Whether or not you keep up with Vine, the Twitter subsidiary that allows users to share video clips of six seconds or shorter, you might well have spotted some of Zach King’s work. He has become one of Vine’s most popular users, and besides being frequently “revined,” his video clips can be found on YouTube and are frequently shared through Facebook and other social media.
King had already received some notoriety for winning various contests and for his popular Jedi Kittens segments on YouTube. Since then, he has received additional awards and found himself on SyFy network and The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
King himself is a Christian, a graduate of Biola University’s Cinema and Media Arts program. At first glance, however, his Vine videos may not seem to be particularly “Christian” in orientation, and they could easily be scorned as fluff entertainment. On closer examination, one can see in King’s work a deft use of a particular media art format, one that marks him as a promising young innovator in the Christian arts world.
Though I laughed a great deal the first time I saw a compilation of King’s Vine work, I admit that my gut reaction was to be dismissive. American attention spans are already terribly low; any visual production under ten seconds must surely be the ultimate capitulation to its audience’s digitally fried brains. How could anything so short possess any merit beyond an ephemeral giggle?
For a few brief seconds, we are treated to a reality in which the seemingly impossible becomes actualized, thereby redefining our parameters of possibility.But I am an English teacher, and while my breed does settle into 500-page novels with frequency, we also tend to appreciate another art form: the poem. And while epics like Homer’s Iliad or Milton’s Paradise Lost do fall into the category, most lyric poetry is much shorter. In fact, there are several forms of lyric poetry that are fewer than ten lines in length: in other words, about the length of a Vine video. And the poets who work in these forms are neither frivolous nor careless; quite the contrary, they must execute their task with all the more skill given the brevity of the work.
Among the classic short poetry structure is the Japanese form known as haiku. Haiku poems consist of only three lines, usually employing seasonal nature imagery, often arranged in a strict syllable count. Though haiku are complete within themselves and often depict a single moment or experience, they are not static. Rather, they tend to be divided by two perspectives on a single thought or picture. This can take the form of a “twist,” in which the latter half of the poem reveals the core image to be something very different from what the reader may first have expected, as in this example from the haiku master, Bashō:
Birth of art—
Song of rice planters,
Chorus from nowhere. (121, translated by Lucien Stryk)
Perhaps even more relevant, however, is the limerick. This comic form of English poem was first popularized by the British writer Edward Lear in the mid-1800s, though he hadn’t invented the limerick (and the term itself only occurred later). Like haiku, limericks are short, only five lines in length (with some lines occasionally printed together). They employ only two rhymes worked into a sing-songy rhythm (usually composed of combining syllable patterns called anapests and iambs). Also like haiku limericks usually have a little “twist.” As Edward Lear established in his archetypal limericks, the poem begins by describing a person, but midway through reveals a peculiar idiosyncrasy unique to the individual. So bizarre are these idiosyncrasies that Lear’s poetry—including his limericks—was categorized as “nonsense” verse, as we can see in this classic example from one of his early collections:
In other words, whether serious or comic, skilled artists have chosen to operate within severe space and time constraints long before social media emerged. Haiku is one of the most revered poetic forms in Japan, and Bashō is among their most influential writers; Edward Lear’s apparently superficial “nonsense” limericks haven’t faded in popularity since their publication a century and a half ago, and his works still appear in any serious British anthology of the period.
Zach King, I would contend, uses his limitations in a manner quite similar to these poets. Like its older cousin Twitter, Vine requires brevity, so anyone posting a video has one of two choices: remain superficial or cram detail and significance into every second. I doubt anyone would suggest that King is the next William Carlos Williams; still, he puts his study of film technique to good use.
Six seconds is simply not enough time for viewers to orient themselves to the fictive world in which the film clip is operating. Thus, the filmmaker is free to create a misdirection or disorientation that savvy audiences might detect given enough time but that remain unpredictable in the flash of the moment. Whether turning a Peep into a live chick, working on Rubik’s Cubes upside down, or jumping out of a TV screen onto a kitchen table, King demonstrates an affinity for dramatic and ludicrous comic reversal that has helped create a name for himself.
For those of us interested in seeing Christians serve as innovators in the arts King’s success is encouraging. He is hardly didactic, and his faith mostly manifests in offhand or subtle ways. He proudly sports Biola shirts, refers to “Christmas” by name, occasionally displays the tactically-placed Bible, and keeps his content appropriate for all audiences (my five-year-old loves his stuff). But while the format of his videos necessarily avoids direct proselytizing (no six-second Jesus-jukes), his faith may also be evident at a deeper structural level: in his depiction of a re-enchanted world.
In his book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton addresses the relationship of fairy tales to modern life in a chapter aptly titled “The Ethics of Elfland.” One of the flaws of modern scientism, Chesterton contends, is its reduction of the cosmos to a realm governed entirely by law—specifically, by scientific law. In contrast, he maintains that fairy tales present a dramatic truth about our own world—that it exists as an ecstatic creation of a playful providence rather than as a deterministic series of ineluctable causes and effects. The real universe, in short, is as enchanted as the fictional Fairyland, and just as mysterious:
All the terms used in the science books, “law,” “necessity,” “order,” “tendency,” and so on, are really unintellectual, because they assume an inner synthesis, which we do not possess. The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, “charm,” “spell,” “enchantment.” They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched. The sun shines because it is bewitched.
In his Vine videos, King creates a fictive world that is, in one sense, enchanted. In this impish environment, the Eiffel Tower can be snatched by hand, and a plastic bauble can become a full-sized Christmas tree. For a few brief seconds, we are treated to a reality in which the seemingly impossible becomes actualized, thereby redefining our parameters of possibility. This is what might happen in Fairyland, where beanstalks can grow as tall as “the floating Vine” from King’s video. Or, as King states in another clip, “Sometimes life isn’t always how it seems.” Because life—this life, “real” life—is, Chesterton would maintain, is as gloriously strange and fantastic and unpredictable as a fairy tale—or a Zach King Vine.
That is not to say that King is really an elf, or even another Hans Christian Andersen. His “magic” is really digital effects wizardry and relatively uncomplicated by Hollywood CGI standards. His six-second shorts do not, and are not meant to, “prove” the existence of a supernaturally charged substrata to our mundane world. Even if they did, they diverge from the fairy tale pattern in some regards. Most of his videos have a certain quality of wish-fulfillment to them. In one, King snatches a live kitten out of his computer screen after proclaiming, “Oh, I just. . . I want!” As C. S. Lewis recognized in The Abolition of Man, applied scientific technology and alchemical magic both derived from the same desire: to make the natural world subservient to our wants. King’s videos—which blur the distinctions between technology and magic—present this tendency in a hyperbolized manner. Thus, despite his buoyant defiance of fixed laws, Zach King is still embedded in what Charles Taylor would consider our disenchanted secular age.
Even so, I’m not ready to concede that the videos are nothing more than self-serving fluff. Despite the control King asserts over his environment in these videos, the real delight of them is the “gosh-wow” moment of reversal, the rapid-fire transition from our earth to the land of fairy. When he scoops up a cloud and eats it, we are thrilled not because he has discovered yet another type of fast food but because, deep down, we have all looked on clouds with child-like wonder and wanted to munch on them too. That sudden shift of perspective is what gives short forms of poetry their magic, as when Edward Lear writes of a Young Lady who can play the harp with her chin or when Bashō writes,
How I long to see
among dawn flowers,
the face of God. (199)
It is the enchantment of Fairyland, where young boys and girls encounter magic palaces, and dragons intersect with the lives of millers and weavers and orphans.
In the ephemeral world of the internet, it is nigh impossible to know whether Zach King’s Vine videos will prove to be just another clever passing fad or continue to be regarded as innovative uses of a finite medium. King himself claims he would relish the opportunity to direct “action-adventure titles.” If he is ever gets the chance to do so, we can only hope that he retains his sense of the world’s mystical levity in his full-scale productions. It would be one more step forward in a promising career of this young Christian artist, a career we can hope will prove to be a true fairy tale journey.
Image via Zach King Vine.