Dirt: The anti-cinema of YouTube clipping channels

Sopranos food shots only.

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The Ireland- and London-based writer Chris Hayes writes on YouTube channels where the extravagant narrative arcs of prestige TV shows are sliced and diced into hyper-specific compilations, forming a “non-linear visual soup.”

Why have nearly 4 million people watched a 42 minute video of random scenes involving food from the Sopranos? This is one of many short video snippets posted to YouTube by an army of fans and amateurs looking back to memorable quotes, dramatic climaxes, and banal moments of their favourite shows. It’s a bizarre and overlooked phenomenon of life in the age of the internet — one that warrants further examination.

It’s a guilty pleasure of mine to fall into the algorithm when I need a distraction, hoovering up one clip after another. Over time, I’ve been struck by how fundamentally different of an experience it is to watch something this way, chopped up and rearranged. In the most obvious ways, the YouTube clipping channel disregards the conventions of cinema which made the so-called Golden Age of TV a sensation — namely, the long form attention of the format, the ambiguities of their anti-heroes, and the authorial control over the linear narrative. 

I had expected to find bot farms repetitively chopping each episode into digestible chunks in the hopes of going viral to promote a dodgy link. But weirdly — perhaps charmingly — most clipping channel proprietors appear to be total amateurs. Typically, they will have between 2 and 5 clips of the particular show, and maybe they’ve tried to clip a few other things: some forgotten live performance of an ‘80s band or their own, less popular, workout videos. The rarest find of all is a channel with just one viral clip — I like to imagine they uploaded it, lost the password and later stumbled upon their new found and out of reach fame, wondering what could have been.

Over time, certain tropes become apparent. Many clips are straightforward edits given unambiguous titles, such as “The Sopranos - Hesh loans Tony Soprano 200k”. Others are dripping with the personality of the uploader, including quirky Windows Movie Maker transitions that link a number of scenes to, for example, highlight the hypocrisy of a given character or make foreshadowing explicit. The thematic curation could be a collection of arbitrary scenes, perhaps featuring food or murder, or a focus on a single side character which offers a new perspective on the show through their rise and fall. 

But there are darker shadows to this passionate collision of death-of-the-author meets fan culture. Each clip removes a scene from its broader context, often willfully disregarding the subtext of the original show. In the YouTube video titles and descriptions, as well as the enthusiastic comment sections, it’s not uncommon for the anti-heroes to be presented as straightforward idols. To the clippers, the violence, bullying, assault, harassment, cruelty, and myriad crimes are signs and signals of how Tony doesn’t take anyone’s shit, that they shouldn’t have messed with him — that he’s a real man. Such on-screen displays of abuse are typically defended by critics as exploring the topic and not an endorsement of it; within the 2-minute clip, there is no such ambiguity.

The Golden Age of TV is a hotly debated history. Broadly speaking, we are talking about how developments in technology, whether that’s DVDs or digital streaming, facilitated a new kind of TV that mimics the high production values and expansive narrative arcs of cinema. Both The Sopranos and its strange digital afterlife on Youtube are accelerated by technology, but produce entirely different effects. Rather than explore extended narrative arcs and layered storylines over years, the anti-cinema of the Youtube clipping channel suggests something else. More surreal montage than directors cut, we skip across seasons within the series at random. You would only consume such content if you had watched the original, yet returning again and again to mini-nostalgic vignettes in a non-linear visual soup is the kind of aesthetic that might lead us to question what’s so great about ‘originality’ and prestige storytelling anyway.

Still, the clipping channels fulfill an important function in our attention economy, where new things always compete for a share of our future nostalgia and emotional commitment. I find comfort knowing that whatever else is happening in life I can take a minute, or 40, to return to something familiar in a new way. — By Chris Hayes

The Dirt: Originality is overrated.

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