Some months ago, on TikTok, a user with the handle @lastmanstanley uploaded a video of himself (asking himself) if he could use the bathroom.
By way of clever editing and props, two versions of the boy stare at each other, both wearing a black shirt with KING SIZE printed on the front, both with rusty blonde hair. We are allowed an uncomfortable second after each edit as the actor readies his lines. They are the same person, playing two characters. The only difference between these mirror images of adolescence is a baseball hat.
“Hey, could I use your bathroom?” is the question.
“Oh yeah, it’s right over there” is the answer, before the host somehow finds himself with a bright yellow flower, jamming it into his mouth.
This is the way videos play out on TikTok, so full of young Gen Z’ers alone and bored at home that much of the content on the app contains a full cast of characters all played by the same person. Hats, shirts, and towels are used to indicate a change in personality.
But watched beyond the first ten seconds, @lastmanstanley’s now infamous video kicked off a movement of creativity on the platform. It is the first in what could be called Cinematic TikTok, a genre within the platform that seeks little answers, rarely has narrative structure, and will have you watching again and again for no real reason.
But back to the video.
As we enter the bathroom, Colin Stetson’s ‘Reborn’ starts playing, a haunting combination of synths and saxophones associated with decapitations and demons and self-immolation for anyone who has seen the movie it has been plucked from: Hereditary
In @lastmanstanley’s TikTok, the song becomes a character in itself. We are walked into the bathroom, only to see a small dog sitting on the floor. We cut to the boy. We cut to the dog. We cut back to the boy. Again and again and again, from every angle imaginable. It is bizarre. It is ludicrous. It’s kind of disturbing.
And then we fade to black.
@Lastmanstanley has since created a handful of similar videos, soundtracked by Philip Glass and Max Richter and Mica Levi; all minimalist classical composers. He has over 200,000 followers, millions of collected likes, and no doubt millions of views as well. Some of his videos have made their way onto other social media, re-uploaded by random accounts amazed and confused and enthralled with what they have seen.
Some of his videos are nonsensical, some of them aim to only create a feeling, others draw you in as seemingly commonplace narrative storylines before warping into the bizarre again: two men playing cards are stopped by the Rugrats theme song playing behind a closed door, before we are shown one of the man’s cards have been pasted over with Rugrats characters. I don’t know why it works. I’m aware that it sounds ridiculous.
The genres of TikTok become quickly apparent to anyone who spends upwards of 30 minutes scrolling on the app. In many ways, it’s just a regurgitation of what already works: prank videos, funny skits, a few lingering lip-sync efforts, still holding on to what the app used to be.
But Cinematic TikToks have arrived somewhat rapidly, tapping into the innate pop culture knowledge of teenagers everywhere. They are a generation that has spent years with access to every piece of content imaginable. That has left a mark, one they farm within themselves to create content that often even they can’t explain. It’s a feeling, it’s a vibe. It reminds them of someone else’s work, or a movie they saw. They don’t know what to call it. It just is.
Recently, 17-year-old Jimmy Dickantone also created a cinematic TikTok that went viral. Titled “An Endless Struggle for Perfection,” Jimmy filmed himself rapidly rehearsing Chopin’s ‘Fantaisie Impromptu’, the scatterbrain swarm of piano-keys acting as the perfect soundtrack as Jimmy stares at the camera mouth agape, then away from it, then at a picture tilted to its side on a wall.
It is, like the works of @lastmanstanlee before it, nonsensical. But that doesn’t mean you don’t feel something while watching it.
Dickantone says he was inspired by creators like @lastmanstanley, but didn’t have anything specific in mind when he started making the video. He cites his biggest influence as director Wes Anderson – specifically in the film ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’.
“I personally find them interesting,” he says, as we discuss the latest genre to take over the app. “I think it’s becoming so popular because of the nature of the platform itself.”
“I’m sure many creators enjoy and want to direct films, and as an application TikTok is an easier way to get your work known due to its seemingly random algorithm, allowing anybody to make a video with the potential to be viral. They’re also really interesting to think about, and serve as a mini-movie or thought experiment amidst all the chaos that is the majority of the content on the app.”
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic and academic from Melbourne, Australia. She says it would be far too lazy to dismiss these videos as moving selfies, and draws comparisons between cinematic TikToks and film academic Tom Gunning’s Cinema of Attractions: the idea that spectacle and sensation in early cinema usurped narrative.
“He says the cinema of attractions is based on ability to ‘show’ something,” said Heller-Nicholas. “It’s ‘an exhibitionist cinema’.”
“I’m not saying these kids are all subconsciously experts in early cinema, but the legacy can be felt today. It’s in the air.”
The DIY aspects of TikTok also play into the spirit of early filmmaking, of new wave, of avant garde and experimental. “I think that as spectators we’re so aware that we’re watching a ‘made’ thing,” says Heller-Nicholas, “and the low budgets at stake (with TikTok) provide a contemporary echo of less formal filmmaking traditions.”
Cinematic TikTok is the natural progression of millions of creative young people being told to try things. It is the end result of teenagers having exposure not just to endless content, but increasingly interesting and transforming ways to express them.
Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Tiktok – there is a gentle arc rising upwards, engaging users in the same ways, but making their involvement easier. But it all comes from one influence, a meme that trickles all the way down, easily replicated. Easier access to content has, in turn, created a generation that finds creating content easier.
Cinematic TikTok, like hashtag challenges and lip-syncing before it, will hit its ceiling – but only when it has been replaced by something better.