A Supercut of Supercuts
If making video essays were an olympic discipline, this one by media scholar Max Tohline would no doubt take the gold. And the silver. And the bronze. It is the videographic embodiment of the olympic motto Citius, Altius, Fortius: faster, higher, stronger. The well-researched nuggets of insight follow on each other’s heels faster than in any recent video essay I remember. Tohline sets his goal higher than most of his colleagues, aiming to give an overview of the history, the aesthetics and the modus operandi of the supercut. And he presents his case in a stronger way than most video essays do, illustrating each of his points with a wealth of well-chosen illustrations (both famous and obscure). Just don’t expect this video essay to win any sprint medals – its two hour runtime means it competes in endurance disciplines only.
The supercut format is a favorite of fans and of video essay makers that celebrate their topic rather than criticize it. However, this specific audiovisual strategy also has analytical potential. That is why this video essay starts off, after proposing a definition of the form, with a discussion of the supercut’s aesthetics. Tohline explains the basics of the supercut by showing how it relates to syntagmatic and paradigmatic structures. He then examines the tension between the supercut’s duelling impulses of desire and analysis and details the strategies that can increase or decrease the form’s critical impact. By the end of the first half an hour, we have been given a solid and sound introduction into the appeal and the modus operandi, into the promise and pitfalls of the supercut.
Tohline really hits his stride in the second part of the video essay, which is dedicated to the history of this phenomenon. The family tree of the supercut that he describes has much deeper roots (going farther back in history) and much wider branches (with links to audiovisual and other art forms) than most other studies have proposed so far. Again, the wealth of illustrations and examples is impressive. But most important is the way in which Tohline regards the supercut not as a mere editing technique but as the material expression of a specific (and novel) way of thinking. That approach allows Tohline to position the supercut within even wider changes in the way we humans try to make sense of the world – by ordering it into either archives or databases. “The supercut is everywhere“, he convincingly states.
In the third and final part of the video, Tohline details the differences between the database mode of knowledge (of which the supercut is an expression) and the archival mode. He broadens his scope even further and includes asides that are more essayistic than just academic, pointing out database thinking is a mode of power and a form that comes with both promises and threats. Tohline even ends his video with an impassioned plea to use the database mode in other ways than the supercut does – ways that can result in films that are poetic and genuinely delightful.
At times, this video essay resembles a (richly illustrated) online lecture more than it does a piece of work that is necessarily audiovisual. Its own audiovisual strategies are clearly beholden to the academic mode. (It was published in Open Screens, the journal of the British Association of Film, Television and Screen Studies). Take for example the footnotes that are included as long on-screen texts, requiring the viewer to pause the video. It’s a practical but not very elegant way to include that mainstay of academic publishing into this video. But there are plenty of moments when the added graphics, the use of mosaics of videos, and even some playful asides use the potential of the video essay to its advantage. In summary, this epic undertaking is not to be missed by anyone remotely interested in the supercut – or video essays in general. I’d even sit in the stands for ten minutes more to see Tohline take his victory lap.