When one hears the word meme, it may conjure images of the annoying Minions and animals blurbs your distant relatives post on Facebook. However, Hayley Garrigus’ You Can’t Kill Meme shows the dark magic that surrounds these seemingly innocuous pieces of content.
Garrigus uses R. Kirk Packwood’s seminal 2004 academic work, “Memetic Magic: Manipulation of the Root Social Matrix and the Fabric of Reality”, as a jumping off point into the pitch-black corners of the interwebs. Packwood argues that memes can be the modern propaganda machine, as their ability to provoke amusement and laughter can make their messages powerfully bypass mental processes. Its this core argument that Garrigus sets out to confirm (or deny) in her directorial debut. Even though the audience is not subjected to three years of 4Chan trolls and witches like Garrigus was during its development, You Can’t Kill Meme can leave you feeling deflated and weary about the current state of our society.
While it is easy to scoff at the claims made by the interviewees about lizard people and auras the size of giants, Garrigus wisely includes their nuggets of truth that are universally accepted; feelings of loneliness and frustration about the lack of power and self-determination in contemporary society. You Can’t Kill Meme could have been a piece that ridiculed so called spiritual light workers and internet edge lords, but Garrigus instead chooses to try and understand and empathize with these individuals; she critiques not the individual, but the neoliberal system that has created our unjust world.
However, considering the film traces the evolving nature of the meme from early 2004 to the modern era, the amount of content is far too much for You Can’t Kill Meme to cover in its 78 minute runtime. Specifically, the portion dedicated to how memetic magic affected the outcome of the 2016 U.S. election feels glossed over and does not consider the role data companies like Cambridge Analytica had in the dissemination of political memes. Despite some structural stumbles in the second half, You Can’t Kill Meme is still an illuminating look at the darkness and power of the internet’s most shareable form of content.
The Silver Lining
Garrigus’ brief segue into the origins of Pepe the Frog and how a simple comic character was co-opted by the alt-right as their collective symbol is eye-opening, especially to those (like myself) who have a fairly limited knowledge of internet trends and icons. It’s a perfect introduction that compels one to watch Feels Good Man, the 2020 documentary about the creator of Pepe the Frog (available on Amazon)
You Can’t Kill Meme releases on Altavod, Apple TV and VOD tomorrow, December 7th, 2021.