Real-People Video: SoulfulT

Paleo Retiree writes:

It’s been a couple of months since the last time I watched a feature film, fiction division — easily the longest time I’ve gone without watching a feature film since the late 1960s.

Given that I was a serious and devoted moviebuff for many decades, I find myself struck by this development. The fact is that I’ve had dwindling interest in new films for so long that a couple of generations of stars (Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone … it’s a long list) have come along whose work I’ve never watched. And even when I do play with the possibility of sitting down with a feature film, the only ones that genuinely entice me these days are old movies. One fun project I might (or, more likely, might not) get around to some day: filling in the blanks in my movie-viewing from my own era. I still haven’t watched “Jeremiah Johnson,” “The Mechanic” or “Wayne’s World,” for god’s sake.

When I think about how to explain my lack of interest in current movies, I come up with a couple of explanations. One of them has to do with me, and is age. Fiction seems to me these days like something for younger people — a way of trying out alternative life paths, adventures and possibilities. It’s something to play with while your spirit is still fizzy and optimistic, and while you still have a sizable future in front of you. Me, now that I’ve entered my 60s I seem to be in a reflecting-on-what-it’s-all-been-about phase. Not, perhaps, conducive to exploring fiction.

The other explanation has to do with the movies themselves: maybe movies have just turned into an entertainment form that I can’t come up with any enthusiasm for. Silent movies: an art form a-borning. ’30s, ’40s and ’50s films: studio perfection. ’60s and ’70s films: sex, art and revolution. I was passionately interested in all the above. These days? Well, I’d venture that most of what’s in movie theaters isn’t what I think of as movies at all, but then I’m an old crank.

While I understand that some nerds and geeks really do have a genuine passion for cartoons and superheroes, generally speaking the sight of good minds having conversations and arguments about “Wonder Woman”  amazes and dismays me. I’ve been forced to conclude that there are people out there, some of whom are friends, who just love movies per se and who are going to continue to be moviebuffs no matter what the medium turns into. I’m not one of them. I can think of a million ways I’d rather spend my time than watching a souped-up digital fantasy-spectacle. I’d like to say that I have some anthropological curiosity about movies today, but — nope — not even that.

I still like watching audiovisual-thru-time entertainments and documents, though. Nothing so pleases and moves me as a David Attenborough nature show. My wife and I are in the habit of snoozing off at the end of the day to true-crime TV episodes. We recently enjoyed “Killer Couples,” “Conman Case Files” and “Killer in the Family,” and these days are making our way through the French-Canadian series “Occult Crimes,” which is available on Netflix Instant. Freaky stuff! And I’m still drawn to documentaries, even though I often find myself wishing that documentarians weren’t so locked into the 90-120 minute, “feature-length” model. Wouldn’t many subjects really be better treated at 27 (or 13 or 48) minutes’ length? For some reason, I LOVE docs about cults and cult leaders. Here’s one I recently enjoyed. It’s an amazing yarn.

What I’m most tired of where fiction-feature films go, though, is what you can often sense behind and through them: the hysteria, the hype, the egos, the (let’s be frank here) personality disorders. Even granted that the people involved in feature films are often super-talented and are often working at a very high level, I’d just rather not be around them, let alone be subjected to their hustle and overbearingness. I spent decades working in the NYC media world. It was a seriously high-pitched and ultracrazed environment. I’m tired of it and I’m done with it. Give me something easygoing and informal instead, please. I’m done with excitement, perhaps. Where culture generally goes, I sometimes feel these days like a baseball fan who, at this point in his life, would far prefer to drop by the local softball fields than to be part of the keyed-up crowd at the World Series. Even where reading goes, I’d much rather browse Reddit than rush out and read the latest buzzed-about Great Novel. Real people — what they get up to, and how they express themselves and share — are terrific, you know? Or at least they’re nearly always interesting. In any case, they’re almost never hard-driving egomaniacs.

Where this really becomes clear in my current viewing habits is in the time I spend nosing around online video. I love exploring clips and bits that everyday people post and share. Amazon product reviews. Scrub Jay videos. Time-lapse woodworking displays. Cooking shows and how-to-ride-a-scooter demos. Amateur animation mischief.

I don’t by any means feel obliged to sit through every clip that I click on, btw. Browsing, grazing, exploring and enjoying this stuff as I see fit and on my own terms is a key part of the pleasure of real-people video for me.

Brief pretentious filmbuff digression: In the history of intellectuals-talking-about-movies, there was once a dream that movie technology would eventually escape out of the hands of big money and big studios and become just another tool that everyday people use to express themselves. There wouldn’t be one cinema, there would be many cinemas. People would swap movies like they wrote letters.

Well, hey: we’re there, right? Cat videos, sexy GIFs and vidcam monologues may not be what high-minded filmbuffs were once hoping for and anticipating. I myself was expecting real people to avail themselves of many more traditional movie techniques than they usually turn out to. It’s understandable, though: film editing is a picky pain in the ass, and staging and acting are maybe best left to pros who know what they’re doing. But that doesn’t mean real people aren’t doing interesting things with video. Au contraire. And, in any case, why not celebrate having arrived at this lovely, and much-yearned-for state?

So that’s what I’m going to do every now and then here on this blog — highlight and appreciate (and, heck, even muse about) some of the real-people video I’ve run across and enjoyed.

Today’s real-people videomaker is Tanya Waller, a sweet, big-in-many-ways (big-hearted, big-personalitied and big-bodied) D.C. soul-food cook who goes by the name SoulfulT. SoulfulT posts both cooking-instruction videos and what she calls “On the Couch” videos, clips where she turns on the camera and, often accompanied by friends or family, yaks about whatever’s on her mind, whether it’s politics, friends or an episode of a television show.

Here’s one of her cooking vids:

Here’s another. Macaroni and cheese done right, baby:

And here’s one of her On the Couch videos:

Now, it’d obviously be impossible to make a case for SoulfulT’s videos as slick, professional-level productions. But if slick and professional are what you’re looking for, why aren’t you watching the Food Network? I watch SoulfulT’s videos enjoying her delight in food-creation and her spirit and humor, and I’m grateful to feel like I’ve gotten to know a memorable and vivid character. Is there anyone like SoulfulT to be found and enjoyed on network TV?

Watching SoulfulT’s videos, I’m reminded of the glory days of public-access TV as well as the early days of blogging, when I was overwhelmed by how many people had something worthwhile to contribute as well as fresh and fun ways to make their contributions. They said and did things that professionals would never do, god bless them. What a joy it was to encounter all these people, free from the slickness and hype of commercial TV.

Hey, a few of SoulfulT’s stylistic quirks.

    • She has a rapport with her cameraman, who’s often apparently one of her sons. They banter. He teases her and makes appreciative noises about her food. She frowns and scolds him lovingly. Their byplay makes me wonder: Why don’t more TV hosts interact with their crew-people? When you think about it, isn’t it weird and artificial that they don’t? Why does commercial TV so often maintain the pretence that there isn’t a crew behind the camera?
    • The cameraguy is often a physical presence in the videos. His hand will sometimes sneak onscreen to help SoulfulT search for a knife or ingredient, for instance. In the pro-video world, such moments would be seen as mistakes and would be edited out. But what could be more natural? In one great moment, the cameraguy drops his camera into the pie crust SoulfulT is preparing. “My bad,” he says cheerfully. Could happen to all of us, right?
    • The lighting and sound aren’t sweetened at all. The light appears to come from whatever bulbs happen to be on, and the sound seems to come straight off of a consumer videocam. In fact, you can nearly always hear noises coming from the rest of SoulfulT’s house — kids romping or wailing upstairs, or a TV in another room. But isn’t this what nearly always shows up on everyday-people video footage? Why pretend otherwise?

This may all be technical carelessness or it might be genius. Maybe it’s neither; maybe it’s both. For decades the highbrow darling Jean-Luc Godard made a point of recording sound and light that were more real — more raw — than what studio films delivered. In his films, Godard was being ultra-contrary and was making deliberate aesthetic points. With SoulfulT, probably not. She and her sons are most likely trying to have a good time throwing together entertaining little limited-means/no-budget videos. But does it really matter? The filmmaking, so to speak, is out there, and is there to be enjoyed, and that’s what really counts.

After spending time with SoulfulT, commercial food-TV looks obscene and empty to me. I acknowledge the amazing professionalism in a video like this one …

… but I can’t really see the point it. All the backlighting, the focus-pulling, the miraculous cutting and precision sound effects, the jigged-up energy … Impressive as it all is, why do the producers think I need or want any of it? Are Deluxe and Awesome Production Values really all that distinguishes professional media from amateur stuff? Which is a thought that, btw, often occurs to me when I thumb through magazines these days: Why on earth are they so lavish? Is the lavishness all they really have to sell me? If so: thanks but no thanks. I’ll take real stuff and real people over contrived jigged-up stuff and creatures any day.

Speaking of the Food Network, in fact: Why doesn’t someone at the Food Network look at SoulfulT and see the potential there? Good lord, talk about a lot to relate to and a personality that would stand out, as well as a lot of good cooking advice. My wife, a first-class home chef, enthusiastically endorses SoulfulT’s recipes and methods, as well as her general go-for-broke attitude towards taste and goodness. But I’m not the only person who’s had this reaction to SoulfulT. In this heart-rending video, in which she talks to camera while driving, SoulfulT tells a story about how she was contacted by a guy claiming to represent the Food Network, only to discover that in fact she was the victim of a hoax. I shed a couple of tears in sympathy with SoulfulT. What kind of asshole would monkey sadistically with a good woman’s feelings? And, like that, I was sucked deeper into the SoulfulT universe. It’s a real-life soap opera I genuinely enjoy having as part of my life.

Question du jour: Does it really matter if innovations and techniques are intended, aesthetic choices?


About Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff and very glad to have left that mess behind. Formerly Michael Blowhard of the cultureblog Now a rootless parasite and bon vivant on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.
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