Taking Pictures of Elvis on TV: How to Almost Break Google+

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There's no better way to disrupt a machine of perpetual documentation like the Google monolith than to create something ephemeral

elvis tvs.jpg

I have a friend who collects old photos of TVs. Scratch that. I have a friend who collects old photos of TVs playing Elvis.

She has about thirty photos in total. Some were found in an abandoned rural farmhouse, while others were resurrected from her grandmother's basement. Why Elvis? I have no idea. But they're a static document of something that used to be ephemeral. In a world before VCRs and DVRs and handheld video recording devices, there was such a thing as a "moment" to be missed.

When I was a kid in the 1980s I had a VHS tape of the movie Captain EO.

I loved Michael Jackson and would watch that thing over and over again, wearing out the tape, back when there was media that would show its age if you loved it enough. But the thing was, I didn't understand the nature of recorded visual media; I understood the concept of live television. So my five-year-old brain thought that every time I put that tape in the VCR it would cue some kind of crazy chain reaction where Michael Jackson, in a TV studio far far away from suburban St. Paul, would start singing and dancing just for me. (Editor's note: Wait, that's not how it works?!)

I live in Los Angeles now, probably not that far from where Captain EO was filmed. It's Carmageddon Eve and earlier tonight I was thinking about the next three days of being holed up in my apartment. Frankly, I don't remember the last time I even used the 405 freeway (I knew I had become an Angeleno the day I starting putting "the" in front of freeway names) but the closure of such a vital strip of pavement meant that I had an excuse to stay in and be productive. Well, as productive as a man with Internet access can possibly attempt to be.

After banging out two and a half sentences about the history of World's Fairs, I hit command-T to open up a new browser window like a hedonistic ape in some perverse will power experiment. Gotta check Google+!

The land of Google+ is still virgin territory. The rolling hills of pixels so inviting, so fresh, you just want to grab a digital scoop of Google+ earth to feel the ones and zeroes against your flesh. So many people to put in their little boxes, sorry "circles," and so many new self-referential jokes that must be made to show how above this new technology we all are.

I start thinking about how I might break this technology. Fundamentally I'm kind of a jerk. I think most people who tinker are jerks. Something deep inside people who futz with technology there lies the arrogance of wanting to create something special, something unique. Something we can plant a flag in and claim as our own.

How better to break a machine of perpetual documentation like the Google monolith than to create ephemera? I decide to create a Google+ movie screening. Flipping through my DVDs I started to think about what my friends, sorry "circles," on Google+ might be interested in. I decided on an old episode of Disneyland TV titled "Magic Highway, U.S.A." which aired on May 14, 1958. Directed by Disney animation legend Ward Kimball, the entire fifty-odd minute episode is actually quite boring, and television reviewers at the time weren't shy about saying as much. But those final nine minutes, when we're shown a shiny futuristic world of driverless cars and miles of tubular highways glistening against the desert sun, is pure retrofuture porn.

Magic Highway Miehana 6.jpg

Back in 2008, Magic Highway was kind of the holy grail for Disney nerds. I had read about it, but the Disney corporation hadn't released it commercially. I plumbed the depths of hardcore Disney nerd messageboards where people described seeing it sometimes late at night in the 1990s on the Disney Channel. I searched for months before I lucked out and two people who read my blog each sent me copies the same week. One of the copies that was snail mailed to me was a 16mm version of the film that was probably filmed off the wall and converted to DVD. It was 20 minutes long and heavily edited, probably for a classroom audience. But those glorious nine minutes were all still intact.

I popped the homemade DVD into the player and stacked some boxes in front of the TV hanging on my wall. I perched my MacBook Pro atop the boxes and raised it to the perfect height by adding a few odd books to the mix. Looking at the clock, I figured I might as well announce my intentions, since people might be a little weirded out not to see another human when they enter a Hangout. "I'll be screening part of the 1958 Disneyland TV episode Magic Highway USA via Hangout in 5 minutes."

I unceremoniously start the Hangout and obnoxiously proclaim "GRAB YER POPCORN!" underneath the "Matt Novak is hanging out" post. (Remember the jerk thing.) Tim Carmody, a man I've "known" for a few years through Twitter and who is well acquainted with my more obnoxious experimental side, replies, "I'm coming (sigh)".

For those of you keeping score at home, let's remember that I'm pointing my computer's camera at a television that's playing a DVD of a TV episode from 1958 that was converted to 16 mm film, then recorded off a wall onto digital media. My computer's camera is broadcasting this publicly on Google+ for anyone to join in. Got all that?

Tim graciously watched a few minutes of this rather odd, unnecessarily complicated experiment. Without even thinking about it, I grab my phone and snap two quick pictures of Tim's face on my computer watching Magic Highway. It was like a reflex. This was supposed to be some psuedo-ephemeral moment and I didn't even give documenting it a second thought.

I guess we can't help ourselves. We're all just taking photos of Elvis on the TV.

tim magic highway.JPG

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Matt Novak started the Paleofuture blog in January of 2007. Matt has since become an accidental expert on past visions of the future, and oversees a tremendous physical archive of materials related to retro-futurism.

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