Chaos Magic, 4chan, the 2016 election, and Egyptian gods were not the things I ever thought I would experience all at once but in You Can’t Kill Meme, a documentary film by Haley Garrigus that explores the idea of memes being magic and the magicians who use them. My third eye has been opened and I am looking deeper into the images I find funny and retweet on the internet.
What hints at being another casual retread of trying to dissect the chaos that was the 2016 election that a thousand other internet videos have tried, turns into an engaging character study of what I feel is the more important story about the lives of people who believe in magic. This documentary is peak internet in all of its glory and faults of tangential hyper-focusing on off-topics, to whiplash commentary and subject changes that feels like it speaks to me directly, as someone who grew up in these online spaces. You Can’t Kill Meme spells a world that sounds more deadly than magical in its YouTube commentary spectacle.
The film opens up with a quote from Kirk Packwood on the ability of memes to be used by meme magic social engineers who find weak points in society and culture in order to inject memes in the right places to have them go viral. This jarring quote is then juxtaposed to footage of several memes that have taken off as a reinforcement of this idea. This is how the central thesis of the film is introduced. Memes are a magic that can be used to influence public opinion in not just a sociological aspect but in a metaphysical space as well.
We are then led by several believers of this form of magic such as Billy Brujo, a YouTube meme magician, Carole Michaella, an energy worker, and Kirk Packwood, the author of Memetic Magic, the seminal text on meme magic. Each have their own way on how they came across this power and the philosophy on how it was used. Seeing each interview and glimpses on their lives stands to be the strongest part of this film. Meme Magic is portrayed as possibly world shattering from both the subjects of the film and the film itself but the lives these people live are simple and easily overshadowed by the constant turbulence of the almighty algorithm. These people are your neighbors or old Facebook friends you don’t talk to anymore for one reason or another but to them its all according to a higher plan.
Which comes to my biggest gripe of the film. It is not entirely sure of what it wants to comment on, other than there is something the rest of the world doesn’t know, but you now know. It gives its best impression of The Matrix without a consideration of how, why, and what the Matrix truly is. Memes are magic and the alt-right and 4chan harnessed their power in 2016 to get Trump elected by a collective desire to cause more chaos in the world. That’s all the film really has about that moment without any actual push-back or deeper criticism as to why people would like to cause this kind of chaos. Which I found fascinating, because I felt the film was slightly engaging with the why this was happening was in response to the world itself being deep in chaos.
Each person interviewed in this film had something to say about how society has failed. Whether it was it was a personal failing to them or society itself, meme magic was seen as a key to move culture to a way the user wanted. Giving power to those who felt powerless and the film glances at these possibilities but doesn’t engage enough to look behind the wizard’s curtain.
You Can’t Kill Meme is an engaging look into a world that is increasingly spiraling out of control in ways we could never imagine. Climate change, far-right political regimes, economic upheaval, and the endless pandemic we are still living in are all things I wish could be chalked up to some higher power’s work but even if it was, what does that have to do with how we live now? You Can’t Kill Meme tries to tackle an aspect of an answer some people have found, in a genuine human way but I wonder how much of it is just another sleight of hand trick.