by Eric Kohn
"I was dating a woman I met on Google Earth..."
Host Judah Friedlander's opening line truly set the tone as the Webby Awards began its twelfth annual ceremony last night at New York University's Skirball Center. The evening brought the marriage of two unlikely tones: Reverence and self-deprecation. Internet celebrities ranging from Tay Zonday (singing the National Anthem) to Tim and Eric (being their hilarious selves) graced the stage to celebrate the viral phenomena that brought them great fame, a comic self-awareness underscoring their appearances. Winners had to give five word acceptance speeches, and hearing each concise declaration kept things light and brisk. It was a communal affair -- each category had a "People Voice Award" to go along with the official winner -- and Friedlander knew the nature of his crowd. You see, he dumped the Google Earth girl for one of the notorious stars of "2 Girls, 1 Cup." Yikes. Insider humor never felt so...geeky.
With all the tech references and viral videos coming to life before a packed house, the declaration of one award recipient that "nerd is the new cool" seemed apt. However, a far more profound idea lurked beneath it all: The acknowledgment of cinema in its latest evolutionary advancement. "A lot of these people have transformed from telling stories in print to telling them with the moving image," said Webby Awards executive director David-Michel Davies in an opening speech. Or, as one winner put it, "the revolution will be webcast."
Operating under the leadership of the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, the Webbys honor a wide variety of online achievements, from acting to storytelling and activism. The New York Times dubbed them "the Oscars of the web," but they're more like the hazing process of a community that grows richer in talent every year. Most of the winning filmmakers faced the spotlight as if blinded by the irony of the lavish affair, and their brief speeches reflected that. "Contact me for voicework," said Zonday. Ryan Bilborrow-Kooh and Zachary Leiberman, winners for best dramatic series for The West Side, took a shot at fellow nominees Lonelygirl15: "Feeling lonely now..?" Leiberman asked. "Oh no," retorted his colleague. Drawn by Pain director Jesse Cowell, meanwhile, took a sentimental route with his speech: "We just love making movies."
That prevailing concept allowed for the somewhat questionable inclusion of Michel Gondry at the event, where he received the Webby Person of the Year Award for...what, exactly? His absurd Rubik's Cube videos on YouTube? His comedic invention of the sweding phenomenon , which he himself has said he doesn't encourage? Gondry didn't put any effort into establishing a strong meaning behind his presence at the Webbys (his speech: "People are full of germs"), but earlier in the night, and actress Rosie Perez, introducing him ahead of time, couldn't really explain the award either.
Before things started, however, I spoke to Gondry about the upcoming celebration and more or less got a straight answer. "On the web, there's certain stuff you can shoot in your kitchen," he said. "It's not necessarily all about technology. In the past, I was recognized for my technological capacity. At a certain point, you get tired of it." I asked him if making films on the web made sense to him. "There is a sort of vanity about using YouTube, because you expect a lot of people to watch your film," he said. "I'm going to put my new stuff on DVD." So maybe he's Person of the Year because he knows when to play it safe.