I got really excited when I heard about twohundredandfiftysixcolors, a silent feature film composed entirely of animated GIFs. I like GIFs. A lot. Over the span of 97 minutes, Chicago-based artists Eric Fleischauer and Jason Lazarus survey the medium with a light focus on art GIF-making. The movie screened last night at Union Docs. (AFC’s Corinna Kirsch conducted a Q&A with the directors afterwards.)
Overall, the project is meant to serve as an historical document, and with over 3,000 GIFs, it certainly achieves that goal. Instead of a historical timeline, the video loosely tracks the progression of familiar memes in waves of GIFs. The film opens with a series of “loading” GIFs: the spinning wheel, the arrow, the hourglass, the bar. Generation upon generation overlaps. Eadweard Muybridge’s 1878 galloping horse (the world’s first moving picture) eventually gives way to an animated horse made with typewritten ASCII. From fuck-the-man GIFs to expression GIFs, we’re shown more creativity than we could have possibly imagined was out there.
That task is well achieved, but often stymied by the fact that the filmmakers do not seem to have an intended audience in mind. The film loses its tight focus early on and gives way to a more of a stream-of-consciousness Google image search—imagine a series of GIFs of the same thing, like cats, plus a few random images thrown in, and you’ve got your movie. The net result is that after a while you stop looking for a larger taxonomy and simply note generic categories: people running, dogs running, travel by plane, et cetera.
That structure makes sense in a movie that’s largely intended to function as an artwork itself—and that’s true of this piece—but at 97 minutes long, it’s overly demanding on its audience. Who’s going to watch a bunch of image loops without any reflection or chronology for that long? I’m about as nerdy as they come on the GIF front, and after an hour, even I got tired.
That’s not to say the movie is without its moments. While there’s no plot, a rough logic to the film can be identified. As if a self-conscious nod to cataloging the sheer volume of GIFs that are being made, the movie starts with Apple spin wheels, in all sizes and shapes. These images signify the loading of applications and files, but also indicate the rebooting of a computer. Not only is the icon a natural start and finish to a conversation on the subject, it’s the computer world equivalent to those who lose their cell phones in horror movies—the terror of a frozen screen cannot be understated. GIFs are a life.
From there, we move on to GIFs that illustrate how they function—zoetropes are common—and a conscious effort is made to link GIFs to early cinema. We see a black-and-white film leader countdown; a strip of color film with a light leak and a “loading” sign over a pixellated sunset; a sequence of numbers counting down, followed by abstract color film. In one light, the biggest success in this section is that the makers only draw connections to the early technological innovation of moving images, not with the content of these two mediums. Movies deal with narratives. GIFs do not. In another, the sequence references their decision to create feature-length film—a gesture meant to bring out the similarities between GIFs and film—but that ultimately contributes to the boring and confusing elements of the piece.
Whatever the case, bringing a high level of nerdery to the table often helps the film, because it is able to offer long and exhaustive looks at a single subject. (There are more memes about getting high than you ever knew.)
I’m glad they didn’t dumb down the movie, though I frequently felt like the choice of the art format did more to alienate audiences than it did to bring them in. For example, a large amount of time was dedicated to pizza GIFs, a common GIF and a point of fixation in some net art circles. It would have benefited the film to give some indication that this imagery is a point of interest for many GIF makers because it is an icon of the fast food developers often eat as well as bro culture. Without it, the movie just looks bro-y.
That quality doesn’t diminish the the number of artful transitions from one topic to another, but I’m not wholly on board with how the artists handle work from other artists. Take Kevin Bewersdorf’s “Mandala,” a meditative animated GIF made of hundreds of other meme-y GIFs including rolling eyeballs, a dancing cartoon in a suit, and spinning flowers; the filmmakers sped up its loop so that it better fit in a sequence of GIFs about getting high. In its new, faster, and compressed form, the GIF was far less crisp, and no longer retained using the banality of the internet as an inspiration for meditative exercise.
One could argue that this alteration isn’t such a big deal; Bewersdorf would have signed paperwork that allowed Fleischauer and Lazarus to alter the piece, and let’s face it, remix culture is a big part of the web. Still, this particular GIF requires a specific type of screen when shown in a gallery because its crispness is that important to the overall piece. It loses a lot of its power, and for no good reason—the sequence would have been fine without it.
It’s not the only questionable decision in the film. For instance, in the porn section of the film, a sequence of GIFs animate cartoon cum splotches over profile shots of some of its users. At least one of them is a minor whom many of us recognize from the community. Did that really need to be included? In another section which explores the entire range of the “Deal With It” meme, which puts sunglasses on everybody from Obama smoking a cigarette to the cast of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, we’re subjected to a meme of a woman whose face is covered in cum. Just as the words “DEAL WITH IT” flash under her face and the glasses are added she looks as though she’s about to bust into tears. While I appreciate knowing the full scope of the meme, I question whether it’s necessary to archive this woman’s humiliation.
It’s hard to get past some of these decisions, even when you know and appreciate the impetus behind them. By the end of the movie, we’re issued a series of absurd GIFs with a punch line: a Klu Klux Klan blingee has the words “I love you” written above a sword, Martin Luther King’s head is photoshopped onto the body of a surf boarder as the words “post black” descend, and the magnificent Apple logo sputters. All this concludes with a rotating GIF that says, “ambiguity”—a quality clearly to be aspired to.
From there, we’re then offered a sequence of fuck-yous—a fuck y’all neon sign, Louis CK giving the finger, an unfollow button. The last GIF simply shows Pinocchio dead in the water. I suppose we could interpret this as a rebirth of the medium—Pinocchio died trying to save his maker, and was thus made a real into a real boy by a fairy—but it doesn’t seem hopeful or celebratory. It looks like a collapse from sheer exhaustion, and after watching a 97-minute silent movie made with more than 3,000 GIFs, that seems about right.