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New York Times / Life - Entertain

The Silent Film Returns — on Social Media

Though we may still pop headphones in to watch a YouTube rant, social media has cultivated its own mute visual culture.

The summer’s hottest destination for video entertainment is a U.K.-based social media brand called LADbible. In July alone, the viral clips that churn out of its Facebook page were viewed more than 3 billion times. Though the site is nominally branded around young British men, its offerings hold an oddly universal appeal. On a recent afternoon, it served up videos of a guy accidentally hitting himself in the head with a baseball bat; a pizza being made out of French fries; a dog bathing in a Jacuzzi; a woodworker crafting a salad bowl; a tourist riding a slide down the Great Wall of China and a manatee kissing a snorkeler.

The videos are curated from disparate sources, filmed on smartphones and GoPros around the world, but they all have one thing in common: They’re best watched silently. If they even have sound, it’s completely beside the point.

We are living in the golden age of the silent video. Though we may still pop headphones in to watch a YouTube rant, social media has cultivated its own mute visual culture. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are designed to encourage endless scrolling, and that boosts videos that are made to catch the viewer’s eye without offending her ear with grating bursts of noise.

The clips that spread the furthest online are the ones that can be consumed anywhere without disruption: on the subway, the sidewalk or in the doctor’s office; next to a partner in bed, behind the counter at work or under the desk in class. They’re the ones that allow for private experiences in the most public of places. And in the internet’s global marketplace, they’re the ones that transcend language barriers, instantly legible to viewers in Peoria or Paris.

Tubular Labs, the online video analytics company that placed LADbible at the top of its rankings, has found that of videos posted to Facebook by media companies, 46 percent of views go to videos that are completely silent or just accompanied by music. And in practice, an even higher proportion of social videos are watched silently. The advertising agency BBDO Worldwide says that more than 85 percent of its clients’ Facebook videos are viewed with the sound off.

All of that has given rise to a particular kind of video spectacle on social media, one that is able to convey its charms without dialogue, narrative or much additional context. To entertain soundlessly, viral video makers are reanimating some of the same techniques that ruled silent film over 100 years ago. “For coincidental reasons as much as knowing reasons, we’ve seen a rebirth of a very image-forward mode of communication,” said James Leo Cahill, a professor of cinema studies at the University of Toronto. Among its hallmarks: a focus on spectacle, shocking images and tricks; the capture of unexpected moments in instantly recognizable scenarios; an interplay between text and image; and a spotlight on baby and animal stars.

The very first short-form cinematic experiments — silent clips that arose even before film evolved into a feature-length narrative form in the early 20th century — have become known as what film scholar Tom Gunning calls the “cinema of attraction,” films that worked by achieving a kind of sensual or physiological effect instead of telling a story.

Created by early filmmakers like the French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière and the American inventor Thomas Edison, these early movies took cues from the circus and the vaudeville circuit, featuring performers from that world, and were then played at vaudeville shows. Taken together, they formed what Gunning has called an “illogical succession of performances.”

Social media has created a new kind of variety show, where short, unrelated videos cascade down our feeds one after another. If early films were short by necessity — the earliest reels allowed for just seconds of film — modern videos are pared down to suit our attention spans and data plans. Some viewing habits of social video also recall Edison’s Kinetoscope, one of the earliest film-watching contraptions, which invited single viewers to view short clips through a peephole, offering a voyeuristic look at everything from Annie Oakley shooting to some guy sneezing. Mobile video has again returned us to a cinematic form that’s screened for an audience of one.

Just as early films made stars out of stage magicians and circus performers, we’ve seen a resurgence of popularity of pure visual spectacle on social video, whether it’s in the studied technological tricks of stunt performers like the modern YouTube magician Zach King or the capture of the spontaneous wonders of nature. Early filmmakers were also drawn to “the capacity to show the unfolding of irreversible acts, something that could only happen once,” Mr. Cahill said — like a boa constrictor digesting a rabbit. Camera tricks were instantly popularized. The films would take a realist image “and make it magnificent, wondrous and fantastic, literally incredible,” Mr. Cahill said.

Shocking images have ruled since the early days of web video, but social media has accelerated the pace at which we consume them, encouraging the clips that provide instant gratification without the need for aural context. We’ve also seen a cinematic resurgence of the mesmerizing spectacle of physical work: A recent viral video of a guy skillfully painting a parking spot for those with disabilities recalls a Lumière film showing workers tearing down a wall.

In the absence of dialogue and involved narratives, early films focused on “actualities,” or setups that would appear instantly recognizable to audiences. Often, on both social media and in early film, textual clues are provided to viewers outside of the filmed image — in film titles presented to early-20th-century audiences, or in Facebook captions that guide modern viewers. A series of Edison actualities with titles like “What Happened When A Hot Picture Was Taken” and “What Happened In the Tunnel” parallel the modern meme format of pairing a short video with a brief emotional cue: “That feeling when …”

Or consider “What happened on 23rd street in New York City,” which shows a pair of actors, a man and a woman, strolling down the sidewalk when a gust from a grate blows up the woman’s skirt, revealing a tantalizing glimpse of petticoat. You can find modern equivalents of that video everywhere on social media, evidence of actors filming themselves making unexpected moves in crowds of real people. (In both eras, it’s often hard to discern who’s acting and who’s just being.) A recent specimen making the rounds on Facebook, “When The Splits Are Life,” shows a woman appearing in various everyday settings — the grocery store, the street corner, the auto repair shop — and spontaneously breaking into feats of flexibility.

And just as some early films would use brief intertitles to serve as setups and punch lines to visual jokes — the 1900 stunt film, “How It Feels to be Run Over,” shows a vehicle riding over the camera’s position, followed by the intertitle: “oh! Mother will be pleased” — much of the most popular Facebook videos reimagine the intertitle with big text captions that plug videos into meme formats. According to Tubular Labs, 22 percent of video views on media brands’ Facebook pages take the form of short video clips with prominent captions.

One of the most striking parallels of early silent film and modern social video is the foregrounding of animals and babies. They make natural silent stars because they are largely speechless; they communicate largely through gesture, movement and expression. But they also suit cinematic forms that are focused on realistic spectacles as opposed to masterful narratives. The old truism — don’t work with children or animals — speaks exactly to why they are the ideal stars of both early actualities and of contemporary Facebook videos. They can’t be tamed, so it seems as if what they are doing is somehow natural and true.

It’s striking that with all of the technological advances that have allowed us to shoot and share video instantly, we’ve returned to some of film’s most original instincts. It wasn’t long after the rise of Kinetoscope, actualities and the cinema of attraction that new technologies upended those early forms, giving way to feature-length narratives, talkies and Technicolor. It’s unclear where social video innovation will take the form next, but if anything, modern video is moving in the opposite direction of cinema’s rise: We keep cramming more spectacle and information into smaller and faster bits of entertainment, even discarding whole experiential possibilities — like audio tracks — if they seem to slow it down.

As the online media industry continues along its much-discussed “pivot to video,” we’ll see more and more of our online experiences churned into those hypervisual micro forms, as every inch of screen space gets recast as a flashing billboard. We can expect it all to come faster, brighter and flashier in the future — just maybe not louder.

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