The American Meme basically amounts to an entertaining missed opportunity. Bert Marcus’s documentary promises to delve into the world of internet fame and celebrity culture, and it comes back with some pretty good stories about, and even some occasionally poignant insights into, the lives of those who’ve turned social media into the arena for their own commodification and glorification. But it offers little else beyond that — which, if you’re making a movie about one of the most pervasive cultural phenomena of our time, is not enough.
Marcus’s film features extended interviews with a few of the more pervasive internet celebrities of recent years. Although they share the gift–slash–curse of virality and their near-constant presence on many of the same social-media platforms (be it Instagram, or Twitter, or the late Vine), they each seem to have a somewhat different appeal. Josh Ostrowsky, a.k.a. the Fat Jew, traffics in baroquely snarky stunts and imagery, often exploiting his own body as a way to mock and indulge the world around him. Brittany Furlan, who reached stratospheric levels of Vine celebrity before quitting the platform, is a somewhat more classic comedian — she uses her medium well, but I could imagine her impressions and short videos easily working in a more typical sketch-comedy format. Kirill Bichutsky basically goes to nightclubs and photographs himself pouring Champagne all over women’s faces and nether regions, and that is apparently a thing one can do for a living.
I’ve spent a lot of time on social media over the years, but I’ve managed largely to steer clear of most of these folks, so I actually enjoyed hearing them tell their stories — but I can also see how someone who’s already had their fill of people like the Fat Jew or the Champagne-facial guy might want to run screaming from a movie like this.
And then, of course, there’s Paris Hilton. She’s certainly a lot less ubiquitous than she used to be — I feel like I haven’t heard about her in ages — but as the Fat Jew himself puts it, “She set the precedent for everybody in this likes-on-the-internet driven world.” Of course, Hilton is one of the film’s executive producers, which may explain why she figures so prominently in The American Meme. But as we watch her travel the world, meeting and greeting her many fans, she also seems to be surprisingly zen about the phenomenon of online celebrity. While the other celebs reveal that they often wonder what exists on the other side of their extended 15 minutes, and suggest that the emptiness of this kind of adulation is not beneficial to the soul, Paris merely enjoys the cultlike devotion of her faceless audience. You realize that if Paris Hilton didn’t exist, the internet would have had to create her. And for all we know, it did.
How these folks deal with fame also varies somewhat. Hilton was born into wealth and the public eye, so for her, it’s just the pleasant background of her existence. Furlan, for all her embrace of the exhibitionist quality of social media, and her energetic, inventive brand of humor, seems tormented by loneliness and self-loathing, despite all the “likes” she gets. (“How about I like myself? That’ll actually be a challenge,” she remarks bitterly at one point.) For his part, Kirill already seems thoroughly disgusted with the fact that all anyone expects of him is to party like a madman and humiliate them on camera. The Fat Jew, meanwhile, doesn’t appear to have an earnest bone in his body. Even the Instagram plagiarism scandal that once seemed to derail his career just gets passed off as the cost of doing business. “It needed a face, and they put the face on me,” he shrugs.
I kept waiting for someone in this film to talk about the value of connecting with other souls in a universe that is largely empty or uncaring — but they’re all too self-aware for that. The movie engagingly explains how these individuals became popular, and runs through a hit parade of some of the more notable points in their respective trajectories. But it misses the point of why the landscape was so open to them in the first place — why we have this need for interaction and validation, and why we’re so in thrall to the whirligig of attraction and repulsion, of discovery and destruction, that seems to dominate our current understanding of what it means to be somebody in this world. The American Meme can be fun, even informative, but there’s a bigger story here, and Marcus mostly fails to tell it.