Disclaimer: this will not be your usual romance. It involves Taylor Swift, a goat, and a lemon, among its cast of thousands. It has no clear “meet cute,” and may not reach a happy ending. In one sense at least, it has no beginning or ending at all. But somewhere along the way we fell in love with the GIF. This is one man’s attempt to explain why.
Since its birth, at CompuServe in 1987, the Graphics Interchange Format, or GIF — I, following the form’s creators, pronounce it like “Jif,” as in the peanut butter, but I’ve since been told to say it like “gift” with the “t” left off — has evolved from the animated flames and signs that cluttered hideous personal webpages in the Nineties to a form of videographic mass culture, though its frequently pixelated, blurry quality tends to resemble aging homemade VHS tapes more than Hollywood blockbusters. (If you’re interested in the technical aspects and/or enjoy masochism, visit the woefully esoteric Wikipedia entry, which gave me a migraine.)
With the advent of reddit, Tumblr, and WordPress, the medium has experienced an explosion in popularity, say the tech-savvy subjects of a brief documentary history of the form by the PBS web series “Off Book” (video below). The Tribeca Film Festival has announced a six-second vine contest. Inhabiting the space between the photographic still and the short film, a seconds-long, looping excerpt of the moving image that circles back on itself like the proverbial snake eating its own tail, the GIF comprises the very kind of unexplored borderland that going to film school and watching Hitchcock leaves you distinctly unprepared to visit.
This may be why film critics have shied away from analyzing the medium. But the time for ignoring the GIF’s ubiquity has long since passed. Because GIFs now comprise a way to write about yourself, make mementos for the future, remix popular culture, recap television, satirize public figures, indeed exhibit the whole array of strangeness that is the human condition. In other words, GIFs do a lot of the same things the movies have done for more than a century. (There is even something called the cinemagraph, which sounds a bit like the arthouse version of the GIF — what Terrence Malick would make out of it were he so inclined.) I have my own reasons for becoming interested in GIFs: this column covers home viewing — usually TV, DVD, Blu-ray and VOD — and web series, viral videos, and GIFs are increasingly what we talk about when we talk about what we watch at home.
I could spend the rest of my life searching out even a representative sample of GIFs, which sounds like a film critic’s special version of Hell, and come nowhere close to success. In lieu of ruining my career, destroying every relationship I have, and ending up in the asylum, I’ve chosen one Vine of recent fame, Will Sasso’s “Taylor Swift Goat Remix Re-Mix” — the title has a real “contemporary art” sound to it, no? — and tried to understand its aesthetics, its context, and its popularity.
The “video” (what to call it?) is divided into three parts: an excerpt from Taylor Swift’s music video for “I Knew You Were Trouble,” in which she sings first in a club and then on some desolate hillscape; a braying goat; and Sasso screaming while spitting a lemon and a large amount of water or saliva out of his mouth (see below). There is, speaking of the asylum, no way to pause the video on Vine, only a mute button. In this sense, though Vine posts are nominally different from GIFs, they are are actually GIFs par excellence: the ultimate unending loop, Nietzche’s “eternal return” boiled down to six bizarre, cute, funny, banal, impenetrable seconds.
In fact, the reason that Sasso’s interpretation gained traction may be that it combines so many of the elements many of us love about GIFs. Bringing together the lemon vomit, the loud goat, and the famed singer, it doubly lampoons Swift’s own descent into the confessional and the overly-sensitive, turning the plaintive quality of her music into an annoying whine. It also reveals the work that goes into this new form of cultural criticism, a layering of each contributor’s addition to the whole, from the blurry screen-capture of the music video to the clear sight of liquid pouring down Sasso’s black shirt. In fact, it makes its maker(s) into arbiters of culture almost as powerful as Swift herself: I had never seen (or much wanted to see) the original music video until some guy tacked on the weird lemon thing to the only-slightly-less-weird goat thing.
GIFs are, then, the ultimate form of reappropriation, because they inevitably slice up the original into minuscule segments, or otherwise place it in a context divorced from its initial form and meaning. In this, GIFs may be the foremost emblem of the media culture in which we live, composing fan fiction about Harry Potter and levying death threats at action-movie critics, commenting on web pages and building our own, blogging, sharing, re-posting, re-formatting, re-making. GIFs allow us all, with no money and little time, to become filmmakers and critics, pundits and professionals, visually and textually describing the landscape we browse around in. GIFs, like all the rest of these media, are a form of power over the sandbox in which we play — except they’re the only medium by which we can so easily build our castles out of moving images.
As the breadth and depth of the Internet increases, becoming a bottomless pit of content in which it is possible to shout without ever hearing an echo, the GIF holds out the same possibility that the silver screen’s “mirror” once did, affirming that we’re here, visible, and at least minimally in control. With a GIF of me, a goat, and Taylor Swift, I may be saying something about mammals and grating pop artists, but mostly I’m saying something about myself. This, more than the shortness or repetitiveness of the form, is why the GIF remains so attractive even to those who don’t make them. It’s the bridge between the individual and the mass, however ephemeral; it’s the promise that, somewhere among these tubes and wires, I think, and therefore I am.
This is, you see, a very long love story, and at some level it involves all of us. I love the GIF, too, in part because I’ve realized in the process of writing this essay that the motivation behind GIF-making and GIF-viewing has been around almost as long as moving pictures themselves. We might consider the medium a modern descendant of nickelodeons, the storefront theaters and penny arcades exhibiting film shorts, peep shows, and other cinematic curiosities that proliferated in the first decade of the twentieth century. In those, some of the first people to witness photographs moving, like magic before their eyes, seemed to understand how powerful it is for us to see other people embracing, butting heads, robbing banks, riding horses, having sex, tiring of pop stars, or otherwise trying to live, and trying simultaneously to make other people understand that we’re alive.
Andy Warhol was almost right. In the future that is our present, we can all enjoy not fifteen minutes but six seconds of fame, circling back on ourselves somewhere in the ether we call the Internet. Whether we choose to make GIFs or only to consume them, they’re a reminder — a form of visible evidence not unlike the documentary — that there’s still something real out there, even if it’s attenuated, spliced, bizarre, impenetrable. I see you, therefore I am.