Cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker once wrote that “in his greatest genius, man is still laughed at”. This feeling could reassure actor Ben Platt, who has recently served as a punching bag in certain areas of the Internet. Everywhere you turn you see footage from her latest movie role. They show what appears to be a high school student, only there is something strange about him, a strange fusion of boy and man. He wears a striped polo shirt and elastic curls of hair which, observers insist, absolutely must be a wig. Sometimes you’re offered a still image of him sobbing, his torn, tortured expression – like a stage actor, exaggerating for the most remote places on Broadway, might portray heartbreak. Sometimes it’s a seven second video in which Platt stutters and then runs off down the hall of a high school – an awkward, hypnotic and confusing jog from a 28-year-old who has played the same 17-year-old, on stage and now in the cinema, for about seven years.
The memes started circulating months ago, after the trailer for “Dear Evan Hansen,” a star-filled film adaptation of Tony’s award-winning musical, came out. In hindsight, jokes were probably inevitable. The trailer reached an audience that knew nothing about the stage project, or that Platt was originally the title role; to new eyes, her cast looked comical, her slicked back face and Orphan Annie haircut reminiscent of an undercover cop. Platt, as if trying to prove his youthful good faith, called the mockery “hikes being assholes.” But then came the real movie and some new waves of jokes. Now it wasn’t just the incongruity of Platt’s casting; that was all. The gap between the film’s intentions and its execution seemed wide enough to be spotted in any setting. What read as sincere on stage landed with a thud in close-ups on a huge screen. Platt’s run was fun. The expression of tortured crying was funny. And it was the most fun building Twitter jokes by mixing that funny face with other popular memes, other funny faces.
This cycle has become a kind of ritual. A new film comes out, and almost immediately, images are ripped off and scattered on social media. At first, the images always represent the film itself; they are shared in a spirit of praise or disbelief, captioned “Loved this scene” or “You must see this”. But the image is quickly cut out of that context and takes the place of something unrelated – a funny feeling, a reaction, a new punchline. Sometimes years later, after the film itself has been largely forgotten, you’ll still find footage of it circulating, speaking a new dialect that is impossible to trace back to its original language.
A good example is the scene in “Marriage Story” (2019) in which the central couple in the film have a screaming match. When a clip came online, it mostly sparked arguments over whether the acting was good. But soon, people reused four stills from the scene – culminating with Adam Driver punching a hole in a wall – into a ready-made comic, which could refer to anything: frivolous real-world arguments, esoteric debates from other corners of the internet. In some circles, the pictures became so familiar that any of them could be used as a referential joke; they were as immediately readable as a picture of Don Corleone sitting behind his large desk, or of Rocky walking up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Being the target of contempt for the Internet is de facto not a bad thing.
The image of a crying Platt is already an oft-repeated joke, and his pushing is, to a very great extent, derision. (On Broadway, “Dear Evan Hansen” balances between a tragic game of morality and a light coming-of-age story, but the adaptation is a tonal pile-up – “A Very Special Episode: The Musical: The film. “) But being the target of contempt for the Internet is de facto not a bad thing. When a meme travels far enough, the underlying film can earn what feels like cultural currency. The very fact that the images are not part of any intentional advertising actually gives them a note of authenticity. They resonate, perversely, on their own merit. Is there a better form of contemporary advertising?
Sometimes success of a movie meme comes from the fascination with a high-profile project that went horribly wrong – like the 2019 film “Cats,” whose quirks and slaughtered visuals caused people to buy tickets just to stay mouthed. gaping. But memes don’t always represent a desire to watch hate. Arty studio A24’s releases, for example – “Uncut Gems”, “Midsommar”, “Lady Bird” – are often both critically loved and manic. “Parasite,” which won the Best Picture at the 2020 Oscars, has sprouted a number of blockbuster screenshots. The suggestive power of the meme has less to do with the quality of the movie than with the appeal of the moment. The best are like the images of Adam Sandler’s character in “Uncut Gems”, which is at the same time pathetic, repulsive and deeply sympathetic: they capture something singular in the film, but also familiar feelings (little despair, disgust). self) who live outside of it.
This turns out to be a great way to focus our attention. When people mourn and long for the old-fashioned video rental store, part of what they lack is a place that has distilled the world into a room with harsh boundaries – unlike the modern media landscape, which by contrast and by design, never ends. It’s remarkable how well a meme can squeeze individual works out of this sea of undifferentiated content, turning them into the digital equivalent of a water-cooler talking point. This ritual hardly represents a challenge to the power of traditional advertising and advertising; it might help a movie grab the attention of some influential gossip classes, but so far “Dear Evan Hansen” has yet to recoup its budget. Yet: what is fascinating is to imagine what impact this could have on the future.
It has long been possible to see the impact of a film in its iconic images, the elements that make up the awards show. The sight of Rocky walking up the museum steps is instantly recognizable, even to those who have never seen the movie. Sometimes the image goes beyond the film entirely, the way Marilyn Monroe’s subway grid pose eclipses everything else in “The Seven Year Itch”. Sometimes we even remember a movie primarily for the jokes it spawns – like with, say, Charlton Heston’s iconic bellow from the “Soylent Green is People!” Line. in a movie, most people don’t know much else. It’s eerily easy to imagine a future in which the legacy of “Marriage Story” turns out to be the sight of Adam Driver’s hand piercing through drywall, deployed as some sort of big-budget emoji – a benchmark that some will recognize without quite knowing where it came from.
Movie memes might even be the best way to capture how art was originally consumed: with jaw-dropping attention spans, every emotion is underestimated by self-awareness, dissected into a grammar. referential composed of Internet sub-dialects. That “Dear Evan Hansen” fails, by traditional measures, does not mean that he will be forgotten. “In his greatest genius, man is always mocked” – or maybe the two are one, and the artist’s immortal legacy is very much like a roast.
Photographic sources: Getty Images; screenshots from Universal Pictures and Netflix.