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How the supercut changed the shape of nostalgia
Supercuts scan pop culture for repetitive catch phrases and slogans that have become part of our lexicon and solidified into cliches.
After hours of combing through season after season of Saturday Night Live, Alex Moschina was about ready to give up. By now he was used to the repetition and drudgery involved in making a supercut compilation—that YouTube phenomenon in which dozens or hundreds of clips are pulled from movies and television and edited into a cohesive montage—but even this was a bit much.
He had set out to find every instance in which a Saturday Night Live actor broke character by bursting out laughing or failing to keep a straight face, but he had underestimated the task at hand. There are over 30 seasons of the show, and because the actor’s laughter would be spontaneous and unscripted, Moschina had no choice but to trudge through episode after episode, plucking out clips as he came across them like so many needles in a haystack. There are times when he’s making these supercuts, as he faces an endless expanse of video footage, when the task seems almost sisyphean.
“There are definitely points where you see the same thing over and over again,” he told the Daily Dot. “I wear headphones or else my wife will kill me. You just have to commit to going through it.”
The end product, which spanned several minutes and garnered hundreds of thousands of views, artfully offered up a time capsule of nostalgia for those, like me, who stayed up late on Saturday nights to watch Chris Farley give his motivational talks or Jim Breuer’s Goat Boy. Suddenly these characters I hadn’t seen or even thought of for nearly two decades were reawakened for brief moments as the video transversed from season to season, in some cases reaching back to before I was born and in others visiting actors who joined the cast long after I stopped watching. Unfortunately, as is often the case with supercuts, it was eventually removed from YouTube for alleged copyright restrictions—an event that any veteran supercut editor is used to and must mentally prepare himself for.
What is it about a well-done supercut that gives the genre so much emotional resonance?
For Moschina, it’s the sense of recognition that’s triggered when the tropes and themes found through a television show’s arc or in dozens of unrelated movies are pieced together. It creates a kind of “Aha!” moment when a Hollywood cliche that you perhaps never fully internalized is laid out for you.
“It’s definitely something that everyone thinks about, whether they realize it or not,” he said. “They’ll be watching a movie and the main character will do something that makes you think, ‘Who does that in real life?’ Then you realize that if you noticed this weird cliche, other people probably noticed it as well, and so you have a built-in audience that will appreciate the hilarity of that situation and are going to want to see it.”
And once someone has pointed out the cliche to you, you can’t unsee it; after I watched a supercut of instances in which movie characters hang up the phone without saying goodbye, for instance, I couldn’t view another show or film without noticing it happening.
While the supercut—a neologism coined by blogger Andy Baio—has proliferated with the creation of YouTube and its ease of use, the concept of stringing together brief clips to point out a common refrain stretches back decades. Jon Stewart almost single-handedly invented a new form of media criticism by collating the inane and vapid beltway doublespeak that plagues punditocracy. Tom McCormack, who wrote what is perhaps the definitive history of the supercut, traces the genre as far back as 1958 with Bruce Conner’s A Movie, “an early example of found-footage cinema” that “climaxes with interwoven footage of disasters: sinking ships, falling bridges, crashing cars, exploding blimps.”
In 2011, Baio analyzed a database of over 146 supercut videos and found that “the average supercut is composed of about 82 cuts, with more than 100 clips in about 25 percent of the videos.” About 47 percent of the videos were comprised of film clips while the rest were divided among TV, video games, and other categories.
For his part, Moschina never set out to be a supercut creator. He had been writing for the website Slacktory, a consistent curator of supercuts, when he came up with an idea for a video that spliced together all the slow-motion walking scenes in Wes Anderson movies. He floated the idea to Slacktory editor Nick Douglas. “I think I handed the idea to him and was like, ‘Do you know someone who can do this, because I thought it would be funny,’” he recalled. “And he was like, ‘Why don’t you do it?”
Though Moschina’s experience editing videos was minimal, confined to a few he had done for his own YouTube channel, the practice came naturally to him. The compilation he created, posted in early 2012, combines the slow-motion scenes with excerpts of Ja Rule songs, and so we’re treated with a surprisingly serendipitous pairing of rap and Wes Anderson’s retro-cinematography style, a look and feel that predates the rap genre entirely.
Moschina has gone on to produce two dozen supercut videos for Slacktory, and over time his mind has sort of trained itself to be constantly scanning pop culture for these repetitive catch phrases and slogans that become part of our lexicon and then solidify into cliches. But spotting the cliche is only the first hurdle toward creating something that people will want to share on each other’s Facebook walls and in Gchat messages.
“Doing all the actual cutting is something that anybody can learn to do,” he said. “It’s actually following the rhythm from these things that makes it work. If you don’t cut exactly the right slice of dialogue, or the right amount of time for each little clip, it just doesn’t flow, and people can tell that.”
Perhaps the most compelling ingredient of supercuts, what makes us not only watch them but want to share them with others, is the deeply ingrained love of film or television that such an obsessive act of collecting hundreds of clips necessitates. Clara Darko (a pseudonym), a 32-year-old Spanish mother who has been working in the television industry for about eight years, made her first compilation before the advent of YouTube.
“The very first thing I ever edited was a tribute to my favorite movies when I was a little girl (‘80s fantasy film, mostly),” she told me over Gchat. When she was 19 she rewatched them all on VHS, organized them in her head by themed segments, and hauled them down to her university to have them digitized. From there, she spent over 24 hours editing the video using Avid on a PC. All this for what was ostensibly an audience of one: herself.
Though the invention of YouTube allowed Darko to reach larger audiences, she described all her videos as “personal projects,” and over the years she has continued to invest hundreds of hours in them, despite their being a near-constant target for copyright takedown notices. One of her early YouTube accounts, she told me, had amassed millions of views before the video platform deleted her account. But this was a mere drawback for someone who was doing it for the love of the art, and a need to pay tribute to the very films that brought her so much pleasure.
Darko’s supercuts are unlike many others within the genre (in fact, she doesn’t even consider them supercuts), because of their richness and narrative. She strives to not only collect a series of moments from film but to use it to tell a story or, rather, as a method of media criticism.
In one recent montage, she created a comprehensive meta supercut of movie scenes that take place in movie theaters. But rather than just zipping through the scenes at random, she grouped them so that we could see how the movie theater can be used as a background for romance, horror, character-building, and most tantalizingly of all, sex.
“Ideas for videos come to my mind constantly,” Darko said. “I write down a list (mostly by memory, though I check imdb too). I look for the right music (sometimes that’s automatic, sometimes it takes a lot of time) and, when I’m inspired enough, I start extracting the clips from the films.”
She aims for her videos to have structure, a progression, one that reaches a climax and sends a message. “So after choosing a theme, you look for the logical way of telling that particular story.”
If the video is to be successful, the story or theme or cliche that the video bears out must be immediately recognizable to the viewer, even if he or she hasn’t seen every film or show the video is referencing.
“It’s just something that speaks to all of us,” Moschina told me. “Especially now that our society has such a sense of nostalgia for stuff that happened not that long ago. A lot of the most successful videos and articles being posted right now are harking back to something that happened in 1998.”
In some sense, it has become easier than ever for outlets like BuzzFeed and Slacktory to extract these little cultural memes. That’s why we find ourselves day in and day out combing through lists of our favorite childhood cereals or Nick at Night videos. Something that at first glance would seem so shallow actually gives us a chance to stop and remember our childhood or early adulthood, an opportunity that is surprisingly rare.
“I think it’s just sort of a bite-sized piece of a larger pie,” said Moschina. “And if you like that pie, even just a little taste is good.”
Screengrab via YouTube
Simon Owens is a technology and media journalist living in Washington, D.C. He's a former associate editor for PBS’ MediaShift and assistant managing editor at US News & World Report. His bylines have also appeared in the Atlantic, New York Magazine, Scientific American, Forbes, and others.