Hands in The Untamed: A Supercut Analysis

The Potential Poetics of Algorithmic Deformation?

I enjoyed doing the videographic exercises so much that I went looking for an extra one! In addition to the summer “video camp” workshop, my colleagues Chris and Jason also teach a semester course on videographic criticism, and in that course the students embark upon variations of the five videographic exercises and then some. You can find the various assignments outlined on a past iteration of the course website here. Of note is exercise five, which the students do before their abstract trailer–the algorithmic double feature. I haven’t (yet?) tried the equalized pulse half of this double feature exercise, but I was inspired to try my hand at a supercut. I am fascinated by the notion of algorithmic video deformations and what applying an algorithm of some sort to a media source text can tell us or reveal about that text. The deformative algorithmic approach seems so counter to vidding. I think it’s safe to say that fan vidders most often approach the making of a vid from the start with specific intent–with a meaning or interpretation in mind–and we also choose our order of clips and rhythmic editing based on the musicality and poetic interpretation. Vidders are also often guided by a set or sets of loosely-agreed upon community aesthetic rules, assumptions about what kinds of flow between shots work to orient a viewer and maintain their interest, to captivate a convention audience, or to keep someone watching your video in youtube from start to finish.

 But are these two approaches–algorithmic deformation vs. author driven poetic vidding completely opposed? I was quite inspired to poke at this question. In the back of my mind, I had Kogonada’s beautifully poetic “Hands of Bresson” as evidence that a supercut (though it’s not a strictly algorithmic one) could be deeply poetic rather than only mechanical. In the words of the language of Sukhdev Sandhu, “Hands of Bresson” is a work of “archival criticism that forgoes the language of rigour for that of rapture.”  (Sight & Sound, best films of 2014) 

And at the same time, a friend and I had recently been commenting on the preponderance of hands and hands as a theme in The Untamed. And so I thought–why not make a supercut, an homage of sorts to Kogonada’s video, of the hands in The Untamed? Since this was going to be an additional “exercise,” I limited myself to only the first and third episodes as I had with all the other exercises. This allowed me to keep more of an algorithmic approach. My video could include each and every shot featuring a hand that appeared in those two episodes. Although of course I had to think about what “featuring hands” exactly means. It couldn’t include every full or long shot that happened to have hands attached to bodies included with them; that would have been most of the two episodes! I landed on a middle ground of all close ups and medium close ups of hands plus any medium long shots in which the hands were a key element of focus in the mise en scene and/or were performing a key action.

Then came the question of order–should I keep theme in order or arrange them by theme as Kogonada did in “Hands of Bresson”? In part for the algorithmic angle of things, I decided to keep them in order–also, I rather liked how the shots flowed together and found the interweaving of quite different hand actions/contexts fascinating.

So now I ran into a personal/creative choice. Did I stick with pure algorithm and keep the shot lengths as they were in the original source? The vidder in me won out over the algorithmic purist (or the TV studies/archival purist, perhaps?) I decided that needed at least to edit these visuals for rhythmic alignment with sound. I chose a song that had no lyrics but that did have a sense of driving forward movement that I thought would effectively link the various gestures of all these hands. In the end, I did take one poetic license in order. I wanted to give a certain someone a last word, as I realized that by my qualifications my supercut would feature a key narrative image, and I wanted to put it to good use. For spoiler concerns, I will say no more, but if you watch the series you’ll know what I mean

The inclusion of that shot got me thinking: so much of what’s at the heart of The Untamed was captured through this focus on hands, including this absolutely key moment to the narrative. We see hangs clinging to one another, hands bleeding, hands letting go, hands holding swords, hands being cut by swords, hands performing magic, hands playing magical instruments, hands drinking tea while listening to gossip, hands opening fans to hide behind, hands reaching for masks, hands removing masks, hands holding bunnies, hands holding propaganda. Love, hate, gossip, myth, manipulation, desperation, the pursuit of power, hiding oneself, revealing oneself, these are all I would argue, key themes of The Untamed (and Mo Dao Zu Shi, the web novel it’s based on), distilled through this algorithmic videographic lens.

Videographic Criticism for Whom? 

Of course some of these elements and their connections to the larger The Untamed text are only evident to fans, or at least to those who know the show and/or book well. But that too gets at another key tension as we consider vidding and videographic criticism, one I don’t believe I’ve discussed yet. Within vidding history and meta vid discussions, fans in the past distinguished between “con vids” and “living room vids.” Living room vids are vids meant a) for people who already know the source text deeply and b) were meant to be watched multiple times for viewers (fans) to unfurl more and more subtle meanings. Con vids, on the other hand, were to be shown to a multifandom audience at a fan convention and thus a) needed to be accessible and compelling to people who might not be familiar with the source and b) needed to make an impact in one viewing. These different contexts result in very different aesthetic logics and priorities. Now we can once again see this duality in vids on YouTube, some of which are meant to speak to intimate already-invested communities, and others meant to be “pimp vids” intended to entice viewers to become fans of an unfamiliar source.

Is there room for both “Living Room” and “Con” videographic criticism, so to speak? Or to put it another way, as we begin to merge videographic criticism and vidding, what would vidcrit mean if made for/assuming an audience of fans/viewers who are familiar with the source text? Conversely, could there be pimp-videographic criticism? Do both equally exist at the moment?