Why not a Supercut of Supercuts?
A long time before the writing of this post, the supercut took over the web. Certain indefatigable hitmakers emerged (for instance, Harry Hanrahan, here), as well as more poetic auteurs, like Jorge Gonzalez Diaz, here. And, of course, web hubs developed, like Supercut.org and this category on Mashable, and, naturally, a Know Your Meme page.
But the recent release of György Pálfi’s 2012 film Final Cut, a virtuoso compilation of ~450 notable films that mesmerizingly deconstructs the heteronormative coupling conventions of just about every movie ever, got me thinking about the history of the supercut. Over at Senses of Cinema, they give credit where credit is due to Joseph Cornell, Bruce Conner, and Christian Marclay, as well as works by some new to my radar, like Jacob Bricca (here), Matthias Müller (his 1990 work Home Stories and collaborations with Christoph Girardet, like Kristall (2006)), and Oscar winner Michel Hazanavicius (here), among others. So let’s start with those.
Before Christian Marclay crafted his staggering 24-hour real-time video installation The Clock (a few excerpts here), a work of jaw-dropping research, humbling construction, and a glorious concept which fully encompasses the ontology of cinema — truly a supercut to beat all supercuts — he made a shorter video called Telephones, which brings together a few minutes of classic movies featuring characters talking on the telephone. Watch it here.
And though Joseph Cornell's Rose Hobart (1936) and By Night with Torch and Spear (somewhere in the 1940s) are clearly forerunners of the compilation strain of avant-garde filmmaking, the mode didn’t really reach maturity until it found the voice of Bruce Conner, through masterpieces like A Movie (1958), Report (1967), and Take the 5:10 to Dreamland (1976), as well as other, perhaps funnier, music videos (like “America is Waiting” for Brian Eno and “Mongoloid" for Devo).
But who ELSE deserves to be mentioned in the history of the Supercut? I offer a list of 20 more:
The Anti-Banality Union's Police Mortality (2013) and Unclear Holocaust (2011), which are both inflammatory radicalized cinema of the best kind, slicing and dicing popular media to outrageous and revolutionary effect. To the extent that editing reveals buried meanings in the images it recontextualizes, cutting is a kind of Situationist captioning, similar to the kind we see in the film essays of Guy Debord (see Society of the Spectacle, 1973), though much less pedantic.
Marco Brambilla's mindblowingly hyperkenetic 2005 three-channel video installation Sync. [The video behind the link plays the three channels sequentially rather than simultaneously.]
Thom Andersen's Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), a three-hour “city symphony in reverse” examining the “documentary revelations” embedded in a century of fiction films that used Los Angeles as a location.
Morgan Fisher's () (2003), which animates the archival impulse of his earlier film Standard Gauge (1984).
From left field, we should also consider including Virgil Widrich's Fast Film (2003), which, in addition to picking up animation a bit beyond where Lewis Klahr, Larry Jordan, Bob Godfrey, and Stan Van der Beek left off, also proves that even animated films can be supercuts (of a kind).
Bill Morrison's Decasia: The State of Decay (2002), an ecstatic, nihilistic, and grueling exploration of the ravages of time on nitrate film. Excerpt here.
Jennifer & Kevin McCoy’s Every Anvil (2001), an art installation which incorporates video.
Scott Stark's NOEMA (1998), which cuts together non-pornographic (but still very explicit) moments in pornographic films - those few seconds of downtime while the performers change position, or while the camera pans from one spot to another. [I’ll let you track it down on your own.]
Brian Springer's Spin (1995), a narrated compilation of pirated satellite news feeds illustrating media manipulation of the 1992 US election cycle.
Nearly anything from Jay Rosenblatt, such as The Smell of Burning Ants (1994), which uses slow-motion archive footage to tell diary/documentary story. See also: Human Remains (1998).
The final consummate montage of kisses in Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso (1988), which (aside from the free-form associational editing aesthetic of the 80’s MTV compilation music video) should probably count as the first serious forerunner of the supercut in popular culture.
Alan Berliner's first film The Family Album (1988) (excerpt here), in which he cuts together home movies salvaged from flea markets and other people’s garage sales into the universal story of birth, life, and death. Berliner’s other films do much the same thing, like 2006’s Wide Awake and his recent NYTimes Op-Doc, the elegiac and heart-breaking 56 Ways of Saying I Don’t Remember.
Gianikian and Lucchi's 1987 compilation film From the Pole to the Equator, in which they recut very old footage from globe-trotting filmmaker Luca Comerio, slowing it down to emphasize its age and the horror of its colonialist motivations.
Chuck Workman's nostalgic Hollywood montages with names like Precious Images (which won the Oscar for Best Short Film in 1986, setting the standard for future Oscar montages) and 100 Years at the Movies, which for years was the greatest interstitial time-filler on television (thanks to frequent screenings on Turner Classic Movies).
Loader and Rafferty's The Atomic Cafe (1982), which is not just a compilation of existing footage (like many documentaries), but is instead a compilation of existing films. It is not simply the analysis of a moment in history, but rather an analysis of the media produced during that moment. The newsreels, industrial films, instructional films, and advertising films recut into The Atomic Cafe are not presented as evidentiary of the profilmic events they depict, but rather as evidentiary of the ideology which produced them.
Since Senses of Cinema mentioned Hazanavicius’s La Classe Américaine (1993) above, it seems only right to mention its important forerunner, Carl Reiner's Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), even if this appropriation of old footage (much like Woody Allen’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily? before it) doesn’t feel at all like a supercut.
Dara Birnbaum’s odd 1978 video piece Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman.
The That’s Entertainment! series (1974, 1976, 1994), collections of both famous and obscure song-and-dance numbers from the MGM vaults (excerpt here).
[Bruce Conner and Joseph Cornell, as mentioned at the top.]
In a looser sense, Frank Capra's seven-part Why We Fight series, produced for the War Department between 1942 and 1945, most especially War Comes to America, the last film of the series, which cribs footage from anything Capra could lay his hands on.
And although I implicitly omitted documentaries assembled from actuality footage (even such stellar examples as Mikhail Romm’s Ordinary Fascism (1965) and Chris Marker’s Grin Without a Cat (1977)), this history would seem incomplete without a shout-out to the first compilation documentary film, Esfir Shub's 1927 masterpiece The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty.
For my purposes, I omit (but still mention) crowdsourced films like Adam Yauch's Beastie Boys concert documentary Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That! (2006), simply because the footage was not gathered in the same way as the films mentioned above. The same arbitrary rule also disqualifies Kevin MacDonald's 2011 crowdsourced documentary Life in a Day.
Additionally, I leave it to someone else to write the history of “audio supercuts,” even if, as in the work of Girl Talk, some have spawned video companion pieces, as here.
And finally, for my purposes, I also omit (but still mention) re-edits of a single film, even if they’re as wonderful as Peter Tscherkassky's Outer Space or Ken Jacobs's Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son. This also disqualifies most Martin Arnold (no matter how great it is), all Les LeVeque (as far as I know), and certainly some others. Sorry.
For more information, please see my old post on the genealogy of the remix.
Oh, and if I left anything out, please tell me. I’ll update the list.