Sunday, December 21, 2008

Musings On Cameras

Another 'Hysterical Crying Girl' video clip is making the rounds, this time a US student who is, well, strongly reconsidering her idea of using the fire extinguishers to 'make it snow' in her house so she could delight her sorority sisters with snow angels.

Ok, if the idea sounds dumb, you should see the dignity with which she reflects back on her stunt. Or lack of it. What struck me is the editorial commentary on the Jezebel page around the video. Key phrase for me:
"Why it might be fake: Some of her mannerisms/utterances seem so over the top that they feel actress-y."
My thought to that is, well, at this point, somebody being 'actress-y' on video might just be what we should expect from people under 25, even when expressing genuine emotions.

The current tweens, teens, and twenty-somethings have basically grown up being registered on digital media. Not just digital snapshots anymore, all results being instantly uploaded to Facebook, Bebo, and other social sites, but moving pictures, yourself on TV. Being able to pose and look interesting on command when you see a lens for a static shot, no matter what the occasion, is only a basic skill nowadays. Whereas most people born before 1980 have grave problems just getting a passable yet still stiff, grin on an image, most everyone born after that knows how to generate a pose, a grin, a group or gang sign, a physical contortion to show the best curves or shape or social identifier, a group hug and pile-up to look like a happening team, the moment a picture might be taken. It's the result of digital cameras and their instant results becoming so ubiquitous, as well as a now relentless and ubiquitous celebrity culture of professional posers being available for these boys and girls and young men and women to model themselves on with regards to how to pose when you see a lens.

And now webcams are everywhere, built into almost every notebook worth the name, used to chat and show off and record, and constantly being used, including, and heavily, by the current teens, people in a stage of life where you are consumed with exploring yourself, and that has its effects. It's not just stories about kids snapping naughty shots of themselves getting into trouble, but the phenomenon is broader than that: I recently was told the anecdote by a father, currently on an extended gig away from his children, about how when he tries to have a video conversation with them on Skype, he can see his teen daughter looking more at the window showing the feed from her camera than at the window of him, turning her face and shoulders as she, almost compulsively but without consciously noticing, is trying out poses, exploring her face, exploring how she comes across, instead of paying full or even half attention to her conversation partner.

No outward expression of emotion is 'pure'; very early on children begin to model how to laugh and cry and be angry on their environment, which they are trying to communicate with after all. We change how we laugh and cry and show anger depending on what surrounds us, what the norms and manners are, what we get exposed to, and told is normal. I could see it in my nephews 5 years ago when they suddenly started being exposed at age 9 to animes, how they stomped their feet when they wanted to express frustration, jerked their shoulders or grimaced anger in what seemed really exaggerated cartoony ways but fit perfectly with the aesthetic of exaggerated cartoony emotional reaction shots as seen of what they were seeking out to watch on TV. The modeling isn't even conscious, but we are social animals: we do what we see.

So what would the model be for how to show your emotions on video? What will the YouTube Skype generation model itself on, without even noticing, to come across effectively during all their cam sessions? Acting. The results of what they see on TV. The short-hand to communicating internal emotional states effectively and directly they see every day. Most of it what we would call Bad Acting, no less. When you are emoting in front of a lens, that is how you project to look like, what we have been taught crying and laughing and angry people look like on a screen. Broad, and dramatic, meant to jump across technology. And that they model their expressions after having seen themselves on camera for years, and how other people 'act' on reality TV shows for years in a further round in this dialog between people and media, doesn't mean they don't have genuine internal feelings. It means they just have been influenced heavily by the technology around them, and internalized its messages.

If sorority girl is 'actress-y' in how she cries, it may indeed signify that she is a complete fake, a real actor paid by an ad agency to contort her face to relate this anguish for some commercial reason. (But no actor would cry that 'fake looking'.) It may also signify that this girl has already spent so much time in front of a camera she is unable to not adapt how she carries herself, unable to not be 'actress-y', when one is pointed at her.