' ' Cinema Romantico: Memes Unlimited

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Memes Unlimited

If a meme was, as Richard Dawkins first defined it in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, and as James Gleick put it for The Smithsonian Magazine, connecting the evolution of genes to the evolution of ideas, it was only inevitable that those ideas would mutate into something else over time since that mutation was Dawkins’s whole point in the first place, even if that mutation took a different form than he might like. Indeed, in the 1990s Mike Godwin established a law that has taken his name, one stipulating that the longer an online discussion goes, the greater the probability that a N*zi or H*tler comparison will emerge, which, one might argue, crystallizes our current American peril. Memes, though, have taken other, less outright evil forms in the Internet age, a little less like the evolution of ideas and more like the evolution of inanity. If Tweets and texts have replaced letters and fully formed thoughts then memes by way of GIFS have replaced Tweets and texts. Why actually reply to someone with words online when you can still, now, in 2019, go to the dry well of that cat furiously clicking the keyboard GIF in moments of extreme online stress or offer congratulations via that GIF of Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Great Gatsby” raising his glass. Never mind that one blogging idiot who conveys his current state of mind not with words but screen shots of Keira Knightley doing things. (Seriously, give it up, dude.)

keira knightley finds out about this idiot’s meme of her
The Leo meme is instructive. If Jay Gatsby’s lavish parties belie the American Dream’s emptiness, as any grade school book report should be able to attest, the memeification of Gatsby making a toast to accompany one of those hollow soirees is at odds with the actual image’s intent. It is further evidence of the Internet Killed Irony argument, just like the oft-used Nod of Approval Meme is culled from Robert Redford’s “Jeremiah Johnson” (1973), a movie in which a war veteran walks into the wilderness and remains there, its 1973 release predating the online echo chamber but nevertheless foreshadowing a future where people of a certain variety yearn for the last place on earth without human noise, only marking this mountain man meme as all the more rich. This dumb bit of Internet comedy, however, took an unexpected twist when it was recently uncovered that a good chunk of the online community replicating it had no idea the person in the image was Redford, let alone that the movie was “Jeremiah Johnson.” What they thought it was – “Cry Wilderness” from “Mystery Science Theater 3000”? – seems less important than what it seems to say about our current cinematic state.

At my showing of “Toy Story 4”, across the aisle and one row up, a mom stood up and snapped a photo with her phone of her children watching “Toy Story 4.” She did not do this before the movie. She did not do this during the coming attractions. She did this DURING THE MOVIE. Forget for a moment the egregious example of moviegoing etiquette she is setting for her own children and consider how, in this example of egregious movie-going etiquette, she is reducing the film on the screen to a mere prop undoubtedly in service of a Facebook for Instagram post. “Toy Story 4” becomes nothing but a hashtag to help expedite the likes. That flashed me back to the screening of “The Trip to Italy” My Beautiful, Perspicacious Wife and I attended in 2014. At the end, as an indelible Mediterranean sunset filled the screen, a patron down front and to our left, held up her phone and snapped a photo. My Beautiful, Perspicacious Wife and I debated about the point of this photo. Was it just a keepsake? Was she going to share it online to show she’d been at the movie? Was she going to pass the photo off as her own?

In the end, it doesn’t matter. This picture, like the “Toy Story 4” family photo, diminishes the whole big screen experience to a personal instant Polaroid. I’m surprised the woman at “The Trip to Italy” didn’t slide in front of the screen to have her friend take a picture, like the big screen was one of those giant cutout boards at an amusement park where you and yours put your faces into some pre-made board and become a prairie family on the Oregon Trail, or something, which is probably our next level of god-awful future. And that’s essentially what memes are doing too. They are not Youtube clips which are, at least, in their own way, appreciations of the films from which they are taken. And they are not rap samples, which are borrowed, yes, but frequently form the sonic backbone of a song (like Tribe Called Quest sampling Art Blakely on “Excursions”). No, memes are disassembling existing images in service of something like a cinematic chop shop, not just ridding them of their original meaning but stripping them of all context, selling them as something else. And though it’s possible I am merely a Grumpy Gus trying to ruin everyone’s online fun, I nevertheless fear a future where what you call movies I call screensaver slideshows.

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