Dan Bell, Chronicler of Dark Spaces
Dan Bell, or This Is Dan Bell, as his YouTube channel is called, has now been added to the annals of greatness that I am always stockpiling in my mind.
Start with the basic information. Maryland resident Dan Bell films himself walking through and, post-production, narrating his strolls through commercial buildings such as resorts, hotels, and malls that are dead or on their last legs in the Mid-Atlantic U.S. region.
Is that all he does? A site called Dead Malls has been doing this for years. Or has it?
Going Way Beyond Dead Malls
Not really. Dead Malls, ground-breaking at the time for encyclopedically covering the demise of super-sized retail shopping, failed to take advantage of its own popularity. With only 40 updates in the last 4 years, the site is nearly as dead as the malls they cover. My local “dead mall,” the Totem Lake Mall, in Kirkland, WA, has long been torn down and is almost rebuilt as one of those hipster food-retail cathedrals featuring a Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.
Dan Bell doesn’t pretend to be encyclopedic; he’s selective. He ventures on day trips, just himself and maybe a friend, and a camera. Unlike urban archaeologists who get off on being dick swinging badasses who sneak into Packard plants in Detroit, Dan Bell lets the subject speak for itself. He literally stays out of the picture. As a Baltimore Sun article notes
Bell doesn’t consider himself an urban explorer, but a filmmaker who takes risks in order to create thrilling short films.
Most importantly, he elevates these dark places to the level of high art. He gets their feeling. He understands visual composition. He carefully frames images. He knows that detail is important: a pair of roller skates, brochures on the ground, hotel keys on a rack, a cocktail napkin. He gently adds music that lingers in the background, providing just enough atmosphere to the scene but rarely overpowering it.
His camera hangs on parts of the mall (he really loves shooting through metal security gates), in long pans and slow zooms. Big budget Hollywood director Michael Bay, whose shots range from 3.00 to 3.40 seconds per shot, would have a brain aneurysm while watching a Dan Bell film.
My only complaint about the Dead Mall Series and Dead Motel Series is that there is not more of them. And there is one culprit for this: Another Dirty Room.
On November 11, 2016, Dan published his first episode in the Another Dirty Room YouTube series entitled “Cesspit From Hell : The Midtown Inn Baltimore.” Dan and friends pay for decidedly low-rent motel rooms and, armed with UV lights and gloves, proceed to deconstruct the room. Results are disgusting: rat turds, semen, and lots of hair.
I understand the impulse: you start to see success in a certain direction, you read the signals (and often, the web traffic analytics), and then you capitalize on those signals. In other words, you go where you think people are telling you to go.
Another Dirty Room is a YouTube series that is clearly looking for a major TV network to pick it up. I could be wrong; I’ve been wrong before (I clearly remember the day in 1998 when I read that Amazon would begin offering products other than books and I said, “It’ll never fly.”).
But this impulse toward reality TV is misguided, it sorely misuses Bell’s ample talents as a maker of art, and it takes him away from more important projects.