‘The Meme Machine’ documentary thoroughly, unforgivingly captures internet phenomenon

Rooster Teeth/Courtesy
"The Meme Machine" | Rooster Teeth
Grade: A-

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When one thinks of memes, one likely turns to two words to describe them: funny and stupid. But the phenomenon of the meme is so incredibly grand and vast that those are clear oversimplifications. Sure, a meme may be funny. Yes, most memes are really, painfully stupid. Yet, the culture and history of memes both show how this nugget of the internet is actually a language itself — one that had an incredibly complex beginning, one that has implications for how our generation communicates and one that has significant impact on the lives of both the sharers and the subjects.

“The Meme Machine,” the new documentary from Texas-based production and internet entertainment company Rooster Teeth, chronicles the history of memes and their development from the de-motivational posters of Despair, Inc., all the way up to and even beyond the infamous Bad Luck Brian and Overly Attached Girlfriend. On top of that, the film operates on a few different levels. Featuring linguists and cultural scholars, “The Meme Machine” digs into how memes aren’t just stupid products of the internet — they’re rather a form of language used to express sentiments that are more perfectly captured in that form than in any other. In addition, interviewing Tay Zonday (Chocolate Rain), Kyle Craven (Bad Luck Brian), Maggie Goldenberger (Ermahgerd Girl) and Laina Morris (Overly Attached Girlfriend) themselves, the film unveils the point of view of those we don’t often hear from: the subjects of the memes.

The film has a lot of information to take in. And with many viewers likely having the ‘funny and stupid’ predisposition, the film must also be balanced with precision to ensure that no one takes the documentary itself as a joke. Much like Rooster Teeth’s previous work, and thanks to the careful hand of director Mat Hames (“What Was Ours”), “The Meme Machine” is a wondrous phenomenon of filmmaking in its own right. Each aspect is seamlessly weaved together to create a greater whole — it’s hard to imagine anyone walking away from the film without a much deeper, culturally informed understanding and respect of what exactly memes mean to this era. Without diving too far off the deep end with conceptual investigation, however, the film remains a whole lot of fun as well, infectiously crafted with the energy that such a documentary requires.

But it’s that very conceptual investigation that gives the film an anchoring weight. Oftentimes, it seems as though millennials don’t totally realize the phenomenology of today’s internet culture. It’s simply an everyday aspect of our lives, so why would we? Yet, to hear linguists and cultural scholars speak about memes developments is the film’s greatest point of fascination and intrigue. As interviewee and executive producer of the film Burnie Burns says, memes are like a dialect. These are claims that, once our scholarly brains take a second, immediately click and make sense. Memes are more than just jokes.

On the other hand, memes have a hand in worlds of shady business and emotional trauma. When “The Meme Machine” delves into the business side of memes through interviewing The Cheezburger Network CEO Ben Huh — who was a major play in essentially monetizing meme making using other base meme images, stating that he believes that, because memes are a language, one can use them like words are used as there is no ownership — the film takes a step back and lets the images speak for themselves, which allows the audience to form their own opinion. Is Ben Huh “raping the internet” as someone shouts in an archival video of Huh? Or does he have a point considering memes are a language and there is no ownership over language? The fact that “The Meme Machine” goes about such presentation in an unbiased manner is refreshing, sensitive and appropriate.

Moving onto the meme subjects, the film takes on further sensitivity and tenderness, making for some immensely impactful moments of Morris, Craven and Goldenberger speaking about the change in their lives. There are definite moments of fulfillment in the spotlight, but there are also an array of moments defined by hatred and disgusting behavior toward these people who have had their lives unexplainably upended. They didn’t ask for this; it just happened.

Ultimately, memes will never go away and a majority of the ones that blow up are totally unexplainable. They are an integral phenomenon in our contemporary culture, always rooted in some form of truth. And while those layers are evident, memes can always provide a simple laugh. UC Berkeley’s very own Facebook meme group of more than 45,000 members “UC Berkeley Memes for Edgy Teens” has seen both fun and, sadly, hate.

“The Meme Machine,” as a film, does a spectacular job at encompassing every aspect of the meme, speaking to the internet age’s intelligence, idiocy, humor and emotional complexity in a way that appropriately and unforgivingly sums up this generation.

Kyle Kizu is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Tweet him at @kyle_kizu.