposedly cold, stand-offish Bert is the only one who expresses genuine love - but his love is for pigeons rather than other human beings. Is Bert a human being? Are pigeons sentient in the world of Sesame Street? I don't know.

Beyond its merits as pure comedy "Yee" is also a masterpiece of cinema. It is often said that the thing that sets cinema apart from other art forms is not so much the technology of photographic motion, it is editing. Editing allows the filmmaker to subvert the linear flow of time and also to create new adjacencies from unexpected juxtapositions in a way not possible with other art forms. "Yee" is a creation of the editing room. The shots of the dinosaurs are taken out of sequence; the crestfallen look on the face of the first dinosaur occurs in the original film before the second dinosaur interrupts, and is in reality just a resting face. It is a classic example of the Kuleshov effect in action, whereby a shot's meaning is altered by juxtaposing it with new surroundings. The happy song itself is invented. In the original film the dinosaurs did not sing. They were instead engaged in conversation.

The song was created by digitally editing fragments of their speech, and given the poor quality of the original animation there is a case to be made that the ten seconds of "Yee" had more work put into them than the entire rest of the film. Those ten seconds will live forever.

What a time to be alive.