In Praise of Movie GIFs

By vivisecting iconic scenes into memorable moments, memes put the craft of film-making under the microscope.

Anyone with an Internet connection has, at some point, stumbled across a GIF and stared at it for an unnerving amount of time as it repeated itself over and over. GIFs come in the silly, the surreal, and the sexy, but they are all transfixing in essentially the same way: They force browsers to focus on a very distinct movement or gesture. They capture moment instead of scene, which is what makes so many movie GIFs so fascinating. Clips of Wolf of Wall Street or Raging Bull might not be the best way to understand Scorcese (watch the damn movies), but they are master classes in technique and expression.

If that sounds a bit artsy, turn your attention to this popular GIF from Stanley Kubrick’sThe Shining, which captures Jack Nicholson’s penchant for veering from terrifyingly tranquil to crazily manic at the drop of a dime.

Impressive, right? Now check out this GIF of Alison Pill pretending to blow her brains out—replete with a spot-on graphical punctuation—culled from Edgar Wright’s underrated rock ‘n’ roll videogame saga Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

You’ve made that gesture before. But not like that. She really nails it.

By focusing on the same few seconds over and over again, GIFs compel us to concentrate so fully on the actor’s gestures and appearance, the director’s cinematographic choices, and the scene’s production and set design that they distill, and enhance, the power of a refine gesture—even if it’s the trite protest of an angsty teenager. GIFs reveal why their chosen material is (or should be) memorable in the first place.

With regards to classic films, GIFs oblige us to study, and restudy, and then restudy some more, the reasons that a given twinkle in the eye, choice line delivery, or offhand movement became iconic in the first place. Thus, the sight of a smirking Tom Cruise donning sunglasses in Top Gun conveys not only the good-natured cockiness that defined his early sex appeal, but also the smooth, offhand manner in which he exuded that masculinity. 

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On the other hand, to continually gaze at Luke Skywalker articulating his inner torment over the discovery of his father’s dark identity in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back is to witness the depths of both the character’s horror, and the demented commitment of Mark Hamill’s performance.

Finding one’s favorite movie passage in GIF form is frequently as easy as a quick Google search—just as creating one from a YouTube video is a simple process achieved through any number of free online GIF-generating services (such as Make a GIF). Yet while GIFs allow users to draw attention to some of their favorite cinematic images, they also function as a vehicle for contemporary analysis and canonization. Thanks to teaser trailers, advance featurettes, and leaked copies of movies flooding the Internet months before films even come out—as well as legitimate digital versions of the films becoming available for rental and purchase a few months after they first debut in theaters—movie fans can now create timely GIFs that influence popular opinion about new film releases. These news-pegged GIFs are now defining iconic shots. This highlights excellent filmmaking and subtle acting rather than spectacle, which is good news for audience. Modern movies, after all, don’t lack for spectacle.

And some films owe a great deal of their success to GIFs passed around on social networks. 21 Jump Street’s box office insurgency was at least partly aided by fantastic GIFs of the comedy’s most lunatic Channing Tatum-Jonah Hill gags—and, predominantly, from its “tripping balls” sequence, including this hilarious eyebrow-smoothing nonsense from Tatum that epitomizes the film’s goofing-off tone.

The same goes for actors: The buzz about Tom Hiddleston’s scene-stealing turn as evil god Loki in both Thor and The Avengers was turned up to 11, thanks to GIFs.

And it’s not just new stars benefiting from this new artform. Nicholas Cage stars in almost as many GIFs as he does movies and that has led to a newfound appreciation of his psychotic charisma. Younger film buffs now known the Leaving Las Vegas star more for his outrageous actorly mannerisms than for The Rock (which ages pretty well by the way). In many instances, it’s Cage’s eyes that receive GIFs’ greatest attention, thereby revealing not only his fondness for outsize lunacy, but also the way in which he uses his eyes to suggest a variety of exaggerated emotions, including surprise…

frightening psychosis…

and dim-bulb bafflement.

On the one hand, the profusion of Cage-related GIFs threatens to turn him into simply an over-the-top joke; on the other, they emphasize the very out-there impulses that make him such a fascinating, iconoclastic movie star. Like the best movie GIFs, they ridicule, they critique, and they commemorate in equal measure. They remind us that we love Nicolas Cage.

And we do.