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Cinema Year Zero: Tik Tok and the Grammar of Silent Film

The forms and formulations of the social media juggernaut Tik Tok are rooted in the earliest of all films.
Caroline Golum
Hosting moving images that are brief, breezy, and infinitely consumable, Tik Tok—the social media juggernaut built on an expanding user base of short form video-makers—is poised to become the nickelodeon of our still-young century. For the low, low price of one’s attention and personal data, users can journey through an infinite scroll of synchronized dances, tearful video diaries, and wacky pet antics. Savvy users employ text on screen, popular music, and a rogue’s gallery of emojis to augment one-minute video loops, shot and edited entirely on a mobile device.
While some creators have introduced a higher concept of “production value” to their work, this is hardly the norm. For the majority of Tik Tok creators, their output has more in common with a home movie than, say, a polished Instagram post. Even without an account on the platform, it is hard not to encounter viral posts vis-a-vis Twitter and Instagram feeds, as well as the news. Its expanding popularity inspires imitation—and aggravation—from the sleek boardrooms of Silicon Valley to the swamps of our nation’s capital.
Although Tik Tok is a product of latter-day internet culture, these posts clearly bear the stamp of early cinema and its creative forebears. Foundational techniques developed by Thomas Edison, Georges Méliès, and the Brothers Lumière live again in this new digital landscape—one often greeted with the same indifference and ridicule. From the outset, motion pictures were dismissed as either a passing fancy or serious threat to more “legitimate” entertainment. Throughout the medium’s history, technological innovation has inspired fresh panic, suspicion, and class anxiety. The current “discourse” surrounding streaming media, and its growing share of the “attention economy,” is as old as the cinema itself.
Live performance dominated the cultural climate of the late-19th and early-20 centuries, when enjoying the works of a Molière or Berlioz meant paying an admission that befitted their value. By contrast, consider the informal fare exhibited at nickelodeons, or in early movie houses. These cheap amusements attracted a companionate audience with all the hallmarks of “inferior” breeding: a surplus of pocket money and a deficit of taste. Impresarios of the Belle Epoque failed to anticipate how mere imagery could supersede the livelier arts. Nor could they predict motion pictures’ kudzu-like creep beyond the proscenium—and into the living rooms and pockets of audiences everywhere.
Tik Tok launched in 2016, but it was a 2018 merger with start-up Musical.ly that turned the emerging social network into a worldwide phenomenon. By combining these two platforms—both built on the premise of short, music-accompanied loops—parent company ByteLab officially cornered the market on lip-syncing videos and homegrown dance crazes. The latter is well-represented on the platform, usually in the form of a challenge: someone’s dance routine goes viral, and inspires others to respond in kind. Like many American musical phenomena, race and age intersect to play a crucial role, as dances pioneered by teenagers—often people of color—make their way into the mainstream.
Left: Screenshot of Jalaih Harmon’s (@jalaiah) Renegade dance; Right: Still from Cakewalk (1903)
White America's wholesale co-opting of Black music and dance predates the Civil War, but the late 19th-century explosion of player pianos, recorded music and, yes, early motion pictures cemented this cultural appropriation into our developing national identity. The “exociticizing” power of moving images, whether intentional or not, has been baked into the medium from its infancy. And there is perhaps no finer example than the Edison Biograph Company’s Cakewalk (1903). Depicting the popular dance as some kind of cultural “curio,” the two-minute film catapulted a “craze” developed by enslaved people across the color line and onto the national stage. George Méliès’ The Cake Walk Infernal, from that same year, further extended its international appeal.
More than a century later, white moms and their teenage daughters continue this problematic tradition—usually in an open-plan kitchen with overhead lighting. When Atlanta-based teenager Jalaiah Harmon’s Instagram post of her Renegade dance made the leap from one platform to another, it took off as Tik Tok’s first bona-fide viral dance success. Although the majority of posts failed to attribute Harmon as the original choreographer, this wrong has since been righted: following her viral debut in 2019, she has attained international acclaim and attention, including a well-deserved guest spot on The Ellen Degeneres Show and a fashion photo spread in Teen Vogue.
Whether scholars will hold Tik Tok’s dance crazes in the same high regard as Edison and Méliès’ early efforts remains to be seen, but its place in the current moving image pecking-order is already well established. As the platform grows in popularity, users’ video posts have expanded beyond viral dances and lip sync battles. Truncated narrative filmmaking has made its way to our feeds, yielding a surfeit of works with the kind of pathos we’ve come to expect from capital-C Cinema. Far from a hindrance, Tik Tok’s technical limitations reflect the same visual grammar that defined early cinema; in 2020, as in 1908, the alchemy of in-camera editing, stop motion, pantomime, and subtitles still makes for a moving image indeed.
Posts are generated entirely within Tik Tok’s mobile app, with stop-and-start recording effectively eliminating the need for linear editing—a feature that recalls film’s most primordial state. The earliest motion pictures were proto-documentaries, static shots of everyday life, lasting only as long as a camera magazine would allow. British director Robert W. Paul’s Come Along, Do! (1898) added a new layer of sophistication to the medium by shooting multiple set-ups on the same reel. The film’s premise is simple: in one shot, an elderly couple visits an art gallery. In the next, we see them walk through the door.
Above: the first and second shots of Come Along, Do! (1898)
It’s tempting to take these rudimentary methods for granted, but Paul’s simple film sowed the seeds of modern motion picture storytelling. The in-camera cut, not unlike the technical style of a contemporary Tik Tok post, is considered a direct precursor to modern-day editing. Up-and-coming paleontologist Eliza Petersen uses this very device to play a clueless angel and God Almighty in her now-viral “meatier/meteor” series. Donning a strategically-placed K-beauty sheet mask, Eliza-as-God asks Her loyal servant to make the dinosaurs “meatier.” In true “dad joke” fashion, the naive envoy misinterprets God’s request, sending a meteor rocketing to earth instead. The “sequel,” God faces the aftermath..., shows the Creator wandering listlessly through a Natural History Museum, soundtracked by Gary Jules’ campy depression anthem “Mad World.”
Screenshots from Eliza Peterson (@lizmopetey) from Tik Tok.
Just as cinema’s forefathers wrung as much as they could from short reels and cumbersome equipment, Tik Tok users pack as much information as possible into every minute-long post. One especially brilliant example can be found in actor-director Joshua Neal’s (@theejoshneal) When your new GF is strict (2020), a satire of the “Henpecked Husband” trope that earned two million views on Tik Tok. In the viral video, Neal uses shot-reverse-shot editing and wardrobe changes to play nine separate parts: that of himself, his personified sexual vices, and the virtues that take their place.
Screenshot of Joshua Neal (@joshuaneall) from Twitter.
If humor is the secret ingredient that sugarcoats our existential dread, Tik Tok’s minute-long morsels provide an amuse-bouche between the bitter main courses of our collective newsfeeds. Skillful users wield this power with surprising economy, using jittery jump cuts and ironic musical accompaniment to wryly comment on our personal, societal, and economic failings. Centuries of evidence suggests that well-timed pratfalls, sight gags, and “stupid pet tricks” are universally beloved and understood. These “little black dresses” of comedy were ubiquitous features of early cinema—a result, no doubt, of their ability to transcend language barriers. While dance crazes come and go, childish pranks and “funny cat videos” are always in style. Built-in tools like text captions and complimentary emojis breath new life into the slapstick genre, solidifying Tik Tok as a destination for quick serotonin hits.
Left: Screenshot of DAD PRANK TIME (2020) by @crowwarrior87; Right: Still from Louis Lumiére’s The Sprinkler Sprinkled (1895);
Left: Screenshot of RKO cat style (2020) by @thecrouchbabies, Right: Still from Thomas Edison’s Boxing Cats (1894)
Ease of use and a low barrier to entry has made Tik Tok a natural platform for would-be filmmakers. With a mobile phone camera, relatively stable internet access, and a dream, users can parlay their handcrafted work into a global reach—and occasionally, “mainstream” recognition. Self-described influencer Addison Rae, whose account boasts a whopping 60 million followers, recently secured a deal with Miramax to star in their remake of 1999 teen comedy She’s All That. It’s the kind of discovery that harkens back to cinema’s silent heyday, when upstart production companies found their diamonds among the “rough” hoi polloi.
Left: Screenshot of Addison Rae courtesy of her Tik Tok account (@addisonre); Right: Mary Pickford c. 1915
Grooming heretofore unknowns for international stardom has been a feature of Hollywood mythmaking from the jump. In 1899 Charlotte Smith, a young widow and mother of three, began taking in boarders to make ends meet—including one “Mr. Murphy,” a theatrical stage manager for the Ontario-based Cummings Stock Company. It was Murphy who cast Smiths’ oldest daughter, Gladys, in her first on-stage role. After ten years of treading the boards, the now-teenaged thespian joined Thomas Edison’s Biograph Studios under the stage name “Mary Pickford.” By the start of WWI, she left Biograph for Famous Players Lasky, where she became the future Paramount Studio’s most bankable star. International acclaim, and Hollywood’s draconian contract laws, later inspired Pickford, her then-husband Douglas Fairbanks, and fellow A-lister Charlie Chaplin to establish their own studio: United Artists.
Success stories like Pickford’s or Rae’s remain few and far between, but a fated on-screen appearance can still net, if not stardom, then at least notoriety. Within the uncharted territory of early filmmaking, newsworthy sensations attracted as much attention as beloved stars—if only for a short time. Salacious subject matter has long been a staple of the moving image—be it Franz Reichelt’s fatal parachute jump from the Eiffel Tower, a backyard stunt gone wrong, or a surreptitiously recorded public outburst. For Tik Tok’s at-home viewers, hashtags like #nastyfall or #highjump offers a surreptitious way to seek out especially shocking or gruesome videos. And while the old journalism chestnut, “if it bleeds, it ledes,” could be said of all digital media in our hyper-connected age, it bears mentioning that early moviegoing audiences were equally drawn to the medium’s potential to titillate and frighten.
Left: Screenshot from user @renarslatz; Right: still from footage of Franz Reichelt’s Eiffel Tower Jump, photographer unknown.
Cinema’s emergence also coincided with a wave of “reform movements” in the Decadent West—well-meaning, but not always effective attempts to ameliorate the hazards of industrial capitalism. Early exhibitors used this opportunity to spin occasionally lurid, cautionary tales focusing on sexuality, violence, or substance abuse—thereby opening up new avenues through which audiences could engage with social ills from a safe distance. More than a century later, social critique remains an omnipotent presence in our age of information overload, and Tik Tokers are using the tools at their disposal to inspire crucial dialogue around many of our thorniest issues.
Shared subject matter aside, there remains a notable difference between the sensational films of yore and this modern wave of auto-didact auteurs. The inherently intimate nature of user-generated videos, many of them featuring the creators themselves, creates a proverbial “safe space” to address and examine anxiety, insecurity, and prejudice. Tik Tok’s popularity among young millennials and “zoomers” has become a proving ground for shifting notions of gender and sexual identity.
Screenshots of @trapmoneybella and @tenleyearles, via Rolling Stone.
Raised in a smartphone climate, these digital natives use an innate understanding of “internet humor” to poke fun at their more ignorant peers. Journalist EJ Dickson, writing in Rolling Stone last October, identified a microtrend of teenage girls voguing to their exes’ abusive voicemails as an insouciant takedown of toxic masculinity. The origin of this phenomena are two posts by a pair of 18-year-old high schoolers: the first by Isabella (@trapmoneybella), and an immediate response by Tenley (@tenleyearles). This socially-conscious spin on the Tik Tok dance craze inspired imitators across the platform: Isabella and Tenley were “tagged in about 10 to 15 Tik Toks,” which Dickson described as “similarly both hilarious and tough to watch.”
Creating and iterating in the twilight zone between laughter and tears, users reclaim their vulnerability and redirect ridicule away from themselves and onto their aggressors. With his matinée idol good-looks and a follower count in the twenty-thousands, @derekisstraight’s posts strike a wry, but self-effacing tone. In whenever im insecure about being gay i just think of where i come from, Derek juxtaposes his own angelic visage against a montage of hellscapes set to a trilling harp, while this was a hard post but here we go uses the clichés of “internet oversharing” to tout his finer physical attributes.
Screenshots from @derekisstraight
Bite-sized films have been a part of our media landscape for over a century. Then as now, artists have found ways to tell sophisticated stories, call attention to pressing social issues, and attract willing audiences in less time than it takes to boil an egg. While early 20th-century gatekeepers were quick to dismiss early cinema as novel experiments, efforts like the Lumières’ iconic Workers Leaving the Factory (1895) or Méliès' A Terrible Night (1896) have earned their rightful place as groundbreaking moving image works. Like their one-reel ancestors, Tik Toks posts are considered disposable, fleeting and nearly impossible to locate after the fact. This “here today, gone tomorrow” quality makes these posts especially difficult to preserve—an unfortunate reality that echoes the thousands of early films forever lost to time.
Before 1950, all films were shot on highly-volatile nitrate film stock: it was not unheard of for poorly maintained collections to catch fire and explode. Questions over rights and ownership have delegated unpopular titles to a never-ending shell game, provided a print exists at all! Early cinema is available to us because we have conferred it with a certain value: as museum pieces, or primitive precursors to a domineering medium. But the traditional avenues for archiving and preservation don’t apply to this new generation of experimental short-form storytellers. They might retain the means of production, and have every avenue to digitally archive their work, but Tik Tok—the platform and the piece—wasn’t designed to stick around. Artistry and social commentary aside, the content favored by this disparate filmmaking eras is immaterial – so long as it attracts and distracts. As they say in Méliès’ native Paris, “Plus ça change.”


Long ReadsTik TokGeorges MélièsThomas EdisonLumiere Brothers
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