Warning: I’m probably going to directly quote both history of japan and history of the entire world, i guess which will probably involve stronger language than is usually on this blog.
Bill Wurtz’s history of japan was released on February 2, 2016 and had 1.7 million views in two days. It is a nine minute video detailing about 42,000 years of history with a focus on the Japanese archipelago and it’s…
His sophomore attempt was even more ambitious– history of the entire world, i guess is almost 20 minutes long and covers everything from the Big Bang to now. It hit 3.2 million views in 24 hours. Both documentaries are representative of Wurtz’s artistic style. His body of work in context with itself presents a unified form, even with wildly varying content.
And it is the relationship between form and content that I want to talk about.
I talked about postmodernism in my post on The Princess Bride, in how the book challenges the relationship between the author and their text, as well as the text and its reader, and the reader and the author, but that is just one application of postmodernism. Postmodernism, like any artistic movement that starts with “post”, is a reaction to ideas of the previous movement, which in this case is modernism. The idea most relevant here is modernism’s “great divide” between high and low forms of art (which, itself, was a reaction to the rise of mass media entertainment in the first half of the 20th century). Artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein began creating what we now call “Pop Art”– art that is not only influenced by, but actively celebrates mass media. Not that this “great divide” isn’t still influential today, but much like the Avatar: The Last Airbender episode of the same name, it would be better to ignore it as it doesn’t contribute anything productive.
The relationship between form and content in a work is dependent on the artist. A lot of times in postmodernism, the form is given equal weight and importance as the content in spite of, or perhaps because of, the human tendency towards strong narratives. The most popular contemporary art– film, television, books, pop music– are almost entirely narrative driven. It’s not that all postmodern art forgoes narrative (though there is postmodern art in traditionally narrative mediums that deliberately forgoes narrative, just ask Jean-Luc Godard), but instead it’s less “I thought of a story, I’ll write a book” and more “I thought of a story, how can I make the medium fit the story and vice-versa?” OR “I thought of this form, what content would best fit this form?”
Just to clear things up, let’s look at the postmodernist musician Alfred Yankovic, better known as Weird Al. Weird Al’s song parodies are all about how form interacts with content. In his song “Yoda” (released in 1985), a parody of The Kinks’ “Lola”, he uses the fact that the words “Lola” and “Yoda” not only have the same syllables, but the same cadence. He also has to follow the form of the song. His songs also use transtextuality to comment on either the original song (the entirety of “Smells Like Nirvanna”), an aspect of culture (the 2nd verse of “Foil”), or the content of the song itself.
“I’ll be playing this part ’till I’m old and grey / The long term contract I had to sign / Says I’ll be making these movies ’till the end of time / With my Yoda”
The postmodern relationship between form and content extends beyond making them fit with each other, it can also include delibrately making the form not fit the content, or at the very least, making the content subvert our expectations for the form. See: pretty much any adult-oriented cartoon, but more specifically Happy Tree Friends and Rick and Morty.
Sidebar: I should mention that there is a postmodern movement within the genre of documentary film, as seen in films like The Thin Blue Line, Room 237, and Exit Through the Gift Shop. These kinds of films often intentionally blur the lines that separate facts from narratives, sometimes include meta-narratives, and overall insert subjectivity into a genre that is supposedly objective. Wurtz doesn’t go in this direction– his videos are actually very well-researched and the postmodern aspects are more in how the facts are presented as opposed to “what even are facts anyways?”
So, Bill Wurtz’s body of work is unified by a distinct visual style as well as his use of music. His visual style blends dark backgrounds with neon colors, photography with clip art and abstract images, and live action video with crude animation. He usually uses text in a similar manner to captions and subtitles, and the text is usually a sans-serif font, usually without any capitalization, and usually animated. In his documentaries, he often uses text as a label for things he isn’t saying, but are important pieces of information. He also uses geographic maps without borders and he animates borders onto them in neon colors, and he adds in relevant photos and pictures of flags, political leaders, dinosaurs, atomic bombs, etc., which he animates over the background. The visual style is actually very reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s prints in some respects– using layered images of the same thing over and over, but with different colors and positions.
The music that he uses in his documentaries are short jingles. His music is synth-heavy, and incredibly catchy. What Wurtz has done is essentially both weaponized the meme, as well as returning it to its original function. A meme is a piece of cultural information that is repeated from person to person. Memes can evolve and mutate over time as well (think “Darmok”), and basically our brains latch onto them because they like repeating things and patterns and formats. This is why you can still recognize a lolcat or a rage comic in 2018. Both of Wurtz’s documentaries are incredibly memeable, thanks to these jingles.
The form of these documentaries are pretty unique– both as documentaries and as internet videos. As an internet video, they’re a lot longer than most videos that go viral. Wurtz did a lot of work on the now-defunct Vine, which limited videos to 7 seconds and looped them. The video that I knew of from him before was a Vine called still a piece of garbage.
history of the entire world, i guess going viral was less strange given the precedent, and even at almost 20 minutes, it never feels longer than history of japan due to the rapid-fire pace. There are a lot of thinkpieces on whether or not the Internet is destroying our attention span, but I think between this and Netflix we can safely say that our attention spans are just fine, so long as we care about what we’re watching.
In terms of their context within the art of documentary, they’re wholly strange. First, documentary films tend to be live action. Wurtz’s documentaries are almost wholly animated. There’s also a difference in length– this time, the other way around. Ken Burns, probably the biggest name in documentaries living today and certainly one of its most notable auteurs, is famous for his extended, multi-part documentary miniseries that delve into enormous detail, oral histories, and expert testimony. Wurtz doesn’t have time for that, he has nine minutes to tell you everything about Japan and he’s going to get as much in as he can.
Not that documentary short film doesn’t exist either. The closest comparison I would actually make is to the educational series School House Rock, which used songs written in pop genres to teach about math, grammar, US history, and science. The point of the songs in School House Rock was to be catchy enough that the children would remember the information. To this day, at least two generations of people probably still sing the preamble to the United States Constitution. There’s also parallels to Sesame Street, which was influenced by the fast-paced nature of advertisements and advertising jingles (Jim Henson actually worked in advertisement for a time). Bill Wurtz uses similar methods– a lot of the important beats of both documentaries are jingles. It’s worth noting that many of these jingles became memes. Of course, School House Rock and Sesame Street don’t have swearing.
So, we’ve talked about the form. We’ve talked about the content. How do the form and the content interact?
What Wurtz is doing in these documentaries is taking the “high art” of documentary and historical narrative and combining it with the “low art” of internet media and advertising jingles. What Carl Sagan once called “star stuff”, Bill Wurtz calls, respectively “new shit” and “brand new way crazier shit”, and the Permian Extinction goes by with a casual “oh fuck, now everything’s dead”. Profanity is almost endemic of internet media. The language of the documentaries as a whole is far more casual than the typically more serious academic syntax of normal documentaries. Part of this is due to the length of the videos. As as example, here’s how Wurtz describes the Protestant Reformation:
hey christians! do you sin? now you can buy your way out of hell (caption: indulgences now only $40,000) “that’s bullshit this whole thing is bullshit that’s a scam fuck the church here’s 95 reasons why” said martin luther in his new book (caption: 95 reasons why “fuck the church” by martin luther year: 1517) which might have accidentally started the protestant reformation (caption: fuck the church / no, the church is ok)
Is this the most nuanced explanation of how and why the Protestant Reformation happened? No, but it took 10 seconds, and he still has 500 years of history to get through and there’s only 6 minutes left in the video. Whereas many documentaries go for depth, Wurtz definitely goes for breadth, and he’s also making you think about the stuff that is less familiar. There’s one jingle that goes “the sultan of oman lives in zanzibar now that’s just where he lives” and there’s no further explanation to it. Why is he in Zanzibar? “that’s just where he lives”. Does it have historical signifigance? Not really, Wurtz just liked the bit.
Wurtz has put together a cohesive body of work; his style remains pretty much unchanged from video to video. Therefore, whatever content he decides to create, whether it’s a conversation between an iPhone power block and a pencil, or a story about a guy who may or may not be named Steve, or a documentary about the history of the entire world, it is created with his style at the forefront. There are artists who’d kill for that kind of reliability, and there are artists who’d rather die than stick to one way of doing things. Wurtz has certainly found his own niche– a strange, catchy niche that has proven to be actually pretty effective at doing what it does.
Do you have a favorite meme/moment from one of the documentaries? Want to argue with me about postmodernism? Comments are open. Also like if you can, and subscribe so you don’t miss any new content. You can also like us on Facebook now.