This Russian Filmmaker Invented Response Memes 100 Years Ago
Ah, internet memes. Depending who you are, they’re what you make online and talk about with your buddies at school, what your goddamn kid won’t stop looking at at the dinner table, or the things you mock when you’re being an ironic piece of shit online. But we can all agree: memes are the best! Or the absolute most awful worst! In any case, memes work because of a particular weird psychological effect filmmakers have been consciously manipulating since the late 1910s.
A “meme,” properly speaking, is “a gene in the realm of the idea,” which is a complicated definition you can look up if you want. But language is a living thing, so much like “ironic” now means “sort of sarcastic,” the common usage “internet meme” refers to “a picture that everyone recognizes with some impact-font text on it.”
We all know what these are, and you can find them in every corner of the internet. I want to talk about a particular strain of meme, the Response Meme. The most popular of these is maybe Kermit drinking tea, the picture that started out explicitly accompanied with the phrase “but that’s none of my business” and eventually just took on that meaning implicitly without the meme-er having to write it. Or that picture of T.I. smiling kind of expectantly that evokes the phrase “Where dey at doe?” These and tons of others are popular on Twitter and message boards, where users can simply post the picture as a playful shorthand for a larger sentiment.
There’s also an even simpler type of these don’t even need explanation, they’re just particularly expressive pictures, like Kevin Hart looking really confused, or Joe Pesci toasting a drink and smiling or a stoned guy with his hoodie hood pulled really tight, or Captain Picard being like “C’mon!” These don’t even need any context, their meaning is self evident.
Anyways, memes – especially that last type – always remind me of the Kuleshov Effect, explained in this interview with Alfred Hitchcock:
Hitchcock was obsessed with the Kuleshov Effect because, as he says, the essence of pure cinema is in editing together disparate images to create new meaning, or “montage.” This is an idea that started with the Soviet Russian filmmakers of the late 1910s and 1920s, most importantly Sergei Eisenstein. Eisenstein’s most famous movie is Battleship Potemkin, but his first feature, Strike, demonstrates this perfectly in a scene where he cuts together shots of an army fighting and losing a battle with a cow getting slaughtered to put forth the idea that war is cruel, soldiers are like cows to the slaughter, etc.
Of course this is all pretty basic now, but these guys were inventing it. Until then it was a revolutionary idea to even skip from one image in a film to another discontinuous one, or at least risky. Because nobody knew how or why it worked. And really, we still don’t. The human brain really shouldn’t be able to make sense of it. As Walter Murch, the guy who edited Apocalypse Now, amongst many, many others, wrote in his famous editing book In the Blink of an Eye, “Nothing in our day-to-day experience seems to prepare us for such a thing. Instead, from the moment we get up in the morning until we close our eyes at night, the visual reality we perceive is a continuous stream of linked images.”
In other words, when someone writes “JR Smith’s shooting percentage has gone way up since getting traded to a city with no club scene” and then the picture of Kermit drinking the tea, there’s no reason why your brain should put those things together. But it does. Part of your brain kind of thinks Kermit just said that stuff about Kevin Love and then said “but that’s none of my business” and took a drink of Lipton tea.
But somehow putting together images like this works, and it was pioneered by filmmakers like Eisenstein and his colleague Lev Kuleshov, who actually conducted an experiment to see if it would really, reliably work at the most simple level.
Kuleshov showed an audience a shot of an actor looking at something, then showed them a shot of a coffin, and the audience all reported that the actor looked sad. Then he showed them the same shot of the actor, then a shot of a bowl of soup, and they said he looked hungry. Then a shot of a woman on a couch, and they said he looked “lustful.”
And not only did the audience retroactively project these motivations on the actor, they actually thought it was three different shots. In the same way you can respond to someone’s haircut with a picture of Kevin Hart looking disgusted and he seems like a jerk, or you can post Kevin Hart looking disgusted in response to someone’s racist joke and he seems righteously indignant, etc. It was the world’s first meme.
There’s probably a conversation to be had about how the audience of that experiment wasn’t trained to interpret images the way we are now, and how there’s even been an incredible language of editing built over the past century since then that we’ve internalized without even realizing it. But, I mean, that kind of only proves the point more, that even with no prior context, our brains put these images together and try to make sense of them.
And for years directors like Hitchcock have loved to talk about how they can manipulate this weird phenomenon through “montage,” the one thing cinema had over any other medium. Because, of course, writing, dialogue, story, etc. you can get from books, acting you can get from plays, music you can get from, well, music. But only cinema could stitch together disparate images to create new meaning. Yep, only cinema.
Well, it seems like maybe that’s not so true. The internet has really taken this particular phenomenon and run with it. Just like it’s democratized music, joke writing, news reporting, and photography, the internet has given the power of the montage to the common person. It took 100 years, but it’s now safe to say: Lev Kuleshov truly was the Oppenheimer of internet memes. I guess if he didn’t do it, someone else would have.
But that’s none of my business.