Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Past REALLY Isn't Past ...

Something I notice the day after an awards show or a big (non-tragic) news story or some major gaffe by a public figure is the way the Internet uses it to feed its insatiable maw.

All day long, my Facebook feed (and I’m sure, yours too) has been lousy with variations on John Travolta name generators or “that selfie” or reactions to various speeches – either pro or con (especially if one’s interest group of choice felt marginalized or overpraised).

There have been posts of fashions – or the lack thereof – or whether Ellen was the best host ever or dismal or even whether Kim Novak’s plastic surgery was emblematic of a host of other issues in Hollywood specifically and society in general.

And, of course, these memes have been run into the ground so that they’ve lost whatever entertainment value they had originally. (Someone posted last night that there was really no point in posting any photo, comment, or meme because someone else had already thought of it.) I mean, the 75th variation on anything is going to be tiresome.

But it leads me to another thought that we’re in an era where all of these memes, no matter how toothless they become, will never go away. Travolta will forever be marked as the guy who can’t pronounce simple names. There have been previous slip-ups, such as Dan Quayle not being able to spell “potato” or Jessica Simpson thinking buffalo wings came from buffalo. But did we see “Dan Quayle Spelling Generators” or “Jessica Simpson Diet Planners?” How pervasive are those scarlet letters now? Quayle will get off scot free until his obituaries, but Travolta is screwed from now until the return of Xenu.  

And if I were to mention James Stockdale or Clara Peller or George Romney, you might not even recognize the names or their bursts of fame (Stockdale was Ross Perot’s – remember Ross Perot? – running mate in 1992. He was one of the most highly decorated officers in naval history, but if he’s remembered at all, it’s because of his performance in the vice-presidential debate where he asked “Who am I? Why am I here?” Peller was the “Where’s the beef?” woman from the Wendy’s commercials. And Romney, despite a long career in public service, is remembered as being Mitt’s father and mentioning how the American public had been “brainwashed” by the government’s accounts of the war in Vietnam.)

All of the above had those moments of fame, whether momentary or long-term, but they faded from the public’s consciousness. But now, once something has been appropriated for use on (especially) Facebook, it’s not going away.

That damn photo of Gene Wilder looking skeptical in “Willy Wonka” will forever be recycled, along with the grumpy cat, or the clip-art e-cards, or that old woman from the Hallmark cards, or Buzzfeed quizzes on where you should live or what you should be or what character you are, or stoned-looking dogs, or “What is your (fill in the blank) name?” or Rob Ford or whatever urban legend Snopes just debunked but is easily believed or stories from The Onion or anything by George Takei.

They’re never going to go away.

Even if they fade for a little while, they’ll be back. No matter how dimwitted they seem to you or me, someone will run across it for the first time and find it amusing or entertaining or compelling enough to share – and that will lead to someone else who hasn’t seen it sharing it, and the cycle will start anew.

In “Requiem for a Nun,” William Faulkner wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." Fitzgerald ends “The Great Gatsby” with “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

I could go on and on, going into great detail about how “these kids today” don’t know anything about the past or cultural history, but that would be tedious for even me. What I am wondering, though, is if we even have a past anymore; if there just isn’t an eternal present that we’re doomed to repeat endlessly.

Maybe Rust Cohle is right, after all.

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