By Virginia Heffernan
This week the Academy Awards were officially renamed The Oscars. The rebranding suggests that Hollywood has, finally, lost some of the crippling status anxiety suggested by the creation of the pompously named “Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.” The Oscars are at last like a J.D. who finally stops calling himself an attorney. He’s self-assured enough to be known as a lawyer.
It’s high time. The movie business is the granddaddy of American popular entertainment: It not only has a grown son—television—inflicted with status panic, but there’s also a teenage grandson—Internet video—to play enfant terrible.
That’s why I’m drawn, this Oscar season, to Vine. Vine is Twitter’s spellbinding new video app. We have no idea if it will convulse pop culture as the daguerreotype did in 1837, or the cinematograph in the 1890s. Or YouTube in 2005. Or Twitter in 2006. But the art Vine has engendered doesn’t look like pomp or bids for authority. It looks like actual art.
At the same time, Vine is only 4 weeks old. So we don’t know anything. But if, through chance, it does turn out to be a cultural convulsant, we know exactly who will be its Lumière brother and it's Ashton Kutcher, the early freestyler and medium-embracer who somehow instantly knows how to make hay of a new technology.
He’s Adam Goldberg. Recognize his name? If you are one of the ragtag few who currently Vine, you do—and maybe you have even noticed the hashtag #vinelikegoldberg. Goldberg is the maestro of the six-second looping Vine video; it is Goldberg’s dexterity and arid humor and trippy frisson to which we who use Vine aspire.
As Greg Boose put it in BlackBook magazine, “Adam Goldberg somehow already owns Vine.”
But if you are not on Vine, meaning you’re every single person reading this except maybe seven, you may not remember Goldberg. Don’t bother with Wikipedia. All you need to know is that he played—with great skill—the Jewish dude in “Saving Private Ryan,” a different dude in “Dazed and Confused” and still another dude in “Entourage.”
Goldberg’s father is Jewish, and his mother is a lapsed Catholic. He doesn’t cotton to either faith, but that religious abstinence doesn’t protect him from what he told me is “garden-variety anti-Semitism,” which haunts the popular response to his online work. He takes that, and most other things, in stride.
What Goldberg is is an artist. It’s serious. He’s normal about it and doesn’t act Austrian or entitled, but he’s not giving up, either. As an actor, he turns in well-reviewed performances in movies and TV nearly all the time, dutifully collecting a union paycheck, but on the side he spins out music, films, videos. He does various weird be-in projects, like someone in Berlin, or Yoko Ono.
When it comes to getting digitized, Goldberg, at 42, has an invaluable asset: a digital-native girlfriend. The highly pregnant Roxanne Daner, who appears often in Goldberg’s work, is a distinguished illustrator and keen digital designer. Like others in her adventurous, coastal cohort, Daner divides her time between apps barely out of beta and Victorian-era crafting. Her design-firm bio reads, “I am a Waldorfian. I spend my free time felting, doing eurythmy and going to the dog park.”
Ten years younger than her boyfriend, Daner turned Goldberg on to the digital. “My friends were curmudgeonly about the Web,” Goldberg told me. “I was just not of the generation. It’s not as though I was the first person to jump on MySpace.”
Five years ago, Daner persuaded Goldberg to try Facebook, where he experimented in conceptual art. He put up a three-minute Warholian video of his legs on a rowing machine. All of his status updates were Dada. But he couldn’t get any traction.
“We kept trying to create this narrative,” Goldberg told me. He opened a Tumblr to this end, and it became his artist’s notebook. The narrative he and Daner were making came to involve surrealism, deadpan satire, dream sequences, groovy design, left-wing politics, and the ingenuous and quirky romance that defines Goldberg’s and Daner’s sweet interaction with each other.
Goldberg, who plays guitar and whose resonant, spiky way of talking has won him voice parts in animated movies, then put out two records. One was with a band he called The Goldberg Sisters. He used what he called “a draggy voice” and sometimes screamed. The Goldberg Sisters were featured on “The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson.”
This might have been a big break, except that Goldberg was told he couldn’t mention a website—his Tumblr—on the show; he could only promote movies and CDs. Goldberg resigned himself, again, to producing Tumblr art for Tumblr art’s sake.
Tumblr eventually “became an exercise in OCD,” said Goldberg. “I put an imposition on myself where I had to post a photo every other day and a recording every other day. That’s how I wrote my last record.”
So that’s where Goldberg was —“toiling in the nether regions of social networking, creating all sorts of stuff that nobody paid attention to”—when someone his girlfriend knew told them about Vine, the app with a cool cutting feature that lets you make six-second repeating videos and share them on Twitter.
Something in Vine’s runic brevity, its looping broken-record feature and its temptation to jump cuts and stop motion, encouraged artsy projects from the start. And you couldn’t fuss too much or get too perfectionist. The Vines are posted to Vine—and Twitter and Facebook, if you choose—almost the second they’re done. I mean, they don’t have to be and you can delete them, but the technology, like Twitter itself, biases you toward publication and discourages video-hoarding.
The performance art Goldberg and Daner had been doing—singing, playing guitar and violin, acting, taking pictures, felting—perfectly suited the Vine. The first set of videos they made shows Goldberg as a speedy, addled Goldberg, developing a Vine obsession, but also cross-dressing and ventriloquizing and freaking out, while a concerned Daner and her friend Merritt look on.
Though Goldberg has said he saw horror potential in the app from the start, his early videos had comedy in them. More recently, he’s titrated out the humor entirely and put a conceptual acid-head kaleidoscope in its place. He’s hit his stride.
“I skipped my funny phase as a filmmaker,” he told me, explaining in part why he hasn’t gone the route of the Hollywood goofballs who like to chip off chuckly videos for "Funny or Die."
With the sheepishness known to anyone between 40 and 50 who unironically admits to liking art, Goldberg sighed. “At the end of the day the things that turn me on are kind of aural-visual dream sequences,” he said.
Goldberg pioneered for Vine what he called a “thumb-tapping technique” that makes the video stutter, where the audio seems to have a mind of its own. He also makes Vines that use other Vines and puts glass over his iPhone’s lens, and otherwise distorts the film so much that its looping and shortness start to seem like the least weird part of it.
Now that he’s put Polaroids of things reflected in mirrors in his Vines—the ancient mirror, the 20th-century Polaroid and the weeks-old Vine—Goldberg has developed new awe about the iPhone.
“The iPhone has a lens and a recording device and an input,” he told me by phone. “You can do anything with a lens, a recording device and an input. I can’t believe we’re talking on the same device that I used to make the Vines.”
I looked at my iPhone. I put Goldberg on speakerphone for a little bit and listened to his rapid, happy voice.
“This is where things get exciting for me,” Goldberg said. And then he went to make another Vine.