Tribeca FF 2018 Review: ‘The American Meme’ Documentary With Paris Hilton, Emily Ratajkowski, Brittany Furlan
What does it take to become a Social Media giant? Is Donald Trump a Social Media giant or does he buy Twitter followers as one might do and has been reported? And how easy is it to be exploited online by malign actors from adversarial countries? When documentary director Bert Marcus began to investigate the online habitats created by wannabe celebrities capitalizing on creating their own brands from their individual styles and ethos, he wasn’t concerned about politics. He wanted to explore whether the Social Media “giants” determined by their hits and followers were happy. What did it take to command an army of millions and turn them into cold hard cash? Notoriety is celebrity these days. And the individuals he chased down gladly opened their doors for additional publicity in his documentary. And one hand washed the other in The American Meme the documentary that attempts to get to the bottom of the phenomenon that inspires American Social Media personalities but only scratches the surface.
Himself capitalizing and riding the coattails of Social darlings like Paris Hilton, Emily Ratajkowski, Hailey Bieber, Brittany Furlan, The Fat Jew, and Kirill Bichutsky to name a few, in the guise of “going behind the scenes,” Marcus attempts to examine these individuals’ personal lives and the impact of sustaining their memes on the digital universe. Yes, they are human beings, not two dimensional screen figures. What were/are the sacrifices of seeking celebrity? How obsessed must one be to have a legion of followers? How clever? How creatively brilliant? It is possible to then take that notoriety and become one’s own entrepreneur garnering angel investors and/or others willing to share in the glory for a profit-making investment? Of course.
Marcus is strongest in his examination as he begins to scratch the surface of psychological and emotional burn out. How tough is it to top yourself from your last next “best thing” that your followers “loved?” And indeed, the moment one tries to find some down time from all of the frenzy of hits, the followers drop off. You can’t be away from the screen too long. You have to promote yourself. So another question he looks at is to what extent can an uber Social Media celebrity cool it and take a vacation from their phone? Instant success is instant oblivion online, even though the trails on Vines, Instagram and Youtube videos remain. In the instance of Krill whose branding is insanity, can he and others like him looking for their digital landescape afford to stop the sensationalism or stop pushing the envelope of outrageousness? What happens when enough is enough. And is enough ever enough?
I guess one can put it this way. Can Donald Trump afford not to tweet or be controversial? Well, thankfully, Marcus’ subjects are not in the presidential hot seat. On the other hand, the same chronic indulgence in self-exploitation and selfishness disguised in the form of selflessness to entertain one’s fans, in other words, narcissism, is present. The most affective celebrities online are the ones whose craziness turns on making fun of themselves.
The documentary highlights the individuals stated above and also Josh Ostrovsky and Kirill Bichutsky. I particularly found the latter funny horrible and one reason why the #MeToo movement came into being. Women and men need to be educated toward what sadism, masochism and soul-destroying crowd behavior does to the culture. As a factor of The American Meme which does not judge, it attempts to humanize yet poke fun at these Social Media stars while riding their outrageousness. Thus, the tone and purpose of the film got misdirected somehow. In exposing such a phenomenon, it is important to take a position. I found that the film tries to but fails and gets bogged down in revealing the pain and torment of self-victimization, itself victimization of those who have the strength not to. Methinks the film protests to much in the wrong areas and doesn’t protest at all what it should.
Thus, the “celebrities” exhaustion, depression and upset that they created this branding image monster that is devouring them piecemeal is a vital point. But on the other hand, that their perspective is infantile is paramount. There is so much that we should be apprised of including Climate Change, institutional and governmental discrimination, the outrageous abuses occurring at our Southern border with children imprisoned in camps without proper supervision and attention, the threat of citizens being thrown off their healthcare.
To my febrile, ancient mind this documentary is as indulgent as its subjects. Hopefully, once these Social personalities grow up, perhaps they will do something purposeful in the world. Some of them like Amanda Cerny have. But she is not one of those who clawed to the top of the Social Media platforms amassing followers through either looking stupid good or appearing arrogant and clueless and lovely or with the guys like Kirill doing the opposite and being disgusting for disgusting sake. That to me rings too much of the current political media mogul that has usurped the seat of power to brand himself and the nation. The question is, what exactly do you want to do? And if you end up killing yourself or destroying your career, do you care?
But again The American Meme is not political. However, it does highlight self-victimization and feeling victimized by one’s fans and the relentless gorging of the media on the outrageous and controversial. In any case, many will find Marcus’ revelations and/or the celebratory comments and behaviors fascinating. Indeed, this film is for those who believe that Social Media is revolutionary by bringing the American Dream right onto one’s phone camera and using one’s creativity to grab the attention of millions. That is a feat. But as Andy Warhol stated, everyone has their 15 minutes of fame. Ironically, his criticism of this in the culture, most people missed. Also, the crowd mentality around celebrity and the rabid and misguided search for the American Meme/Dream theme, if it amuses, was beautifully stated in a 1939 novel by Nathaniel West which is about Hollywood as a devouring fiction. The novel is The Day of the Locust. And West reveals the same type of frenzy driving humanity. The novel was also made into the 1979 titular film which was a barely recognizable, loose adaptation of the novel about a few of Hollywood’s failed dreamers.
As an expose, Marcus documentary is lukewarm. Would that he had gone deeper, for the idea is a fascinating one that needs exploration, certainly. As a documentary that informs with appropriate edits and Social Media intercuts, it does its job. As a position piece, it is obvious and bland. Citing more details, facts and highlighting the Social celebrities who are making it across platforms and whose creativity does rock might have been more trenchant. But then again, riding the tail wind as this film does, followers of these stars will enjoy The American Meme. As a future historical piece, Marcus has laid the groundwork for others to go beyond the surface to the psychology behind the memes. Just do it!