Why Is Everyone Posting Mislabeled Film Stills?

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Space Cowboys (2000).

A delightful meme emerged on Twitter this past weekend: a collection of screengrabs from the lowbrow-brilliant reality-TV series Jersey Shore, mislabeled as classic works of cinema. The thread was part of a larger growing trend on social media, a running gag about how when it comes to pop culture, there is nothing new under the sun.

These are very funny, and they scratch that itch cinephiles have for needing to know more about film history than the layman, but the timeline leading up to this meme is years long. It begins, as most aesthetic-based memes have, on Tumblr, where popular blogs like the Art of Movie Stills have been posting movie frames since 2011. The captions usually follow a simple format, the title and the year and maybe some production credits (usually director or cinematographer).

The Twitter account @OnePerfectShot follows a similar format. Pluck a still, put on some photo credits, imply merely by its selection that the shot is a triumph of visual composition and mise-en-scène. These accounts work because the odds are in their favor. Filmmakers, generally speaking, put effort into their work! Major studio films also have the ability to spend millions of dollars to look good. And in a feature-length picture that is cutting to a new shot every few seconds, there is bound to be the so-called “One. Perfect. Shot.” The same principle applies to the historical public-domain photo boom from three years ago. @HistoryInPics and their ilk have a virtually bottomless cache of digital photo archives to plumb.

One Perfect Shot accounts are bastions of lazy film fandom (yeah dude, everyone knows about the chess match in The Seventh Seal), but clearly they work. Last year, OPS was acquired by the site Film School Rejects for an undisclosed cash sum. The prevalence of these artful, perfect shots can be exhausting — as much as a mild Twitter account can be exhausting — because they force quality onto works that might not otherwise hold up to scrutiny. Do we really, for example, need to bask in the cinematography of 2012’s Judge Dredd remake?

And so the parody accounts came out of the woodwork to put the “perfect shot” sycophants in their place. In 2013, according to an About Me section, the same person behind the Art of Movie Stills launched the Blurry of Movie Stills (the former’s handle is “theartofmoviestills” while the latter’s is “theofmoviestills,” literally lacking the word art). They play with the convention, subbing in a hokey X-Files episode in place of Westworld, for example.

Or exploring the cinematic parallels between art-house drama There Will Be Blood (91 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) and slapstick comedy Mouse Hunt (43 percent on Rotten Tomatoes).

The false film-credit format appears regularly on Tumblr, but it’s since migrated to Twitter. And while most amateur history buffs might be drawn to @HistoryInPics, other prefer @AhistoricalPics, which can’t tell the difference between Joseph Stalin and comedian Nick Offerman.

Jersey Shore isn’t the first show to get the One Perfect Shot/historical pics treatment. Historically captioned screenshots from SpongeBob Squarepants took off on Reddit earlier this summer. All of these accounts, earnest or ironic, are easy ways of signaling taste and expertise. You can either be a film snob and/or a history buff, or be so against these interests that you swing fully toward irony. In some ways, the deliberately wrong One Perfect Shot meme panders to culture vultures even more, relying on knowledge of two works (usually one lowbrow, one highbrow) and how they intersect. But in another sense, they are also an acknowledgement that film snobs frequently take themselves too seriously. When everything can be a perfect shot, nothing is a perfect shot.

Why Is Everyone Posting Mislabeled Film Stills?