Who’s afraid of Kurt Hugo Schneider ’10? Not Thom Stylinski, media producer for the Yale Broadcast and Media Center, that’s for sure. If you haven’t yet seen the center’s latest production, “You, Your Safety, and You!,” which Stylinski wrote, directed and edited, you’re missing out on a watershed moment in the fight for the soul of the greater Yale community, or at the very least for its attention span.
“I saw this as an opportunity to make the opposite of ‘That’s Why I Chose Yale,’” Stylinski said. “I felt the need to respond to that video.”
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Sure enough, “Your Safety,” a mock ’80s industrial safety film that demonstrates how to stay safe at Yale, is everything “That’s Why” is not. “That’s Why” is narrated by a young, handsome admissions officer with a winning smile and a great set of pipes. In “Your Safety,” our guide is an irritable old curmudgeon (Albert Burton) who announces with pride within the first 30 seconds that his Yale knowledge base is made up of things he’s heard and classes he’s snuck into. Furthermore, you get the sneaking suspicion throughout that he’s not in on the joke. Stylinski seemed to confirm this over the telephone.
And it’s the joke, or rather the nature of the joke, that makes “Your Safety” a challenge not only to “That’s Why,” but to the much maligned (and much envied) Tsui-Schneider legacy and everything it represents. For all of its wondrous colors and grand production scale, “That’s Why,” much like Schneider’s other work (namely “Nothing Left Unsaid,” which was presented at the most recent commencement as Schneider’s take on the traditional “class history,” and “College Musical: The Movie”) is distressingly anemic. It appeals to the little person inside of us that secretly — or not so secretly — wishes life were more like “Glee,” and that’s fine, but despite Schneider’s undeniable talent as a producer of catchy pop tunes, his stuff lacks that wink of subversive charm that makes something like “Glee” enjoyable to even the most stolid casual viewer. And while he seems to be a master at discerning what people want (the total view count on all of his YouTube videos combined is upwards of 60 million), he appears disinterested in enriching his offerings with that subversive power that takes camp and transforms it into art. In other words, despite the occasional corny aside muttered by a member of his ensemble, there really isn’t any joke at all.
The joke in “Your Safety,” meanwhile, is palpable the whole way through. When Burton, the aforementioned curmudgeon, first comes onscreen, he wanders dazedly from one side to the other, returning to his original position only to wait another awkward few seconds for the music to stop so he can speak. You feel uncomfortable in his stead because he appears to lack the contextual information to put himself in the proper emotional register; you feel as though he is being taken advantage of — and you laugh. Stylinski is willing to show us that ugliness; Schneider is too scared to even hint at it.
And yet, it must be addressed; both videos, for all of the commentary and consequences they have to offer, are unabashedly silly. True, there are still lots of people who are very upset with the way “That’s Why” portrays life at Yale and the general aura surrounding the institution, but in the end, we’re comparing an informational musical and a funny safety video. I think it’s a mistake, though, to use silliness as an excuse to pass over what could be a brilliant moment of lucidity in reconciling our institutional identity. Yeah, sure, there are lots of Yales, yada yada yada, but what both videos aim to address — albeit in radically different ways — is what joins us together. I think that by now, if we’re all honest with ourselves, it’s OK to admit that “That’s Why” isn’t really “who we are” as a school.
So the question, then, is “Does ‘You, Your Safety, and You’ get it right?” Totally.
Over the phone, Stylinski cited Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, the late-night cult comedy gurus who brought us “Tom Goes to the Mayor” and “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” (if you haven’t seen them, watch them at your own peril — you’ll either absolutely love them or find them despicable), and particularly their critique of communication methods, as a major inspiration for the film. Sure enough, the ways the protagonist (Lance, an oblivious mop-headed Yale freshman who wears his polo tucked into his slacks throughout) interacts with the people and environments around him are awkward, stilted and nonsensical. He is invited to a party on his “cellular telephone device” without even really answering it. When his female friend asks him where they are, he says, “about 2:10.” Upon being asked where the new burrito place is, a helpful police officer hands him a pamphlet that reads “So You Want a Burrito?”
And when you really get down to it, isn’t that the Yale experience in a nutshell? By which I mean, stumbling and stammering our way through the last time and place when so many people like us will be together while being so delightfully awkward? Schneider’s Yalies wear their hearts on their sleeve. A Stylinski Yalie, though still equally fantastical, is less obnoxious, more accurate and a hell of a lot more appealing. To paraphrase Claire Gordon ’10, Lance is so much more the result of us having spent our formative years reading instead of playing outside. He’s a bit dopey, and maybe even naïve, but he’s got his heart in the right place. Which isn’t to say that Yalies don’t know how to express themselves. We are an ambitious and outspoken bunch, for the most part, but as a collective, there is so much unsaid, so much hidden within ourselves that you can only catch glimmers of in conversation.
So I say, officially, to hell with “That’s Why I Chose Yale.” I don’t sing and dance. Yale doesn’t sing and dance, and if we did, I like to think it would be much quieter and involve a lot more foot-shuffling.
Correction: Sept. 6, 2010
The scene article “You, your safety and you!” misattributed Kurt Schneider’s role in the admissions video, “That’s Why I Chose Yale.” Schneider was the music producer; he did not have a role in writing or directing the video. The video was created by Ethan Kuperberg ’11 and Andrew Johnson ’06.