In Watch This, Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff tells you what she’s watching on TV — and why you should watch it too. Read the archives here. This week: the YouTube video “Men. Abuse. Trauma.” The video was made by Philosophy Tube, the YouTube home of Oliver Thorn.
The most impressive thing about “Men. Abuse. Trauma,” a new video from the YouTube channel Philosophy Tube, is how it calls its shot.
Near the start, Philosophy Tube star Oliver Thorn — the only person you will see on camera throughout — mentions how much he likes the Jean-Paul Sartre play No Exit. Thorn says he especially likes the way the play doesn’t offer you an escape from its setting in hell. You are always trapped right there with the characters, in a small windowless room, slowly coming to realize that (in the play’s most famous line) “hell is other people.”
Thorn is subtly setting you up here, underlining what he’s about to do. For the entirety of the 30-minute-plus video, he never cuts away from the shot or even employ the micro-cuts familiar to the vlogging form he is loosely employing. (A micro-cut is when the vlogger cuts from them saying one thing to another, even though they’re sitting in the same position. It’s a jump cut from one point in time to another, and it’s an intentional stylistic choice by most people who work in the form.) He’s just going to talk to us and talk to us and talk to us, until he’s not talking to us.
It’s thrilling — and not just because of how raw and bruising Thorn’s monologue is, or how well written it is. It’s also thrilling because this is a YouTube video where aesthetic form is inseparable from content.
Not cutting away immerses you in Thorn’s story. But not cutting away also created a video that was difficult to make.
Thorn typically makes videos that tackle philosophical topics (the channel’s name is, after all, Philosophy Tube) and look at sociopolitical ideas of the current era from a leftist point of view. Perhaps the best example of his typical content is, for my money, this video from February on Steve Bannon, which effortlessly undercuts the former Trump adviser’s entire shtick and features a cover of a song from Hadestown.
But Thorn also occasionally opens up his personal life in his content. “Men. Abuse. Trauma.” is one such video, and I’d rather not dissect exactly why, to preserve the power of the moment for you when you watch it. (Suffice to say the video is a lengthy monologue about how men deal with mental health issues and leave it at that.) But Thorn has talked previously about his suicide attempt in an older video from 2018, and he says in his new video that he still gets at least one email a day from people who say that earlier video saved their lives.
Late in “Men. Abuse. Trauma,” Thorn suggests that one project worth undertaking, should you have a platform like his to do it, is to increase the number of emotional colors that men feel free to paint with, so they’re not forced to work with such a limited palette. By making a video like this one, he says, other men might be able to recognize themselves in his story and find sustenance and help with the process of navigating their own emotions.
(A personal sidebar: This is deeply true. Since coming out as a trans woman, I’ve found a staggering number of emotional support systems open to women compared to those for men, because women in our culture are expected to be emotional, whereas men are expected to be buttoned-down. If I’m having a hard day or quietly crying at a restaurant, I almost always receive a quick, “Are you okay?” from other women who might be around. This never happened to me when I lived my life as a man — both because I didn’t let myself feel those emotions and because other men haven’t been socialized to do this. Instead, they are inclined to scurry away. Something to think about!)
Contributing to that power is that “Men. Abuse. Trauma.” consists of just one take. When I asked Thorn if he had hidden any cuts in, say, the very long pan across the room where he filmed the video that takes up roughly a minute of the video’s midsection, he said that, no, as the camera pans, he’s just off to the side changing his costume for when it reaches his next setup. This gives the illusion of a video broken into two parts but also doesn’t release you from the video’s grip. You are stuck in the emotional, vulnerable place with Thorn, and he wants you to live with it in that silent pan.
Even more remarkable is that Thorn memorized the entire, 30-minute monologue, rather than read off cue cards. And it only took him two takes to nail it for the video. (He used the second.) In another context, this might feel shallow or gimmicky, but the video simply wouldn’t work without its form. If Thorn had edited the video to add several cuts, or several segments featuring different characters played by him (his usual style), it would be too easy to let the tension and vulnerability that builds as Thorn tells his story seep out of the video. He has lived within it for so long, and so will you.
That’s not to imply the video is hopeless. It ends with a kind of call to action, both for viewers and for Thorn himself, but even more poignant is what happens during the long pan at the video’s midpoint. Early on, Thorn points out that in No Exit, there are no mirrors in Hell and no cuts away from the action, no scene shifts. But even though “Men. Abuse. Trauma.” doesn’t feature any physical cuts, the pan does create a scene shift.
And in the middle of the pan, the camera catches something else in the corner — a mirror, reflecting back the portion of the video we’ve just seen. You’re not in hell if you can see yourself clearly. Thorn gives himself that gift and then offers it to his audience too. It’s one of the best TV episodes of the year.