Time travel is possible. Every conceivable parallel universe exists and is within reach. In them, all wrongs can be righted (or made worse, depending on your preference), nothing is wasted, every moment is essential, and nothing ever dies. In these glorious utopias, Animal is a top-tier drum student, Disney characters dance interminably in programmed synchronicity, The Shining is a tear-jerking family dramedy and an Atari game, The Hobbit is a fleet one-film epic, Frozen is a horror film, Ryan Gosling perpetually refuses breakfast cereal, and every time Don Draper says “what?” it is cause for celebration.
This is the state of the media multiverse, a modernity where media texts do not exist in a vacuum but rather are living, breathing organisms. I’m referring here to the trend of re-editing, reappropriating, reorganizing, decontextualizing, and retuning film, television, and media in general. Re-edits, supercuts, mashups, non-sequiturs, and multi-media crossovers are some of the subcategories in this movement, asserting this evolving form and upending the way we think about and engage with popular culture. After decades, centuries, really, of constructing barriers and restrictions, and cordoning experience, placing art at a remove from the reader—look, don’t touch; stand behind the line; observe visiting hours—the modern era is defined by a pervasive disinterest in this, a taste for blasting through these obstructions and breaking the contained, controlled way art is experienced. Art forms are and have been increasingly mingled and merged with reckless abandon, moved to new environments and settings, and they have become more interactive and immersive. They are split open, disassembled, and reassembled, antiquating notions of authorship, exhibition, and medium specificity. These are no less than aggressive attempts to expand engagement and open up new avenues of discourse with texts and with the rabid community surrounding them. The very canvas on which these works are emblazoned—social media—tells us this is the ultimate mission. Interlocution is amplified in the modern media experience like never before and it will not be contained; and, there are no rules.
Accessibility has bred waves of participation, reappropriation, involvement, and interventions in recent years. Through process and intention, unlikely sources—Tumblr, Vine, Vimeo, and YouTube accounts/users—stack up with forebears and movements in interventionist art from avant-garde titans past and present. Despite their origin, and sometimes their crudity, these parody videos, these supercuts, these re-edits, these mashups, are meta-discursive texts, aligning with avant-garde principles and works. These seemingly spurious clips and videos operate in parallel to high-art avant-garde projects, films, and installations attempting to deconstruct film and media history and unearth tropes and trends. Look at “legitimate” works such as Matthias Müller’s Kristall (with Christoph Girardet) and Home Stories or Peggy Ahwesh’s found-footage Beirut Outtakes, then watch Subconscious Cinema, Tarantino: The Driving Shots, or Kids in America, A.V. Plays Itself, or this Tumblr feed of Mad Men’s protagonist staring blankly. Side-by-side, the connective tissue and the shared DNA is apparent. These extratextual fan videos, compilations, and supercuts share an acute interest in stylistic patterns and the themes that can be drawn from such arrangements; and, their more academic-minded brethren disguise a similar strain of mischievous humor lurking under the surface. These interventions unearth artificiality, genre conventions, hyperbole, aestheticizing structural repetition, manipulating tone, and dissecting history and historicity. Like avant-garde interventions dating back to Warhol and beyond, these modern internet videos function as myth grids, charting and overlaying styles, voices, subcultures, iconography, history, and media, and allowing audiences to trace the reference points.
These works are exercises in editing and organization, using established techniques to elicit pinpointed reactions, as well as undermining these to unsettle and destabilize programmed reactions. They are treatises in the fragmentary nature of film and media, exposing the fragility of the constructed illusions. These are avant-garde approaches gone mainstream. They are exercises in inundation, seeking out repetitions and piecing together liminal, overlooked, interstitial moments to form something new and compelling. Often, the grandiosity of proceedings are deflated, the mundanity, minutiae, and detritus of the everyday are collapsed into the histrionics and theatricality of what we see onscreen. The absurd and the random are embraced, playfully inhabiting the no-man’s-land between the ordinary and the fantastic, and willfully defying hard analysis in favor of frivolity. This is a democratic playing field, a way of offering alternative takes and perspectives, a jumble of parallel universes all accessible and interconnected. This is about becoming a part of the lexicon, contributing to the expanding template of reception, and bringing people into a community of infinite perspectives and pop-culture engagement. This is about extending time, giving an afterlife to works that have come and gone and recycling that which is long-forgotten. Amidst all this, often it is simply about humor and entertainment—that is, connecting on a primal level with the works that one loves and hates. These represent a populace of unprecedented, encyclopedic pop-culture savvy with access to a matrix of reference-points for every text or topic that achieves some cultural cachet.
If there was one positive outcome from The Phantom Menace it’s the rise of this phenomenon. Fan re-editing took off after The Phantom Edit helped popularize the movement by taking an axe to the much maligned prequel. This was followed by countless others, expanding exponentially into the infinite possibility of this form. Untrained, untested amateur enthusiasts experiment with and stretch the language of film and media, breaking and exploiting rules and sometimes logic to achieve new ends. Counterfeit as it seems on the surface, this has developed as an emerging art form with a growing community espousing the efficacy and importance of this medium, and arguing ardently for its legitimacy. This is also the story of technological development, as peer-to-peer networks have made this growth possible, allowing sharing of materials and access to digital copies which are much easier for simple manipulations and comprehensive butchering. In the process, the legal bounds of the system are routinely tested, and fair-use law has become a much more widespread issue. The tight grip with which the industry clutches to intellectual property increasingly clashes with the ease of access that technology affords, and the heightened desire to reconstitute and toy with existing texts this has bred. The industrial and economic underpinnings of film and media are often at the forefront here, highlighting compromises and concessions, and testing the limits of acceptable appropriation. This is not only an aesthetic battlefield, but also a struggle for the industry of the form.
But this dynamite is lighted at both ends. Many original creators and players within the film industry have dabbled in this direction as well. “Director’s cuts” are the nascent form of this movement, often providing opportunities for correctives and glimpses at intention and original vision for projects that were either stifled or never came to fruition. Blade Runner is a good example of this, having gone through many iterations over time and many releases of various cuts and revisions. It is a prime specimen showing the potential nature of the form to morph and change overtime. Film cannot necessarily be confined to a single artifact; it has the capacity for reassessment, growth, and decay. Other illuminating examples of directors tweaking and reassessing their own work include Joel and Ethan Coen with Blood Simple, Richard Donner with Superman II (after having been fired from the production), and Francis Ford Coppola with Apocalypse Now: Redux and the chronological The Godfather Saga. But, as we move into a more technologically literate era of filmmaking, one defined by a sense of community and molded by file-sharing, established filmmakers have begun taking the axe to other’s works as well. Steven Soderbergh has led the charge with his recent experiment Psychos—a splicing together of Hitchcock’s 1960 horror classic and Gus Van Sant’s 1998 near-shot-for-shot remake—and his attempt to salvage Michael Cimino’s golden-era-of-Hollywood-killing masterpiece/fiasco Heaven’s Gate.
Many heady concepts linger around this movement just waiting to be applied—post-structuralism, semiotic studies, reception theory, genre studies, postmodernism, etc. Issues of authorship emerge—subjective experiences and readings hatch new works derived from the audience but utilizing the means and medium of the original creators. These ruptures offer alternate takes, alternate interpretations, alternate experiences, opening in different, often absurd, silly, extreme directions, providing counterpoints and contradictions to the beaten-path. Meaning is not inherent in the text here; it is derived from the relationship between the text and the reader and informed by the complex configuration of experiential conditions and information constellations. But what is most striking at the outset, is that simply describing and summarizing the ideas and intentions behind these works speaks to a rigorous engagement with the history of communications and entertainment and popular culture in the 20th and 21st centuries, and this coming to a head at this current cultural moment. These are undeniably of the modern moment, of the contemporary era, of this generation, and they are prisms through which all that came before is viewed and understood. Aesthetic movements, stylistic trends, cyclical sociocultural issues are all touched on in scarily efficient, absurd, entertaining fragments of cultural collage. Texts are active and mutable. There is nothing left sacred. In this mesmerizing abattoir, giddy works of mayhem and mischief are churned out in droves, classic texts are gleefully, irreparably sullied, and earnest art is vandalized for sport. There is no concern for repercussions or collateral damage; and, it’s beautiful and terrifying to behold.
This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine.