One of the nice things about a film festival is seeing a programme of shorter films that work as a whole — pieces not intended to be complementary that happen to come along at the same time and build on each others’ themes. I have to think it takes a good critical eye for a festival programmer to notice which films speak to each other out of the many submissions they get. It’s worth praising that discernment when a bundle of shorter movies succeed in forming a coherent collective, as was the case with the set of three documentary and pseudo-documentary films anchored by the 79-minute feature You Can’t Kill Meme.
First in the grouping was the 9-minute “The Truth About Hastings.” Written and directed by Dan Schneidkraut, it’s a wry satirical take on conspiracy theory and the secret symbolism underlying a nice old lady’s 93rd birthday in the town of Hastings, Nebraska. (Or, at least, I take it as satire of conspiracy theory; given the way the film develops, you could view it more seriously.) A voice-over (courtesy Amanda Day) lays out ‘coincidences’ and resonances of secret meanings underlying events, based on “firsthand survivor testimony.” There’s a good attempt at capturing the paranoiac feel of the X-Files, with big ideas about reality as a hologram, and it builds to a surprisingly psychedelic finale. It is a bit slow, and perhaps could be tightened a bit here and there, but has a strong approach.
“Telos Or Bust,” directed by US-based Canadian Brad Abrahams, is a 15-minute investigation into the New Age beliefs that have focussed on Mount Shasta, California — where, some say, ancient Lemurians have built a utopian hidden city under the mountain. It’s a charming documentary that lets its subjects talk happily about ascended gurus and crystals from other planets and so forth, while also as a film being perceptive about history and race, and out of all this making clear where the various tangled strands of story woven around Mount Shasta come from.
Abrahams braids together interviews with various residents of the area, and does a good job of building each of them up as a distinct personality and a believer in a different element of the Mount Shasta stories, along with one historian who documents the way the various stories developed and intersected. The movie’s not just about those beliefs but about the people who hold them, and part of the pleasure of the film is meeting these people — odd people, but pleasant, apparently happy, and otherwise quite well-adjusted. Abrahams is apparently hoping to use “Telos Or Bust” as an episode of a projected series called Keep Folklore Alive, about odd folklore beliefs in the modern world; it’s strong work that suggests the series would be worth watching.
Next came You Can’t Kill Meme, a documentary by Hayley Garrigus. It’s about memetic magic, and why a group of oddballs believe that magic encoded in various internet memes affected the world and propelled Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States. Interviews, including onscreen appearances by Garrigus, establish the basic beliefs of a disparate set of people interested in memetic magic. A voiceover narration helps to tie together the sprawl of matter, ranging from politics to the occult to the history of Las Vegas.
It begins with Pepé the frog (discussed in last year’s documentary Feels Good Man) and the connection of his iconography to the Egyptian god Kek, and goes on from there. There are extensive discussion with R. Kirk Packwood, whose 2004 book Memetic Magic: Manipulation of the Root Social Matrix and the Fabric of Reality presented the first articulation of the possible magical power of memes. There are would-be wizards with dubious aims in this film, and ‘lightworkers’ striving for the good, and a brief introduction to chaos magic. Garrigus apparently spent four years on this film, and there’s a lot of material here.
She presents the film as an essay, not an investigative documentary. She’s not just informing us of the beliefs of the documentary subjects, but using them to put forward larger ideas about society. It is unclear, but interesting to ponder, exactly what those ideas are. Garrigus presents the film with an often low-fi technical approach (visually and aurally), and at first glance her narration appears to be direct and simple to match. But that’s not necessarily the case.
In a fascinating question-and-answer period on Fantasia’s YouTube page with the filmmakers behind these three movies, Garrigus refers to the construction of a version of herself as a character. She describes the film as an anti-documentary, and observes that the narration is not simply her own reflection on the material she’s found. Instead, the development of the narrator as a character is meant to be a way to take the audience into the subject.
It’s a good approach, but I’m not sure it works. The narrator’s politics are facile if taken literally, but it’s difficult to see how to find a deeper level to them and difficult to see how her discourse is meant to work on the audience. The voiceover engages in trite both-sides-ism of a kind that is baffling to me as an uncouth foreigner, and in its broad-brush assertions about American liberals — including a bizarre assertion that “liberal elites look down on Las Vegas” — sounds close to the alt-right subjects of the film. I note in particular a line complaining that liberals look down those without “ethics or morals;” who sound to me like by definition the sort of people one should look down on.
The film also talks about the internet, a global communications network, solely in terms of its influence on the USA. The political interest of the film is limited to the US, without any reference even to, say, Brexit; never mind the non-anglophone world beyond. It’s difficult for me to see a reading of the film that credits it with the self-awareness to see this limitation. At the very least, if memetic magic is confined to the United States, it would be worth exploring why that is.
Say this for the movie: it’s an individual creation, at least. I never knew where it was going to go next, what sort of angle it was about to take on its soi-disant magi. At any moment it might turn into, say, a discussion about the psychogeography of Las Vegas. This does not to my mind always result in successful filmmaking; narration aside, the movie doesn’t seem to know what to do with the political aspects of its subject. But it’s interesting enough often enough to work.
What I think makes it successful for me is that Garrigus interviews a lot of idiosyncratic people, misfits and loners and would-be magicians, and without intending to send them up she allows them to come off as banal. There is an honesty in that. All these guys (most of them guys, most of them white, most of them young) claim to be exploring secret paths to power that can rewrite the world; and it’s pretty clear they’re acting out their need for power and self-assertion and attention. That banality underlies the oddity of the concepts they’re exploring: the ideas are fascinating, but the personalities are conventional.
I don’t know how much Garrigus saw that. It’s not really remarked upon in the film. But for me it’s one of the more interesting aspects of the story she’s telling. Meme magic is a way, in the minds of some young people, to make their mark on the world. To establish that they matter, that they as individuals have meaning. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that aspiration, and (to me as a skeptic, but note comments below) meme magic is among the more harmless ways to go about gratifying that desire. You Can’t Kill Meme works as an introduction to the constellation of topics it’s concerned with; as a film beyond that, it at least documents characters in a way that gets at something human. Which is worthwhile.
Find the rest of my Fantasia coverage from this and previous years here!
Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. You can buy collections of his essays on fantasy novels here and here. His Patreon, hosting a short fiction project based around the lore within a Victorian Book of Days, is here. You can find him on Facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.