Last night The People spoke, via YouTube, directly to Democratic candidates for president, who were on the spot and required to answer. Now that the spunky little Internet video service is apparently on the verge of saving democracy and liberty and stuff, it seems like nothing to mention that, oh yeah, the first YouTube stars to make the transition to Hollywood are about to make their big-screen debut.
Oh, you know you've been holding your breath for Hot Rod, the movie from the guys who did that "Lazy Sunday" rap video about cupcakes and The Chronicles of Narnia. You mean you haven't been holding your breath? Nah, me neither. The trailer and TV ads make Hot Rod look like Andy Samberg and his Lonely Island crew stole that one joke from Napoleon Dynamite -- you know, where Napoleon builds his sweet bike ramp and falls flat on his face going over it -- and just repeated it about a hundred times. The faux '70s poster for the film is funnier and smarter than any of the actual footage I've seen, and that's not really saying much since it's just aping Anchorman. The only thing at all surprising about Hot Rod will be, I suspect, that it's pretty much a low-rent Jackass, with the surprising thing being the discovery that Jackass is a more sophisticated version of anything. (Editor's Note: Here's an opposing view on Hot Rod.)
"Lazy Sunday" and the other Digital Shorts the Lonely Island guys have created for Saturday Night Live are undeniably appealing. These guys have a goofy talent. In fact the group was discovered by SNL because of their quick and cheap digital comedy. It would be oh so easy to point to these guys as an example of the next generation of filmmakers launching their careers online. The Net probably is the future of film, but this is not the beginning of that.
The problem with Hot Rod, it seems, is the problem with the vast majority of movies spun off from SNL. Whether they got their start on the stage at 30 Rock or on a digital camera, sketches do not scale up to feature films. (I haven't seen the film yet, so I can't know for sure, but I feel pretty confident in making an educated guess on this.) Just because a bunch of guys can turn out the three-minute "Dick in a Box" does not mean they can tell a 90-minute story. It's nowhere near the same kind of filmmaking. Hot Rod might be a funny three-minute short; in fact, the movie's official site has some quickie videos that probably cover the extent of the humor to be mined by these guys from this idea.
Here's the thing: all the cheap-but-professional-looking video and cheap-but-powerful digital editing tools won't do filmmakers a lick of good if they're not compelling storytellers. Nothing we've seen yet from the Lonely Island guys leads us to believe that they can tell a compelling story. Worse, they're taking what oddball talent they do have and trying to force it into Hollywood's preconceptions of what a movie is supposed to be. They may all be getting nice paychecks and a bit of fame thanks to their silly Internet videos, but no new ground is being broken here.
The next great filmmaker will come off the Internet, of that I have no doubt ... and by "great" I don't mean necessarily, you know, Orson Welles or Francois Truffaut. I mean the next filmmaker who will capture the public imagination the way that George Lucas or Steven Spielberg did a generation ago. But he, or maybe even she (women filmmakers won't have to deal with the studio boys club anymore), won't do it by playing Hollywood's game. He or she will do it by bypassing Hollywood altogether.
MaryAnn Johanson (email me)
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