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Now and Then: Why We Love GIFs, from Taylor Swift to Goats (VIDEO)

Photo of Matt Brennan By Matt Brennan | Thompson on Hollywood! April 2, 2013 at 3:49PM

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.
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Taylor Swift, in the music video for "I Knew You Were Trouble," re-purposed in "Taylor Swift Goat Remix Re-Mix"
Taylor Swift, in the music video for "I Knew You Were Trouble," re-purposed in "Taylor Swift Goat Remix Re-Mix"

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.

This article is related to: Now and Then, Web/Tech, Critics, Video, Shorts, Short Film, Reviews


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.