On first glance, the site seems little more than a poignant goof: a tribute to the late Michael Jackson that draws its inspiration from the John F. Kennedy memorial in Washington, D.C., with its eternal flame — but instead of a flame that never goes out, it’s a video loop featuring variations on the Gloved One’s signature move.
But it’s more than that. In addition to being diabolically mesmerizing — between the array of clips and the faintly “Billie Jean”-like backbeat, one tends to lose track of time staring at the damned thing — Eternal Moonwalk is also an incidental tutorial in the basic properties of cinema. It returns motion pictures to their origin point, when the medium’s core appeal was the chance to watch strangers performing, their bodies moving from Point A to Point B, their familiar or amusing actions serving as an emotional connection point, a reminder that we’re members of the same species inhabiting the same small world.
The format is ingeniously simple. The page shows a horizontal row of images that move from screen left to screen right, like a strip of film being manually threaded through projector gears. All the clips share certain core characteristics: they start out devoid of people, then a person or object enters frame right and exits frame left. Most of the clips are live-action — simple profile shots of people dancing, their motion framed head-to-toe, but there are some wild card images as well. When the snippets are butted up against each other — sliding along the horizontal strip from frame right to frame left — the moonwalking people, animals or objects seamlessly join at the edges of the frame. The process creates the illusion of continuous motion — continuous metamorphosis. One thing becomes another, one person becomes another. It’s not just diverting. It’s lovely.
But how is it cinematic? Let me count the ways. For one thing, it illustrates the democratizing potential of movies better than any number of earnest, micro-budget indie dramas. Anyone with a video camera can contribute, and dance talent isn’t just optional, it’s beside the point. Context is everything here. As you watch the strip of images flicker across your computer screen (and I repeat, don’t visit this site unless you’re ready to give up way more time than you anticipated), you come across some fine, even superb dancers. But their skill truly pops (in a way that it wouldn’t if you were seeing stand-alone clips on YouTube) when it’s juxtaposed with the other people who are just shuffling or loping or hopping through the frame. Conversely, the amateurs’ efforts seem more touching, even beautiful, when they’re joined (via editing) to more graceful performers.
The sum total reminds us that dancing (as practiced in life) isn’t a contest, that there are no prizes for awesomeness; it’s just a means of self-expression that reveals one’s personality and life history as plainly as clothes or accents. All the performers are united by unselfconscious joy. If you’re a person who doesn’t dance for fear of being laughed at, this site might (temporarily) cure you of it.
The site also demonstrates how malleable raw footage can be. If one designs shots carefully enough — choosing the contents of the frame, the camera’s distance from the subject and the screen direction for certain aesthetic reasons — one can combine the resulting shots in any order and still express a film’s central idea. Eternal Moonwalk shuffles the shots at random, yet they always fit together perfectly, in a harmonious parade of motion.
Just as strikingly, Eternal Moonwalk affirms the infinite expressive possibilities of art. No, seriously, hear me out. Every contributor must satisfy the same criteria: the frame starts and finishes “empty”; objects or people “moonwalk” from screen right to screen left; the clip can’t last longer than ten seconds; the file size can’t exceed three megabytes. Beyond that, anything goes. And the sheer diversity of submissions is stunning. The non-live performances include shots of stuffed animals, dolls, action figures, simple household objects and toys (including a Mr. Potato Head R2-D2), all of which appear to moonwalk via stop-motion photography. There are cartoons (3-D and 2-D computer animation, and seemingly hand-drawn stuff); cannily chosen images from video games (including a bit showing the Incredible Hulk tromping across a landscape, his movements reversed so that he seems to be busting Michael’s move) and images of animals (also reversed) including a mounted horse, a stag beetle and a housecat.
The live action performances (some by people dressed like Michael, most by folks in street clothes, each clip stamped with an ID number and the city and country of origin) include moonwalks by a clown, a chef and a motorcycle cop; a dad dragging a baby through the frame, followed by a toddler walking; conga lines of students, families and retail employees; a woman gliding across a beach; a teenage girl shimmying through a dimly lit, cluttered suburban house, and so forth. The participants hail from every conceivable nation, race and ethnicity, both genders and many age groups. The seamless fusion of people, situations and ideas evokes the 1991 video for Jackson’s “Black or White,” which used lateral screen movements, clever transitions and then-revolutionary “morphing” effects to affirm commonality. In its splendid, bare-bones way, Eternal Moonwalk accomplishes the same feat. The full spectrum of humanity is arrayed before you, and it’s dancing.