There are a few common blackholes for me on the internet. I’ll go into catch-up blackholes where I’ll read all the bookmarked articles I’ve amassed for a few weeks. I’ll go on Vice documentary blackholes as well, and exotic pet video blackholes (e.g., capybara blackholes, tamandua blackholes, etc.). I’ll go into flash game blackholes and obsessively play stuff for a few nights in a row for a few hours at a time.
Oddly, I’ve somehow avoided the cat meme blackhole. I’ll see cat pics and cat videos, but it’s never been something I’ve immersed myself in. (That said, I was disappointed that I missed seeing Grumpy Cat in person at SXSW.)
In the doc Lil Bub & Friendz, the focus is on Mike Bridavsky and his famous cat Lil Bub, with cameos from other internet cat celebrities.
[For the next few weeks, Flixist will be covering the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, which runs April 17-28 in New York City. Check with us daily for reviews, interviews, features, and news from the festival. For all of our coverage, go here.]
Lil Bub & Friendz
Directors: Juliette Eisner and Andy Capper
Release Date: TBD
In some ways, Lil Bub & Friendz is a difficult movie to review since the cuteness of Lil Bub and the other cats showed in the documentary render my faculties for criticism moot; their large eyes, their expressive faces, their odd mouths all have a pacifying effect, and I’m just weirdly content to look at cats. That tranquilizing effect is the whole appeal of cat videos, as Andy Capper mentioned in our interview with the Lil Bub & Friends team. Cat memes are a go-to for feeling good because they demand nothing of you and make you giggly.
Much of the film’s dramatic and narrative weight is on Bridavsky, whose life is transformed by getting Lil Bub. Even Bub’s own story of discovery has its own odd dramatic pull given her unique discovery and tragic set of health problems — bowed and oddly developed bones, no teeth, a short lower jaw, extra toes. She’s both an odd companion (something like a Mogwai, maybe) to Mike and a financial boon when he needed it most. The latter was a happy accident of internet cat fandom — cats are not born internet sensations but instead have that thrust upon them.
Some cats that get fandom thrust upon them need help handling their success, or at least their owners do. This brings up a strange world of internet meme marketing, which is an aside in this documentary. A guy named Ben Lashes has become a manager for various internet memes, such as Scumbag Steve and Nyan Cat. If you have a mental picture of what an internet meme manager might be like, Lashes probably fits that image. (Secretly I was hoping he’d be more like Colonel Tom Parker.)
The dynamics of Lashes’s working relationships are unclear, but it seems like this business side of things could support its own documentary since it’s pretty bizarre, especially given how much money a meme like Nyan Cat generates. Nyan Cat’s creator donates more to charity in Nyan Cat earnings than I make in a year, a fact both impressive and depressing — such is the life of the writer. Lil Bub & Friendz glosses over these issues, though, since the focus is more on Bridavsky, Bub, and the fandom of internet cat videos rather than the business of internet cat videos (or the opportunism of some people regarding internet cat videos).
I don’t usually check out other reviews before writing my own, but I did with Lil Bub & Friendz because I was curious how others took the film’s tone. I was a bit surprised to see some hate for the film in one review since it’s so light and breezy, much like the cat memes it covers. The film isn’t an in-depth examination of memes on the internet, and it doesn’t really try to answer the question about why these kinds of pics and vids have such a following online beyond simple notions of community. When one of the interviewees mentions that the internet is like a dog park for cat owners or cat enthusiasts, that seems oddly sufficient for the aims of this doc.
To the issue of memes and meme culture, it seems like a dissection of meme culture would be the task of another documentary that would take a longview historical approach — are cat videos like the smiley faces and “sock it to me’s” of the early 21st century? — and try to understand how cultural ideas catch on and disseminate. (I now long for a cute cat video documentary by Adam Curtis.) Here, there’s just a sort of splendor of cat fandom and cat love, and a peek at how it manifests itself on the internet in different forms. One form of that cat love: a man dedicates his life to rescuing illegally bred tigers, lions, and other big cats. Another: an outdoor internet cat video festival in Minneapolis that draws in 10,000 people.
Goofy cat love is a bit hard to intellectualize. You can try and try, but cat videos are encountered with purely childlike and emotional responses rather than intellectual ones. Sure, there are issues of facial feature proportions and their analogs to human babies, and sure there’s something to be said about animals exhibiting anthropomorphic traits, but the simple fact is that cat videos are so popular on the internet because they are quaint distractions. They’re like laser pointers for humans, and maybe that’s all that can really be said without trying to diagnose this mania in the culture. Maybe the answer is just that simple.
Your love or hate for Lil Bub & Friendz may come down to how you feel about cat videos in general. The fans of cat videos and cat memes will enjoy this a lot more than people who can’t stand the memes. Fans of Lil Bub in particular will enjoy learning about her discovery and how she’s changed Bridavsky’s life for the better. For me, I simply wondered how I’d feel if I watched this as part of a Vice documentary blackhole on a Sunday afternoon, and it does what it does well. Like Lil Bub, the film simply is and demands nothing more, and that’s just fine.
[For more info on Lil Bub & Friendz, visit tribecafilm.com/festival.]