After The Road Movie, Imagining Four Possible Futures of the Viral Film

This Friday, a one-of-a-kind film careens into theaters, leaving a path of twisted wreckage in its wake. Dmitrii Kalashnikov spent innumerable hours poring over dashboard-mounted camera footage from Russia, cherry-picked the most shocking snippets, and compiled it all for a 67-minute banger now running under the title The Road Movie. Hilarious and disturbing in equal measure, the result is an utterly captivating ethnographic portrait of life under Putin, offering a peek into a nation seemingly bereft of laws or even basic reason. Kalashnikov treats his viewers to surreal encounters with a bear on the run and a purple-hued forest fire, a handful of narrowly avoided homicides, a run-in with a what sure looks like a crime syndicate, a fully armed tank stopping for a spritz at a car wash, and virtuosic expressions of road rage that would put the most irate Masshole to shame. The early reviews comparing The Road Movie to the singularly morbid snuff-clip extravaganza Faces of Death were not telling tales out of school.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this release, however, is that it effectively proves the viability of what I’ve termed the “viral film” in a theatrical market. Tightly edited and boasting a svelte run time, it’s eminently watchable and anything but boring, mounting a strong argument that the detritus floating around YouTube could be cinema’s final frontier. With that in mind, let’s cast our gaze to this brave new horizon and imagine what unruly new forms might flood in, now that the Russians have blown open the gates. Anything goes in the new avant-garde:

Collage Cinema
In 1968, a highly motivated young film student by the name of Joe Dante assembled a hectic seven-hour mash-up of vintage trailers, commercials, educational filmstrips, and other salvaged bits, dubbing it The Movie Orgy and appending to it his own rating of “Z.” (The title card proudly declares “THE MOTION PICTURE ASSOCIATION OF AMERICA … refuses to have anything to do with us.”) Ever since, obsessives have been arranging and rearranging found materials to create something altogether original. The quietly ingenious Of Oz the Wizard broke the classic fantasy film down into individual words of dialogue and imposed alphabetical order, leaving a rhythmic and occasionally overwhelming new cinematic creature in its place. The fine folks at Everything Is Terrible! specialize in excavating the stranger histories of late-20th-century VHS curios — feast your eyes on the discomfiting, infinitely quotable “Cat Massage” to see what I mean — and forging ahead into the digital era will only open up fresh avenues of oddity. Kalashnikov falls into this same category, but his approach barely scratches one specific surface, and the internet plays host to deeper and more diverse veins of weirdness.

The vast online annals harbor a million kinds of grotesqueries: a-hole YouTube stars, vloggers taking to the net to air their grievances over comic-book minutiae, Frozen fan videos that turn erotically charged and traumatizing on a dime, pretty much anything taken from Chatroulette or Omegle or any of the seedier person-to-person video-chat platforms. Thousands of hours of already-forgotten files clutter up the more obscure virtual nooks and crannies, begging for some intrepid editor to give them new life. How better to communicate the cruel, gibbering senselessness of being online than to repurpose its id? The internet contains multitudes, offering us connection and isolation, edification and stupidity — an unorthodox approach could be the most direct route to capturing its complex character.

Feature-length ASMR
Experimental cinema has long privileged texture and sensation over story, picking up where Abstract Expressionism left off and blazing a trail into new primal registers of sensory experience. The logical extreme of this school begat “autonomous sensory meridian response,” a pleasing tingling that begins on the scalp before moving through the neck and upper back, a feeling that can be conjured with the right combination of tactile and auditory triggers. Anything from the sound of brush bristles combing through hair to nail clippers quietly snipping to gentle guided-meditation whispering can get the job done, and accordingly, a thriving cottage industry has sprung up around this relatively recent phenomenon. A cursory YouTube search of “ASMR” yields videos posted not one week ago that have hastily racked up nearly 400,000 views.

There’s no doubt that those already on the ASMR frequency would be willing to hang out for a more intensive deep dive. (It could be argued that plenty of preexisting cinema qualifies as ASMR; anything from the soothing painting-instructional videos of Bob Ross to Busby Berkeley’s deeply satisfying kaleidoscopic production numbers have been known to produce the desired autonomic response.) Fully committing to direct sensory stimulation as an end unto itself rather than a means suggests potential for video therapy on a staggering scale. With a heftier budget and 80-plus minutes in which to cast its spell (not to mention the immersive environment of the movie theater, the ideal conditions for sensory manipulation), ASMR could bridge the gap between treatment and a full-on art form. Look me in the eyeball and just try to tell me this isn’t why the dulcet tones of Morgan Freeman were put on this Earth.

A Tour of Maps
Google has creepily slunk through every back road across the planet with a high-def camera, tracing every city and hamlet under its omnipresent digital eye. The least we can do is make something out of it all. Google Street View contains untold treasures and terrors, foremost among them the censored non-faces of the people who happen to pass through its lens, stripped of identity in an eerily symbolic blur. Listicles have attempted to organize the happy little accidents of this titanic project, from off-putting gangs of people in pigeon masks to a self-reflexive trip through Google’s offices to glitches that render normal environments alien and haunting.

The way this program interfaces with motion, arguably the defining criterion of the cinematic medium, only serves to reinforce its unsettling digital enclosure. The discrete images quickly melt into one another as a user clicks to “move” down a street or through a building, another layer of artifice on top of the processed imaging. A tour of the world through Google’s imperfect vantage point could make for a corporatized travelogue, as the most powerful and mysterious tech giant reimagines the world in its own branded image. Watching Wayne Coyne take a bath outside his Oklahoma City home is amusing until a viewer takes a step back and considers the full invasive scope of what they’re seeing.

WorldStar: The Movie?
It was Chuck D of Public Enemy who famously described hip-hop as “the CNN of the ghetto,” and WorldStarHipHop is the unholy offspring of the 24-hour news cycle, a never-ending stream of missives from streets all across America. (Though as Lena Waithe affirms on the standout Master of None episode “Thanksgiving,” WorldStar does not qualify as actual “news”.) There are times when I sincerely believe all of Western culture has been leading to WorldStar Vine package videos, a dense series of absurdist memes, interludes of ladies twerking, and vertically shot iPhone clips of people wilding out in every conceivable way. It’s a minor grade of miracle that watching dudes punching each other out in Waffle House parking lots never seems to get old, even as minutes turn into hours without your noticing.

In this respect, the utility of Vine videos extends beyond their boundless entertainment value. Like The Road Movie, they form a mosaic that testifies to a cultural moment and broadly documents a distinct time and place. Forget The Great Gatsby and The Godfather; WorldStar gets at the soul of the United States more adroitly than any artwork that has come before or will likely follow. This is the agony and the ecstasy of American culture in its purest form: striving and failure in a public arena, very nearly landing a flip but ultimately mashing your face into the pavement. Spectacle has always been central to the national identity, and it doesn’t get much more spectacular than a guy running over another guy’s leg with an ATV for the views. And look at that, Paramount agrees.

After The Road Movie, Imagining the Future of the Viral Film