25 December 2020

The Sincerest Form of Preservation

On the off-chance you're new here, my site's name may baffle you. It is a reference to the H. P. Lovecraft story In The Walls of Eryx about a man trapped in an invisible maze in the jungles of Venus while searching for powerful crystals. It's not a particularly well-liked story by Lovecraft fans, namely for its pulpy sci-fi trappings and notable lack of cosmic horror. I don't share this opinion, though I won't call it my favorite. That seems to change with years. Many years ago, I would most certainly have called it my favorite. I even wrote fan fiction in the same setting. I suppose I'm more fascinated by it than anything, how different it is from his other works in terms of theme yet how distinctly "his" it is. There's a quote attributed to Lovecraft that goes something like this:

There are my 'Poe' pieces and my 'Dunsany pieces' —but alas — where are any Lovecraft pieces?

He's referring to his major influencers and how they seemingly compartmentalized his work accordingly. Stories like The Outsider are very much in the vein of Poe while his "dream cycle" including The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath are very much the kind of fantasy the Lord Dunsany dabbled in, among his many other achievements. As for those allegedly elusive Lovecraft works, the easy answer would be The Call of Cthulhu and all its tangents like The Color Out of Space. Meanwhile, In The Walls of Eryx or Imprisoned with the Pharaohs or Herbert West: Re-Animator don't necessarily fall into any of these categories, though it's not as if being in one of them would have helped his circulation back in the day. His work was rarely seen outside of Weird Tales, the most notable exception being At The Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Out of Time, published in Astounding Stories, a periodical known mostly for very traditional "super science"-styled sci-fi. Ironically, In The Walls of Eryx might have fit in quite nicely there. That is, the magazine wouldn't have gotten letters of complaint about whether or not it belongs, like what happened with Mountains. To Astounding's eternal credit, though maybe a result of prior commitments, this didn't stop them from publishing Shadow in subsequent months. Nonetheless, Lovecraft's most mainstream exposure being such a cold reception likely didn't help his deteriorating mental state at the time of publication. He died in 1937 of stomach cancer and very nearly took all his work with him, further being buried under the weight of World War II causing a change in tastes. Fortunately, a colleague named August Derleth bought up the late writer's catalog and has been more or less solely responsible for keeping his work available and in the public eye for the last 70+ years. His influence is incalculable; even Ghostbusters owes a few of its themes to Dreams in the Witch-House and a few tendrils of the Cthulhu Mythos

And then there was the time he showed up for real.

I suppose this is all a roundabout way of saying I chose the name Decay-Proof Record Scroll because one of the most obscure pieces from an almost-unknown author features an item that allows written words to be fully preserved in an otherwise hostile and all-consuming environment.

It also ties back to one of the first blogs I ever kept, the now long-defunct Yahoo! 360. I had just graduated college as a film major with a particular interest in silent films which have had no shortage of problems in terms of preservation. While I'm far from heartless to the loss, I also hold a somewhat complicated opinion to the notion of art preservation. I guess it's akin to Buddhism's philosophy of loving without attachment. Try to preserve the work, certainly, but not at the expense of something else. I didn't put it so diplomatically at the time. Rather, I called the Mona Lisa an overrated object of social manipulation, that if it didn't exist, something else would take its place as one of the most beloved, studied, and overall recognized paintings in the world. 

In my defense, the Mona Lisa went missing for about 2 or 3 years before anyone noticed it, and only after it was returned did it gain its iconic status. If I was waxing cynic before learning of that theft, I was full cynic afterwards. Actually, that story is half a lie; some people did notice the painting was gone the next day, and there was indeed a formal investigation, with suspects including Pablo Picasso and motives ranging from profit to misguided nationalism. It was some purple prose by Walter Pater being dug up from the late 1800's and quoted in newspapers of the time reporting on the theft that swayed the public perception from indifference to unbridled fervor. Suddenly, this painting most people outside of art criticism walked by without a second thought was now a national treasure. 

I'm not saying any of this to admonish anyone for their love or affection or otherwise deep, personal connection to the painting. If you like it, love it, or think it's just okay, I cannot take that away from you and I wouldn't take the chance were the means available to me at the push of a button and the promise of all I'd ever desire in return. Likewise, if you somehow have a deep disdain or severe loathing for it, I only wish it's not for the painting itself but rather for the wishy-washy "Ignored Until Stolen" public attitude surrounding its rise to stardom. To put that last point in perspective, I've never been to a drive-in movie theater. They were beyond passe' by the time I was born, with the majority being abandoned and the remaining few serving more as museums and novelties than anything else. I'd always hear stories of people missing them dearly, only to find many of them had never been to one either. On top of that, when I started perusing the more obscure and seedier sections of my local video stores and also many, many episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000, I discovered that drive-ins were more often than not a dumping ground for movies not fit for proper, sit-down venues. I wasn't expecting drive-ins to be arthouses or anything, but I wasn't expecting this nexus of frugality and camp in the form of parking lots converted into oversized living rooms. 

Of course, I absolutely adore the schlock and cheese and corn and trash-ure of drive-in fare, what's often collectively referred to as so-bad-it's-good. Many of those films face similar preservation hurdles, if only for having been produced very cheaply, very quickly, and often by production crews eager to move onto their next project rather than rest on their laurels. Much like early television or comic books, nobody was working under the paradigm of posterity. It's easy to forget that apart from audio recordings or maybe home movie cameras of the 8 and 16mm variety, there wasn't a good, reliable means of recording what we saw on television or bringing the theater experience home. The Olympics were first broadcast on television in 1936, but Sony wouldn't bring Betamax to our homes until 1975, and even that would remain a niche market until VHS a few years later. This created an odd social phenomenon in many up and coming filmmakers of the era. Since they couldn't simply rewatch the movie they just saw, barring a trip to the movie theater or hopefully seeing it on television, they had to resort to other means of recapturing those fragile, flickering memories. 

Stylistic influence is nothing new to art and entertainment, but this notable lack of accessibility started a game of creative telephone. George Lucas wasn't born when Flash Gordon was shown in theaters. Instead, he saw reruns of it on television. This is one of his many inspirations for Star Wars, an effort by him to recapture the feeling of watching those serials, but also improving on the formula with improved production values and an overall more unified aesthetic. Admittedly, the marriage of mystic science fantasy with a grungy industrial aesthetic is more than a little cumbersome, but all these years of reflection across all manner of home media haven't yet spoiled mine nor anyone else's fun. Similarly, Uncle George's foresight to merchandise his creation in the form of toys, books, and comics may look to all outside perspectives as a cynical cash grab (by someone who wanted to stick it to FOX for cutting his budget), but just like those filmmakers who had to resort to other methods to remember those films and shows of yore, it provided a toolkit for those who wished to follow the narrow path he meticulously carved out amid the hard-boiled concrete jungle of 1970's Hollywood

When a video is posted to YouTube, it is assigned a unique number to identify its place on the servers. Tom Scott has a fantastic video explaining this process and how YouTube will practically never run out of numbers for its videos. Because of this setup, among many other reasons, YouTube has what some consider a very draconian attitude about changing videos once they've been posted. Put simply, once it's there, you can only remove it via the nuclear option. That unique string of digits is now a corpse marker, and buried along with that video are all the comments and metrics that it brought in its lifetime. As such, if you make some glaring, factual error in your video, there's no slipping in an updated version into the same slot. That must be made a separate upload and the choice then is to either leave the old, erroneous version up, warts and all, or remove it and try to see if you can recapture what you once did before. As I said, some find this model frustrating, but more seasoned and therefore methodical content creators take it as an impetus to double, triple, umptuple their work before airing it in the global village's public square. 

I do have one major complaint about this approach that keeps me from going full apologist. When a video is removed from YouTube, there's at least a 50% chance I will have no idea if it's only that particular video that's been removed or if it's the entire channel that's been taken down, be it by the powers that be or by the content creator personally for one reason or another. 

There was a video in one of my playlists depicting an artist drawing some simplistic, but very stylized portraits on a large sketchpad using what looks like an ink mop (the kind used to fill in squares on a Bingo card), all while giving advice on how to build an art portfolio without a lot of practical experience. It's not actually the most informative video, more a meditation on the subject than practical advice, but it was nonetheless very well made. I wanted to link it to someone as an example of how to make a simple video look more polished. Unfortunately, this video was removed by a means I am not aware of. I am not aware of it because it is the only video from that particular channel I ever added to the playlist. I did not subscribe to the channel, and I do not recall watching any other videos from this particular content creator. When I go to that video's page, there is only a generic "Deleted Video" screen. I say "generic" because this is indistinguishable from any and every other deleted video's page. What I wish YouTube would do in this case is direct me to the channel that made the post, provided it's still available and active. They're more than willing to distinguish between a video that's been deleted altogether and a video that's been set to private to limit its viewing, but there's no means of directing me to the content creator if they're still active. 

Look at all the "not helpful" on display here.

This is important because, as discussed before, a video may be deleted because it's been updated and posted anew, with the old one deleted following a period of overlap to direct viewers to the new version (usually through a note in the video's description or among the comments). Besides that description of the video's content I just gave, the only other clue I have of this video's existence title of this video is a rough memory of its title: How to Build Your Portfolio Without Practical Experience. Once upon a time, it was easy enough to search for a video by its title. However, despite YouTube's policy of "now and forever" when it comes to uploads, virtually everything else about the video can be changed on a whim. In fact, there used to be an easily-exploited way of guaranteeing your video would show up in search results even if it had nothing to do with what people were searching for. All one had to do was look up what the trending search for that particular day was, which was often a video's title, and then change your title to match it in the hopes your unrelated video would show up alongside the Real McCoy in searches. Obviously, this is extremely underhanded and more likely to earn you the scorn and ire of total strangers who were already not interested in your video in the first place, and now had all the more reason to actively dislike it via its heavy-handed presentation. Luckily, it didn't take long for YouTube to resolve this issue and tweak its search engine to look for other factors besides matching words to a title, much to the frustration of people who used to rely on that to find videos they'd seen previously but forgot to add to a playlist.

This disappearance happened some time ago and despite my best efforts in searching, it doesn't appear the video was mirrored anywhere else like Vimeo. I've also not been able to work out the identity of the creator, much less what may have transpired before deleting the video. There was hardly anything objectionable or controversial in the video itself, so the deletion may simply be the result of its creator updating it and deleting the old, or it may be the result of the channel being banned from the platform for some egregious reason. I still think about it every now and again. It clearly left an impact on me, if only for its presentation rather than its content, and I've been trying to figure out how to channel that impact through the lens of that frustration of it being inaccessible. 

I don't remember exactly when I came up with the idea for what to do next, and I can't be bothered to search my notebooks to find out where I sketched up my game plan. Said game plan is to pay homage to the video in the purest sense possible by recreating it. This won't be a direct imitation, not only because I'd be working from memory, but because I'd use the opportunity to discuss the video's disappearance as much as to pass on its advice. 

My art style is drastically different from the artist of that old video, and it would feel more than a little cheap to try and replicate his style for the sake of a little nod in video form. My envisioned result would almost be closer to a parody than anything, as I'd likely use Sharpies on Post-It Notes to make the drawings while opining about the video it's paying respect to. That it would be deliberately hamfisted and lowbrow would be representative of the frustration at the source material's disappearance while the overall idea would hopefully redeem any perceived negativity, or at the very least make clear the frustration is with YouTube and ephemeral media in general rather than the content creator in question. By preserving its overall notions and tones, I'd be honoring its memory while adding my own little twist to it as well. 

Basically, this.

I thought of this idea again a few weeks ago when I remembered another video that appears to have gone missing. I don't truly know if this is the case as I haven't found any gray exclamation marks floating in blank space above a line of unhelpful text, but given the nature of its original posting, it may as well be. Once upon a time, YouTube encouraged social interaction on the platform along with getting more people to post content by allowing users to post videos as replies or direct responses to other people's videos. Essentially, when you watch someone's video, you could either opt to leave a comment below, or you could click another option available to create a video that embodies your response. This was usually a script to engage a webcam and allow you to upload a quick vlog right then and there. There were other options for reply videos, but they ultimately worked the same way. When you saw the original video, the right hand side of the screen of recommended videos would typically be populated with replies. This system didn't stick around mostly due to it being exploited by opportunistic parasites to inflate their own metrics, a la the title search loophole previously mentioned. Many of these videos still exist. It's only their spotlights that have been extinguished. 

The very first YouTube channel I ever subscribed to was The Momozone. The content of the channel varied, but it was largely focused on positivity and motivation. One of these videos encouraged a call to action by viewers. If memory serves, Momo was addressing concerns of YouTube changing its layout and/or possibly accepting a buyout offer from Hulu. At the end, he asked viewers to post a video in response voicing their own concerns over the changes and announcing their support of keeping things the way they were. It's one of these responses that will likely be next on the docket for preservation by recreation. The video in question is very brief, maybe less than 30 seconds, of a young man holding his camera at arm's length and pointed back at his own face, which is almost completely obscured by a towel wrapped around his head and secured by his other hand. One eye and maybe part of his nose are visible, as are much of his surroundings as he turns in place while also apparently moving from his bathroom to a hallway in his home. While this is going on, he very shakily and nervously expresses his desire for YouTube to not make any drastic changes to its platform as it may hurt smaller content creators in their effort to get noticed. He apologizes for his shakes and stumbles, explaining that he's not comfortable being on camera. 

Basically, this.

If it sounds like I'm making fun of this guy, I promise that I'm not. Why he didn't simply point the camera at something else while talking into the onboard microphone, I don't know, but asking that is not giving him any sort of grief. Rather, it's one of the most humbly human things I've ever seen. I'm watching someone overcome a shyness to make his voice heard. What's not to respect about that? Much like the art portfolio video, the reenactment/pastiche or whatever is a springboard to talk about a broader subject such as anonymity or the fallacy of free speech somehow needing to cross a threshold of arbitrary soft skills or proverbial chest-thumping in order to be regarded as valid. 

And I demand to be taken seriously!

I have no idea when I'll get to this, if I bother with them at all. I may end up waiting until I've got more of a catalog to work with than two videos. I've got a few others in the pipeline with a similarly elusive deadline, so these may be relegated to warm-ups for those. 

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