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The Television Screen is the Retina of the Mind’s Eye: A Look at Video Mixtapes

The Television Screen is the Retina of the Mind’s Eye: A Look at Video Mixtapes

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Feature by: David Carter

Posted on: 04 May 2010

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Features Video Mixtapes: A Guide

The arrival of the cassette tape did not necessarily change how music was created but it did change how music was consumed; listeners could create and sequence their own albums, and in short order the mixtape was born. In the decades since its invention, the mixtape has taken on many forms, from a symbol of affection to a work of art in its own right. Video mixtapes fall into the latter category: new works of art constituted from existing video footage. Entertaining, shocking, and sometimes puzzling, video mixtapes represent a democratization of video-art and challenge our ideas of viewership.

History

In 1995, critic Jeffery Sconce identified an emerging and very specific type of rogue cinephile in his essay “Trashing the Academy,” a piece in which he analyzes taste preferences and class distinctions in cinema studies. “This audience,” he observed, “would be more inclined to watch a bootlegged McDonalds training film than Man with a Movie Camera.” We cannot know if Sconce was aware of it, but his observation had been made a reality a decade prior in the form of 1986’s Cathode Fuck, a work that incorporates several minutes of footage from McDonalds training films as well as a treasure trove of assorted video oddities. Created by Film Threat founder Chris Gore, Cathode Fuck is one of the earliest known examples of the video mixtape: a collection of clips from various films and television shows edited together into a new work, often having a shared theme and reflecting the particular obsessions and interests of its creator.

The structures of Cathode Fuck and its sequel, TV Sphincter, are the same and represent the blueprint of the video mixtape format. The mixtape format owes a great debt to Jacopetti & Prosperi’s Mondo films, in that short clips of various origins are rapidly juxtaposed with one another in an effort to give both a new meaning. It is important to note that the narrator, a key part of Mondo cinema, is not present. Any value assessments are to be made in the mind of the viewer. Additionally, mixtapes diverge from latter-day Mondo tradition in their incorporation of more innocuous footage from television and film as a buffer (such as clips from a CHIPs episode, in the case of Cathode Fuck) rather than going from shock to shock as in Faces of Death (1978).

Though structurally identical, Cathode Fuck and TV Sphincter (1987) have dramatically different tones. Cathode Fuck is primarily concerned with punk rock and its representation in mass media, illustrated through performances and interviews with The Clash and Public Image Ltd., as well as the punk rock attitude in unexpected places. The aforementioned McDonalds training film concerns taming surly employees and dealing with rude customers, both of which appear to epitomize “punk” after their juxtaposition with the other footage. TV Sphincter takes a decidedly more extreme approach and focuses on death, sex, and the bizarre, presaging 1989’s Amok Assault Video, which has a similar approach and uses many of the same clips. Both TV Sphincter and Amok Assault Video use footage of R. Budd Dwyer’s televised suicide, but TV Sphincter is by far the more shocking of the pair, incorporating medical instructional footage of adult circumcisions and male-to-female gender reassignment surgery1.

It is impossible to know the genesis of the mixtape but the fact that the three earliest known mixtapes were spawned by Film Threat and Amok Books, respectively, appears to be more than a simple coincidence. Video mixtapes seem to have their origins in the underground film ‘zine culture and, more specifically, in the bootlegging gray market such publications either facilitated or encouraged2. Tape trading had existed since the earliest days of home video and film ‘zines helped many fans discover films that otherwise would have gone unseen, while running ads for companies where those films could be purchased. Many of these companies would offer trailer compilations as a form of advertisement – Something Weird’s trailer compilations are a prime example of this – and one could assume that these trailer compilations are precursors to the video mixtape. As tape-traders’ catalogues expanded beyond hard-to-find films and foreign cinema, these trailer compilations became more and more varied and more than one company offered to dub a “short” – a short film or a television show – onto a tape at no extra charge, provided there was room3. The Internet would later become the main facilitator for lovers of bizarre culture to share and compare footage.

Style

Given that the obscurity of the phenomenon makes tracing a lineage near impossible, an exact history of the video mixtape is difficult, but the influence of the first three mixtapes can be seen in those that followed. Cathode Fuck, TV Sphincter and Amok Assault Tape each represent the different stylistic approaches to the mixtape: tame, extreme, and a mixture of both, respectively. The majority of later entries into the mixtape canon follow the middle path of the Amok Assault Tape in focusing specifically on juxtaposing disturbing images against more serene fare, but there are entries that cater exclusively to the two extremes.

The combination of the shocking and the banal is the more popular approach and better emphasizes the genius of the mixtape format. Montage is the building block of the mixtape, as the order and length of the clips create a gestalt narrative for the piece separate from or in spite of the creator’s intentions. For example, TV Carnage: A Rich Tradition of Magic has an easily discernible focus on race relations, particularly highlighting failed attempts by mass culture (re: white culture) to co-opt aspects of African-American culture. Included are several sitcom clips where the differences between whites and blacks are used as punch lines in what would now be deemed culturally insensitive ways, a clip from an early nineties Howard Stern broadcast where a KKK member is consulted about the “race hierarchy,” and failed attempts at rapping by Brian Austin Green and a group of French children. Viewed in their original contexts, most of these clips would simply be dismissed or go unnoticed, but the mixtape format emphasizes their ludicrousness through juxtaposition. The best examples of the mixtape genre go beyond a simple mish-mash of bizarre clips and become a form of potent social commentary and cultural criticism.

Other explicitly tame entries in the mixtape canon also invite the viewer to read them as social commentary and are often more successful because of the lack of distracting extreme footage. The exclusively extreme mixtapes are more difficult to read, however, due to their upsetting content. Entries like The Ultimate Hardgore Splatter Tape and Fucked Up Movie appear to be little more than catalogues of violence and sex, respectively, with little insight given into the societies that created them. To analyze them for a trace of a deeper meaning would require the viewer to subject themselves to – in the case of Fucked Up Movie – almost two hours of coprophagy, bestiality, and medical fetish pornography4. If there is a message, it is too difficult to tease out from the mental cacophony such clips cause.

Mixtapes don’t create culture – they simply reflect it – and to that end there are extreme mixtapes that can also be read as social commentary. Though it consists almost entirely of clips from extreme pornographic videos, Scumbag—Porno Psycho Video Vol 1 still manages to have a commentary, obscured though it may be. Its assessment of popular culture can best be seen in the final montage of the piece in which graphic pornography is set to the X-Files theme. Regardless of your assessment of the events in the work, “they are out there” in the sense that modern society tolerates or allows them to exist. Unlike Fucked Up Movie, the Scumbag mixtape does not contain any illegal activities – all of the acts shown, shocking as they are, were compiled from commercially produced works5. But it bears noting that the exclusively extreme mixtapes are intended not for titillation purposes but for shock value. Compilation films designed to titillate exist, but their formatting and purpose falls outside of the video mixtape genre.

A fourth type of mixtape exists: the narrativeless clip compilation. Such mixtapes may contain tame or explicit footage and the clips usually last no longer than a few seconds and have music or other audio played over them. This style of mixtape reuses footage a great deal and often mixes clips to the rhythm of the song played over them, giving the work a “beat,” so to speak. Disorienting and yet beautiful, these mixtapes emphasize the “mix” and therefore the individual clips that comprise them are indiscernible. The best example of this is the mixtape Asylum for Shut-Ins: Video Psychotherapy, which uses mostly sci-fi and horror films and edits them down to key moments: explosions, gunshots, screams, and various moments of violence. Since such exciting moments are often accompanied by a soundtrack flourish, Video Psychotherapy becomes an exhilarating and intriguing aural and visual experience, with the knitting together of video clips dictated by how the soundtracks synchronize6. Constipation Camp Video Part 1 & 2 take a similar approach but creates more traditional “music videos” for bands like Death from Above 1979, Riff Cannon, and Torche using footage from My Bloody Valentine, Snuff, Patrick Lives!, and Street Trash.

Cathode Fuck, et al. were created using two VCRs to combine footage from various sources into a single tape, a time consuming and difficult process. The difficulties in creating them represents the most likely reason for the drop in mixtape production in the early-to-mid nineties and the subsequent boom that happened after video editing software made such complex editing simpler and more affordable. Mixtapes soon began to incorporate elements of semi-professional post-production – e.g. replacement of audio tracks for comedic effect, on-screen graphics explaining clips, etc. Video editing has become even more affordable and easy to use in recent years, and many mixtapes end with the salvo “Make your own damn mixtape7.”

The Internet has given rise to a community of mixtape creators and appreciators that encourage feedback and participation in the genre. “Make your own damn mixtape” is their creed and some even go so far as to solicit submissions and suggestions from their audiences, as in the case of Everything is Terrible. Some mixtape creators sell DVDs of their work but many distribute them for free via the Internet, advertising and spreading the word on film message boards and bit torrent sites. Some Internet viral videos have found their way onto some more recent mixtapes but, since the emphasis in the genre is on finding something previously unseen, this is rare. Newer mixtapes pay homage to those that have come before and frequently contain an acknowledgement section in the end credits where influences such as The Crazy Dave Tape, TV Carnage, and Retard-O-Tron are often mentioned.

Continue: Video Mixtapes: A Guide


  1. It should be noted some of the included “shock clips” such as real-life gore and gender reassignment surgery had been incorporated into Mondo films predating the video mixtape phenomenon. TV Sphincter’s footage of the Dwyer suicide predates its inclusion in the commercial Mondo Death Scenes by two years, however, making it the first known instance of the footage being circulated to a mass market since its original airing.
  2. Other notable influences include MTV, Videodrome, and the television series Night Flight.
  3. For a more in-depth example of the types of films that were available via gray market distributors, see Joan Hawkins’ essay “Sleaze mania, Euro-trash and high art: The place of European art films in American low culture” in her book Cutting Edge: Art-Horror and the Horrific Avant-garde, University of Minnesota Press.
  4. Some of the footage appears to originate from countries where it would be illegal to produce such material. As a further word of caution to our American, Canadian and UK readers, some scenes in the film may also be illegal to view in your locality.
  5. The legality of the acts in question can vary from state-to-state and country-to-country, but only footage that is legal in its respective country of origin is used. Bear in mind that some forms of “violence-themed” pornography are illegal in the UK and a good portion of the footage would likely be subject to that law.
  6. Explaining Video Psychotherapy is ultimately futile, as it can only be experienced firsthand: http://www.videopsychotherapy.com/index.asp
  7. The website for the Retard-O-Tron series has instructions for creating your own mixtape.

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