The encroaching mid-point of 2021 saw the Empowerment Industrial Complex once again manufacturing the seasonal event of Hot Girl Summer. It was sold like snake oil as a cure-all for the psychological ailments wrought by the pandemic. Well, for me it was more like Depressed Cunt Summer. One acute source of stress was a feeling of burnout that made writing feel like more of a nail-pulling exercise than usual. Social media can be a powerful addiction that feeds the despair of the depressive, while presenting itself as a salve due to its mind-numbing properties. However, even Twitter – the depressed writer’s platform of choice – was becoming unbearable, and so that is where the algorithmic gyrations of TikTok come into play.
I had created a TikTok account back in 2019 to follow CYZ co-founder Ben Flanagan. Yet despite being blown away by the cinematic qualities of muhlizzaaaa’s opus You’re So Oily, I found the initial deluge of basic content to be impenetrable. I hadn’t let the algorithm wash over me.
Most of your time on TikTok is guided towards the For You Page (FYP), a never-ending tapeworm of video content you scroll through. From your viewing habits, the algorithm is able to deduce what kind of content you like to see and recommends more of the content you engage with. This is how online communities are formed.
Like Twitter, TikTok has its own loosely formed groups based on hobbies dressed up as personality traits. Watching Queline Meadows’ excellent video essay The Rise of Film TikTok recommended a bunch of cool accounts I could follow and not be so overwhelmed by viral dance trends and unfunny skits. The discourse on Film TikTok (FilmTok) is less developed than on Twitter. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. Part of the reason for this is that Film Twitter skews older. It is a noxious mix of pontificating amateurs raised on Ain’t it Cool News and equally pontificatious professionals who work for media conglomerates in Brooklyn, Austin, or London. It is somewhat refreshing then that Film TikTok is composed of young enthusiasts rather than jaded wannabes, even if The Discourse is less riveting.
At the same time it can be rather tedious seeing yet another Midsommar (2019) edit or relitigation over how annoying film bros can be. The pool of films being discussed, or rather gushed over, is remarkably shallow and sometimes it is easy to balk at some of the “UnDeRaTeD FiLMs” that get recommended. Slice of Amélie anyone? This is to be expected from young users with a smaller frame of reference than someone in their late twenties with enough disposable income for both Sight & Sound and MUBI subscriptions. Still, it felt like there was great potential to make videos about more niche fare given the lack of variety and the undeniable passion on display. If Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985) could make recurrent appearances on Film TikTok, perhaps Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent (1977) would be of interest.
I’ve always found video editing to be a slightly magical process. Although Facebook’s disastrous “pivot to video” was based on wild exaggeration that decimated the digital media job market, there was still something alluring about video content – specifically the act of creation. Adobe Premiere felt like sorcery compared to Google Docs and Zotero.
So in July, thoroughly burnt out and desperate for a creative outlet to distract me from my own self-hatred, I started making a video in the style of a TikTok. I took a snippet of audio from my Marlene Dietrich essay for Cinema Year Zero as the foundation and placed some smokey clips over it. The forced verticality of TikTok videos seemed to be an aesthetic hindrance when showing film clips but I personally found it fascinating. Close-ups of Dietrich can pop even more as you blow her up to take up the entirety of a phone screen. Alternatively you could be creative by splitting the screen top to bottom and concurrently show two clips. This would be useful to compare two different scenes. TikTok’s user interface is less cluttered in the top left hand corner of the screen, so the most important elements of each shot should gravitate towards that sweet spot. In short it was challenging, and it was fun.
The Dietrich video was never meant to be uploaded upon completion. It was just a way of occupying my mind with something that wasn’t work or depression. However, I felt a certain amount of pride in what I had created when it was finally finished. Scared, I posted and deleted the video a couple of times before resolving to just upload the damn thing and sleep on it, thinking the video would maybe get a dozen views. That was in the beginning of July. To date, the Dietrich video is my most successful post on TikTok with forty thousand views and over six thousand likes in September. That may be small potatoes compared to other accounts but for me it meant a lot to see people responding with enthusiasm to what I had made. Moreover, scanning some of the accounts engaging with video revealed greater diversity. It wasn’t just film people watching and liking the video. Some people left lovely comments.
I have continued to post on TikTok over the summer. Some posts are short, others longer. All of them have been valuable experiences to me, tapping into my passions and driving me to do better. I find myself with more video ideas than I know what to do with now, and have written several scripts in my Notes app. I don’t know whether I will still be posting on TikTok a year from now, and I won’t say it cured my depression, but it did provide a bright spot in what was otherwise a miserable summer.