Last night, I attended a Rooftop Films screening of "The Neistat Brothers," an endearingly lo-fi show that premieres this Friday on HBO. The brothers in question, Casey and Van, are two New York-based filmmakers whose spacious Tribeca studio (where they share a building with the Safdie brothers) is a place of constant DIY invention. The Neistats got their initial fame boost from a viral video aimed at Apple's low battery scandal called "iPod's Dirty Secret," but they've been churning out all kinds of short form non-fiction tidbits over the past decade.
"iPod's Dirty Secret"
I first heard about the HBO series while working on a story about Josh Safdie for his directorial debut, "The Pleasure of Being Robbed," in 2008 (Casey played a key role in helping Josh find a producer). Back then, Casey was very careful not to speak on the record about the HBO deal, since many details had yet to be finalized. As it turned out, it took nearly two years for the Neistats to get clear of legal problems associated with the show before they could finally get it on the air. Fortunately, the content of the program has a timeless energy even though the footage has aged. The show rises and falls on the basis of Casey and Van's personalities, and they're able guides through the whims their own lifestyles.
Since each episode of "The Neistat Brothers" comprises of several autobiographical short films, it often feels like sifting through a single YouTube channel for thirty minutes at a time. They explore their studio, reconnect with relatives, play with their children, and travel around the world in search of Maple Syrup. (And that's just part of one episode.) The goofy spirit of "The Neistat Brothers" has much to do with the deadpan manner in which Casey and Van constantly pitch themselves at the audience, shooting their adventures with low quality camcorders as if they're just stumbling through each mini-story unaware of a growing audience.
To a certain extend, it's a creative ruse: Don't doubt for a minute that Casey and Van lack a storytelling strategy and a firm awareness of the types of characters they mean to project. At the Q&A following the screening last night, the brothers fielded questions with the same act they had just performed on the big screen. Asked about their influences, their rambling response went something like this:
"Bergman, Godard, Truffaut..."
"I thought 'Avatar' was awesome..."
"...Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie..."
But if it's all an act, they don't seem particularly keen on letting the rabbit out of the hat. The Neistats display a willingness to mess with the world in a manner that suggests "Jackass" with heart. I don't know the whole story behind the delay on the show, but I do wonder how high the stakes went. What we have here is essentially a web series bankrolled by HBO. Is this progress or homogenization? Maybe a little bit of both, but don't take that as a complaint.
"The Neistat Brothers" airs on Friday at midnight on HBO.