It’s difficult to categorize the medium through which Lev Yilmaz brings us “Tales of Mere Existence;” his videos are collections of still frames, cartoons which Yilmaz finishes as he narrates in a bored, complacent tone. He describes an argument with his girlfriend and draws her arms across her chest, followed by narrowed eyebrows. Watching the drawings-in-progress gives the “Tales” a sense of animation, placing them in the space between cartoon and comic strip. We do not see Yilmaz – he stays on the other side of the tracing paper he uses as canvas – but his cartoon avatar gives us the bare bones. He stares, wide-eyed and with no curve to his mouth, as the world is filled in around him.
The shorts are autobiographical snippets of Yilmaz’s life, thick with sarcasm and refreshingly light on philosophy. Yilmaz’s voice is pitched low with nasal overtones, turning each video into a three minute sigh. Lev keeps the stakes low, the emotions muted. He doesn’t use the potential of his drawings for escapism, but stays rooted in the mundane. He presents his life unembellished and lets us in on the joke. “A Conversation with my mother,” is just an illustrated transcript, but nothing else is needed. “‘I just made some fish, would you like some fish?’ and I said ‘no mom, I don’t like fish.’ And she said ‘you don’t like fish?’ and I said ‘no mom, I don’t like fish.’ And she said ‘this is tuna fish,’ and I know mom, but I don’t like fish.’” It continues this way for minutes, leaving us gnashing our teeth and laughing at the same time. From time to time he pauses in the narration and drawing, and you can see him counting to ten in his head and praying for patience. His “Tales” straddle the line between the everyman of Seinfeld and the bizarre memoirs of Sedaris, though his tone is all the latter. Yilmaz has a half-empty glass, and it’s been sitting in his sink for years.
“Tales of Mere Existence” explores our hidden insecurities and the mostly internal tribulations of getting by. Yilmaz draws himself at parties, surrounded by star-eyed, smiling people who have it all together. “Procrastination” is a slow motion train wreck where Yilmaz describes his day and his intentions to “get his stuff done.” The videos are personal, but they’re personal to everyone.
Yilmaz is the voice of the YouTube generation precisely because it does not aspire to be. His “Tales” echo the frustrations and outlook of an audience scrolling through videos online. As an art form, “Tales of Mere Existence” is doomed to unprofitability. The synthesis of narrative, minimalist animation, and ennui works perfectly and exclusively in a digital medium. A book loses the personality of Yilmaz’s voice and the soul of seeing the penstrokes. We look to television for entertainment, not a reminder of the menial lives we lead. “Tales” is effective precisely because it only offers up bite-size portions of life. Too much, and we would choke.