The American Meme December 26, 2018
1 Hr., 38 Mins.
retty regularly, I log on to YouTube with the specific intention of watching the latest video posted by the vlogger Jenna Marbles (née Mourey), a knockabout, funny personality who rose to fame, around 2010, after uploading a satirical, now-pretty-dated self-help-style video called “How to Trick People Into Thinking You’re Good Looking.” Ever since, Marbles, whose earliest uploads often found
her humorously ranting about a trivial frustration, has built a sturdy platform on goofing off for about 20 minutes a few times every month. Her channel has over 18.1 million subscribers; she has also forayed into television, film, radio, and podcasting. What I like best about her videos — which, lately, have found her, for instance, cutting slabs of Irish Spring in front of her scent-sensitive dog to pander to a recent online trend, or eagerly handcrafting a toothbrush costume for Halloween — is an underlying feeling that Marbles both knows that what she’s doing is trivial and that, one day, she’ll have to put the kibosh on her content. For now, though, I’ll keep laughing along with her.
I sometimes thought about Marbles while watching The American Meme, a new Netflix documentary chronicling the lives of social-media celebrities. Whereas her version of do-it-yourself branding seems manageable for the most part, the ones as depicted in the film appear comparatively exhausting, semi-excruciating.
The American Meme, which was executive-produced by and co-stars the heiress-cum-socialite Paris Hilton, features a number of A-list talking heads. (The A-list name comes with a caveat, though: these people are A-listers only when we’re talking about social-media-based fame.) The paunchy music producer DJ Khaled, who has, in recent years, been deemed the quasi-King of Snapchat, offers rumination and commentary. As do the striking models Hailey Baldwin and Emily Ratajkowski, and the insufferable comedian Dane Cook.
But the movie digs deeper into the stories of a lesser-known trio. There is Brittany Furlan, a dark-haired, once-aspiring actress who used to be among the most popular users on the video app Vine but now languishes, relatively successfully, as an unconventional comedienne on platforms like Instagram. There is also Josh “The Fat Jew” Ostrovsky, who rose to fame on (as is common in the movie) Instagram thanks to brief, lampoonish skits and comic, Tumblr-like curation of extraneous, controversially attributed content.
Here, too, is Kirill Bichutsky, who started off simply as a celebrity photographer but who transformed into a party monster whom venues started booking with the same excitement they would a d.j. (His presence can dependably turn the tamest of a nightclub into a neo-Studio 54; all is documented on his trendy, albeit fire-starting, Instagram account, @slutwhisperer, where provocative, champagne-soaked photos featuring the “Kirill Was Here” tag gather likes.)
No one comprising this triad is particularly happy. Furlan, though self-abnegating by default, speaks of her past highs elegiacally. She's deeply aware of how easily she can slip into irrelevance. In an early scene, we watch as she meticulously recreates Beyoncé’s pregnancy photo from last year. The gag here is that she’s clutching a burrito, and that her jutted-out midriff is full of food, not life. But the ordeal to stage the photo is far from enjoyable. It’s just business as usual. (She cracks a joke pertaining to the fact that she’s 30, and that this is what she’s doing with her life.) Once she posts the best of the shoot on Instagram, though, she is horrified to discover that Ostrovsky just did something similar. She’ll never get his numbers. In this case, getting 2,000 likes in the span of a few minutes is disastrous.
You can tell that Ostrovsky, though now having stretched his brand to work in tandem with über-big companies, is bored of the everyday drudge of posting. Such is part of the reason why he takes pride in the wine company he started recently: Now he has something concrete bolstering his name rather than something frivolous.
Bichutsky is gloomy when he pauses to think about how his life has turned out. There is an unusual sadness in his voice, for example, when he talks about how his parents came to the United States from Russia, hoping their child could have a better life, only to find him making his name off unabashed hedonism rather than something respectable. In another moment, which watches him as he walks around in a hotel room the morning after a typical bacchanal, he reveals, with subtle sadness, how he blacked out and therefore doesn’t remember how he got back to his suite — something that, to his dismay but not to his surprise, happens often.
Ratajkowski, Cook, and Khaled strictly talk about how social media enabled them to cultivate their brands; Baldwin only offers threadbare commentary. Sometimes I wished Marcus allowed room for the ancillary group to tell their stories to the extent the central three do — partly because I consider the people making it up rather niggling — but, then again, none of them seem to yet possess quite the same narrative arc as Furlan, Ostrovsky, and Bichutsky. There are moments that allow these figures to address the criticism that has been aimed at them, too, but I wanted Marcus to prod them further, especially since Bichutsky’s brand is so steeped in misogyny that he isn’t particularly beloved.
What never really went away during The American Meme was a belief that this particular subject might have been better explored in the scope of a miniseries, since the ways in which these people have maintained their fame is comparable yet not applicable to all influencers. The stretches exclusively featuring Hilton — who is self-aware and always god-like here — are so compelling that one envisions a protracted version of the movie where Marcus both more thoroughly traces the evolution of self-branding in the last two decades, and then specifically investigates the people predominantly defining certain sites and types of celebrity. Still, the engaging The American Meme makes a good argument that we’re only at the beginning of understanding what the side effects of being famous for being famous — as Hilton so excellently exemplified in the aughts — really are. B