They're not exactly the Lumiere Brothers, but the Neistat Brothers appear poised to play at least a small part in the future of film.
The brothers – Van and Casey – are self-taught moviemakers who learned the craft on an iMac they bought with tax refund checks. They made a mini-splash on the Web with clever videos like “Bike Thief” (in which Van repeatedly steals his own bike from crowded New York streets unchallenged) and “iPod’s Dirty Secret” (in which Casey publicizes the device’s relatively short internal battery life).
Their half-hour TV show, for the uninitiated (and we're guessing there are a lot of those given the program's midnight timeslot), features a pastiche of brief, autobiographical movies. Some are quite short, like the 15 one-minute shorts Van shot for an episode (we get to see him shave his mustache).
The videos are generally captured with simple handheld gear, giving the shorts a feel that’s part cinema verite, but mostly home movie. The pieces are high on quirk: a hyper-competitive, homemade model boat-racing contest; the brothers' misadventures lecturing at a Mexican film school; an assistant’s attempts to smuggle maple syrup into Amsterdam.
But just when you could be forgiven for thinking you're watching a couple of flakes flitting off from contrived adventure to adventure, the brothers give us some unexpectedly touching, family-driven moments.
We see Casey being directed in a whimsical short film by the young son he fathered as a teenager. Van chronicles his re-introduction to his biological father, providing a paradoxically satisfying anti-climax: a brief, civilized exchange without daytime talk show-like histrionics. The brothers take a snowboarding trip with a younger sibling, an Air Force pilot who is about to be deployed overseas.
The latest, most bittersweet show touches on Van's marital turmoil, even as the brothers exult in selling their program to HBO.
There’s something both disarming and charming about watching the brothers live their lives on video, where they achieve a likeable honesty, despite touches of the kind of ironic detachment that comes with their hipster style and relative youth (Casey is in his late 20s, Van is in his early 30s).
Perhaps the most heartening aspect of the program is that it isn’t another reality TV mess. “The Neistat Brothers” shows that with a simple video camera you can present your own reality, if you choose to do so.
Friday's season finale, according to previews, centers on Van and Casey climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. It’s the biggest adventure yet for a duo whose work succeeds best in small moments.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.