Writer/director Max Tohline’s A Supercut of Supercuts: Aesthetics, Histories, Databases is not so much a documentary as it is a video essay. The mere mention of the word “essay” may send shivers up people’s spines. One thinks of dreary high school lessons, or in the case of teachers, having to read the words of students incapable of piecing together two original thoughts.
However, in this case, there is no need to fear. Tohline has helmed something enthralling and more than worthy of being included in the syllabus of a film studies or theory class. But, before proceeding, a supercut deserves definition. Though there are disputes as to what exactly counts as a supercut, the filmmaker offers the following definition: “A briskly-cut video list of appropriated moving images sharing some specific matching characteristic and offered as a representative cross-section of that characteristic.”
We all have seen a supercut, even if we did not know it by name. Television commercials use supercuts — Chevrolet has edited ads to convey the history and legacy of its brand and ties to the United States. Supercut videos of politicians repeating the same line at different speeches are ubiquitous. Supercuts of news anchors delivering scripted talking points are also everywhere. One could argue that certain sports videos on YouTube, Academy Award “Magic of the Movies” montages, and even sitcom highlight reels that flashback to previous episodes are all kindred spirits of the supercut.
“A briskly-cut video list of appropriated moving images sharing some specific matching characteristic…”
Tohline gives the supercut the seriousness it deserves. A Supercut of Supercuts is both a genealogy and a theoretical analysis. The viewer feels secure as the director guides them through history. He expertly takes us through the family tree of the supercut — from the Dada art movement to silent films to MGM’s That’s Entertainment! From the closing sequence in Cinema Paradiso to segments on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, all the way to fail/faceplant videos on YouTube. He undergirds his thesis by pulling from linguistics, structuralism, Walter Benjamin, Michel Foucault, and too many others to list. Tohline’s intellectual range is dizzying — in a great way.
The filmmaker is not merely an intellectual name-dropper. He convinces us that the supercut is the paradigmatic visual language of our contemporary age. We all seem to be wired to recognize visual and linguistic patterns. This recognition, however, has reached the next level after over 100 years of moving images, improved search engines, and AI. Tohline gives a very balanced account of the supercut. Sure, in the majority of supercuts, content takes a backseat to repetition and pattern. In the case of supercuts in advertising, their sole aim is to sell stuff by stoking desire. But, as the filmmaker points out, they, when done well, can be used to expose lazy film tropes, social ideologies, or, as in the case of cop films, track the male gaze, and give compressed visual evidence of stereotypical minority representations in cinema. In other words, supercuts can critique and subvert the status quo.
Tohline is right in noticing that there never was a precise moment in which the supercut was “invented.” It emerged as a meta-cultural phenomenon. Tohline takes on what may initially seem a counterintuitive position. According to him, technology — search engines, AI, etc. — did not birth the supercut. Social ideologies were already in place before such things existed. Allow me to oversimplify: it is as if social/capitalist ideologies begat the technologies which spawned the supercut. If you stay with A Supercut of Supercuts: Aesthetics, Histories, Databases until the end, not only will you likely be convinced by Tohline’s position but you will also certainly be mesmerized by his video essay. Now more than ever, we certainly seem to be living in a world that resembles more and more a database.
"…Tohline's intellectual range is dizzying — in a great way."