The cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker once wrote that “in his greatest genius, man is still mocked.” This sentiment might be of some comfort to the actor Ben Platt, who has lately served as a punching bag in certain districts of the internet. Everywhere you turn, you see images of his latest film role. They show what appears to be a high school student, only there’s something strange about him, an odd fusion of boy and man. He wears a striped polo shirt and springy ringlets of hair that, observers insist, absolutely must be a wig. Sometimes you’re offered a still picture of him sobbing, his expression wrenched and tortured — the way a stage actor, exaggerating for Broadway’s rearmost seats, might portray grief. Sometimes it’s a seven-second video in which Platt stammers and then takes off running down a high school hallway — an awkward jog, somehow both hypnotic and bewildering, from a 28-year-old who has been playing the same 17-year-old, onstage and now in film, for some seven years.
The memes started circulating months ago, after the release of the trailer for “Dear Evan Hansen,” a star-crammed film adaptation of the Tony-winning musical. In hindsight, the jokes were probably unavoidable. The trailer reached audiences who knew nothing about the stage project, or that Platt had originated the title role; to fresh eyes, his casting seemed comical, his makeup-smoothed face and Orphan Annie haircut evoking an undercover cop. Platt, as if trying to prove his juvenile bona fides, dismissed the mockery as “randos being jerks.” But then came the actual movie, and fresh waves of jokes. Now it wasn’t just the incongruity of Platt’s casting; it was everything. The gap between the film’s intentions and its execution seemed wide enough to be spotted in any given frame. What read as sincere onstage landed with a thud in close-ups on an immense screen. Platt’s running was funny. The tortured crying expression was funny. And it was funniest of all to construct Twitter jokes by mashing up that funny face with other popular memes, of other funny faces.
This cycle has become something of a ritual. A new movie is released, and almost immediately, images are torn from it and scattered across social media. At first the images still represent the movie itself; they are shared in a spirit of praise or disbelief, captioned, “I loved this scene,” or “You have to see this.” But the image is quickly severed from this context and comes to stand in for something unrelated — a funny feeling, a reaction, a new punchline. Sometimes, years later, after the movie itself has been largely forgotten, you will still find images from it circulating, speaking a new dialect impossible to trace back to its language of origin.
A good example is the scene from “Marriage Story” (2019) in which the film’s central couple have a screaming match. When a clip arrived online, it mostly sparked arguments over whether the acting was any good. But soon people had repurposed four still images from the scene — culminating in Adam Driver’s punching a hole in a wall — as a ready-made comic strip, one that could refer to anything: frivolous disputes from the real world, esoteric debates from other corners of the internet. In some circles, the images became so familiar that you could use any one of them as a referential joke; they were as immediately legible as a picture of Don Corleone sitting behind his grand desk, or Rocky summitting the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The image of a crying Platt is already a much-iterated joke, and its thrust is, overwhelmingly, derisive. (On Broadway, “Dear Evan Hansen” balanced on a thin line between tragic morality play and light coming-of-age story, but the adaptation is a tonal pileup — “A Very Special Episode: The Musical: The Movie.”) But being the target of the internet’s scorn is not de facto a bad thing. When a meme circulates far enough, the underlying movie can gain what feels like cultural currency. The very fact that the images are not part of any intentional advertising actually lends them a note of authenticity. They are, in a perverse way, resonating on their own merit. Is there a better form of contemporary publicity?
Sometimes the success of a movie meme comes from fascination with a prestige project gone horribly wrong — like the 2019 movie “Cats,” whose quirks and butchered visual effects had people buying tickets just to gawk. But the memes don’t always represent a desire to hate-watch. Releases from the arty studio A24, for example — “Uncut Gems,” “Midsommar,” “Lady Bird” — are often both critically beloved and manically memed. “Parasite,” which won best picture at the 2020 Oscars, sprouted any number of blockbuster screenshots. The suggestive power of the meme has less to do with the quality of the film and more to do with the allure of the moment. The best ones are like the images of Adam Sandler’s character in “Uncut Gems,” who is at once pathetic, repulsive and deeply sympathetic: They capture something singular about the film, but also familiar feelings (petty desperation, self-loathing) that live outside of it.
This turns out to be an excellent way to focus our attention. When people mourn and nostalgize the old-school video-rental store, part of what they’re missing is a place that distilled the world down to a room with hard boundaries — unlike the modern media landscape, which, by contrast and by design, never ends. It’s remarkable how much a meme can lift individual works up from that sea of undifferentiated content, turning them into the digital equivalent of water-cooler conversation fodder. This ritual hardly represents much challenge to the power of traditional advertising and publicity; it might help a movie seize the attention of some influential chattering classes, but thus far “Dear Evan Hansen” has yet to recoup its budget. Still: What’s fascinating is to imagine what impact it might have on the future.
It has long been possible to see a movie’s impact in its iconic images, the stuff award-show montages are made of. The sight of Rocky running up those museum steps is instantly recognizable, even to those who have never seen the movie. Sometimes the image outstrips the film entirely, the way Marilyn Monroe’s subway-grate pose overshadows everything else about “The Seven Year Itch.” Sometimes we even remember a movie mostly for the jokes it spawns — as with, say, Charlton Heston’s iconic bellowing of the line “Soylent Green is people!” in a film most people know little else about. It’s strangely easy to imagine a future in which the legacy of “Marriage Story” turns out to be the sight of Adam Driver’s hand breaking through drywall, deployed as a kind of high-budget emoji — a reference some will recognize without quite knowing where it came from.
Movie memes might even be the best way to capture how the art was originally consumed: with pinballing attention spans, every emotion undercut by self-awareness, dissected in a referential grammar made up of internet sub-dialects. That “Dear Evan Hansen” is failing, by traditional metrics, does not mean that it will be forgotten. “In his greatest genius, man is still mocked” — or maybe the two become one, and the artist’s immortal legacy looks an awful lot like being roasted.
Source photographs: Getty Images; screen grabs from Universal Pictures and Netflix.