Ontology of the Memed Image

The Cinema Rediscovered film festival provided an opportunity to explore how online users remix and re-contextualize moments on film.
Ben Flanagan

Ben Flanagan was a participant on this year's Film Critics Day workshop at the Cinema Rediscovered film festival in Bristol and Clevedon in the U.K., a celebration of the finest new digital restorations, contemporary classics and film print rarities from across the globe. Further examples of the writing from the workshop, as well as information about the program, can be found on the Cinema Rediscovered Blog.

If the memic arts were put under psychoanalysis, the practice of embalming cinema might turn out to be a fundamental factor in their creation. I’m reworking André Bazin’s Ontology of the Photographic Image here, wherein the great critic, who would have turned 100 this year, states that the cinema “embalms time, rescuing it simply from its proper corruption”. Similarly, the autonomy afforded the online user to remix and re-contextualise moments on film may be a way to navigate and index its history.


Some of these works of meme are an ambitious reframing of the cultural archive. Without seeing ‘The Greatest Snowman’ (author unknown), how will future film historians be aware that, in late 2017, there was a cross-section of cinephiles obsessed with both a disastrous Jo Nesbo adaptation and a zany Hugh Jackman musical? Memes create an indexical footprint of the moment, embalming the mindset of the culture: now in-jokes are as accessible as statistics and articles. Bazin’s urgent, endless search for meaning is contained in the immediacy of the meme. There can be a sense of discovery at an untouched corner of culture, brought to light in new contexts with a stupid joke. This makes it possible to push challenging cinema to more people than Bazin ever could when he was carrying his projector into factories for Travail et Culture.  

A photograph of Garbo’s face isn’t Garbo. But it is of her. It is related to her, forever tangled together. “The photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it.” The meme, likewise, isn’t the film, but it becomes a part of its lifespan, its story. Films like Downfall (1964) and Vampire’s Kiss (1988) enjoy an entirely new audience through their exposure to the meme cycle. The meme may not be an exact depiction of the film, but in its mechanical reproduction becomes its own object, both together and separate from the original. They often aren’t a complete idea, but the brevity and direct reference forces the viewer to reconsider their relationship to the film at hand.

This is the potential, but not necessarily the function of the social media driven meme.


In a world where everything is a cultural phenomenon and nothing is, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (2018) genuinely appears to have shifted the dial for blockbuster cinema, evidenced not only by the large box office revenue but, also, by the sheer number of moments that are re-lived through the memes it spawned. These speak to the film’s resonance with a variety of communities, reflected in the sheer volume of memes about the film. One by Dana Schwartz, for example, exposes an element of the performative reaction to Black Panther, and links it to the discourse surrounding Get Out (2017). What will extend its cultural life is the way that memes are able to use the political coding of the film to cover almost any topic. The film’s vague ideological position (it was embraced by both Black Lives Matter activists and Trump supporters) potentially marks it as a cynical object of capitalism. For meme makers to have seized on the film to push its subtext rewrites its narrative and also exposes the hypocrisy of the Disney-Marvel machine. 

In the run up to last year’s awards season, big players such as Call Me By Your Name (2017) and Lady Bird (2017) built their campaigns upon a young, aggressive fan base, hungry for additional content to supplement their experiences. And studios are only too happy to oblige: A24 Films now releases a collection of gifs alongside each new release—transforming how word of mouth works. When one is able to shape their online identity using the aesthetic of a film, it feeds upwards, and studios are now trying to control the direction that the narrative takes by providing high resolution gifs of specific moments. Meming a film is more than a project of cultural capital, it must become a way to seize back cinema’s essence.  

How then, can the meme be used to rediscover the history of cinema?

Perhaps the great innovator of this young form is Eric Allen Hatch. The Baltimore based programmer’s efforts in photoshopping Paul Blart (of the Paul Blart: Mall Cop movie franchise) into inscrutable art films like Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) manages to break down the barriers between high and low culture. You might argue that this work trivialises the level of engagement that cinema’s richest treasures require (Hatch parodied this thought himself, in Blart form, pictured below), but purists need to get real. The meme can be the next stage in rescuing the plastic arts. Bazin hinted toward this in Ontology, “The photograph allows us on the one hand to admire in reproduction something that our eyes alone could not have taught us to love, and on the other, to admire the painting as a thing in itself whose relation to something in nature has ceased to be the justification for its existence.”

The best way to honour cinema is to sustain its legacy, yet we live in a time where classic cinema slips further from the cultural conversation even while its effects linger in the collective subconscious. A time in which some critics even question the necessity of film history. It is vital and reassuring to see these memes breaking down barriers and providing a connective tissue for the form.  

On the other hand,memes are also a language.

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