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It’s All About Meme Meme: The Perfect Timing of “The Wicker Man”…

The podcast that I co-host, The 250, marked Halloween with a look at Neil La Bute’s adaptation of The Wicker Man. It’s a fun, broad discussion. However, watching the film and talking about the film got me thinking about Nicolas Cage, meme culture and the perfect storm of timing involved.

It’s possible to break down Nicolas Cage’s career into two phases: before and after The Wicker Man.

Before The Wicker Man, Nicolas Cage was a respected actor. He had won the Best Actor Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas. He had become an blockbuster movie star thanks to films like The Rock and Con Air. He had worked with auteurs like David Lynch on Wild at Heart and the Coens in Raising Arizona. Indeed, at the turn of the millennium, Cage had settled into a respectable cinematic middle age. In the years leading up to The Wicker Man, he worked on fare like Andrew Niccol’s earnest Lord of War and Gore Verbinski’s decidedly middle brow The Weather Man.

And then The Wicker Man happened. Almost immediately, Cage’s career shifted gears. There were where still franchise films like Ghost Rider or National Treasure: Book of Secrets. There were still auteur collaborations like with Werner Herzog on Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. However, there were also movies like Bangkok Dangerous, Next and Knowing, which would lead on to films like Drive Angry, Seeking Justice and Trespass. Not all of these films were bad, but they were instrumental in establishing the Nicolas Cage audiences know today: “full Cage.”

To give Cage some credit here, his later work is often more interesting than his popular reputation would suggest. In particular, Cage works remarkably well in ensemble genre pieces like Kick-Ass or Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. More than that, Cage works remarkably well in the context of films that are pitched to match his fevered intensity as a performer like Mandy or The Colour Out of Space. Nevertheless, The Wicker Man was very much a watershed moment for Cage, like the flicking of a light switch.

Part of this is simply timing. The Wicker Man arrived at the perfect moment in popular culture, as a seismic shift was taking place. Discussions about the history of cinema often focus on the mechanics and the politics of the industry itself – the way in which movies are produced, funded and distributed. This makes a great deal of sense. However, it’s also important to consider how movies are discussed and how audiences engage with those films.

The Wicker Man arrived at a moment where the internet was primed to change the way that movies were watched, and the impact on Nicolas Cage’s career is perhaps a graphic illustration of that seismic shift.

Of course, the internet had been around for a long time before The Wicker Man. Harry Knowles had launched Ain’t It Cool News a decade earlier. Technologically literate audience members had been logging online to talk about their favourite shows and message boards for even longer than that – with terms like “shipper” and “noromo” emerging from the earliest days of the online fandom of The X-Files.

In 2001, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back featured a major plot thread around the internet’s reaction to movie-making, even summarising the world wide web as “a communication tool used the world over where people can come together to b!tch about movies and share pornography with one another.” So the infrastructure existed (and was in use) long before The Wicker Man turned Nicolas Cage into a meme.

Nevertheless, a lot of the infrastructure of the modern internet only truly developed in the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century. Facebook was founded in February 2004. Twitter launched in March 2006. Netflix would only begin its pivot towards streaming in January 2007. Streaming video emerged around the same time. Vimeo launched in November 2004, but was largely seen as a curiousity. In contrast, YouTube arrived in February 2005.

YouTube was a gamechanger. By July 2006, it accounted for sixty percent of all video watched online, with visitors watching more than one hundred million videos a day. In November 2006, YouTube would be bought by the tech giant Google, giving a sense of how big the site had become. YouTube made it easier than ever for users to share content pulled from a variety of sources, whether their own lives or their own preferred media.

It was around this time that Hollywood began to pay increasing attention to what was happening on the internet. In this respect, 2006 was a watermark year. The movie Snakes on a Plane seemed to be willed into existence by the internet’s enthusiasm for the memetic quality of the title alone. Paramount would sever its long-term relationship to Tom Cruise, citing “his recent conduct”, although many observers suggested that his reputation had been severely damaged by the viral video of him jumping on Oprah Winfrey’s couch from May 2005.

Of course, it should be noted that the internet is not real life, and that decisions made on its whims are largely reflective of the general appetite of the paying public. After all, Snakes on a Plane was a box office bomb“an internet only phenomenon” that had little currency in the real world. Similarly, Tom Cruise would reinvent himself in the ensuing decade, and once again Paramount’s relationship with the actor is symbiotic; they need him as much as he needs them.

These early follies seem to set a marker for the modern excesses of “outrage” culture. Indeed, it is notable that companies like Disney seem particularly susceptible to mistake online sentiment for real world concern. This is most obviously demonstrated in the orchestrated campaign against James Gunn by right-wing provocateurs, leading to Disney firing Gunn only to rehire him shortly thereafter. Similarly, there are times when Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker feels like the result of the company listening to the loudest online voices to the film’s detriment.

The Wicker Man seemed perfectly positioned for this emergent internet film culture, and for its outsized impact on the way in which movie stars were seen. Much of The Wicker Man is a dull slog, especially its opening two acts. The film plays as a bizarre misogynist screed in which every woman in the world is apparently complicit in an insanely convoluted plan to prime a sacrifice to restore the honey supply of a small community off the western coast of Washington.

The Wicker Man is a bizarre film on a conceptual level; it is the story of a California Highway Patrol office who embarks on an investigation that is outside both his professional and jurisdictional remit, seemingly without checking in with local law enforcement before doing so. It is the story of a search for a missing child where the investigative officer waits until about half-way through the film to ask where she was last seen. It also takes place in broad daylight, and features several extended (and delightful) sequences of Nicolas Cage running from one side of a wide shot to another.

However, most of The Wicker Man is quite dull. It is very repetitive. Officer Edward Malus meets a woman, asks her some questions, she gives some coy answers, only for Malus to grow more confused or enraged. The process repeats itself over and over, as Malus seems to promote himself from motorcycle cop to detective to mortician, without ever batting an eye. He launches a one-man investigation on an island famous for its honey, despite having a bee allergy. There is little to recommend the first two acts of The Wicker Man outside of the most morbid sort of curiosity.

And then the movie really gets going. The film’s final act kicks things into high gear. Malus has had enough. It has become clear that the women on the island are planning a human sacrifice, so Malus has no time to lose. He commandeers pushbikes. He punches women in the face. There is a bizarre hand-to-hand fight sequence in which he throws Leelee Sobieski so hard against the wall that she shatters picture frames. He wears a bear costume. He gets caught. His legs are broken. He gets bees put on his face. He screams. He goes “full Cage.”

That final act enters “you have to see it to believe it” territory, but only after a relatively joyless slog. This would arguably be a potential barrier to the film’s cult appeal, as nobody wants to sit through seventy minutes of boring nonsense to get to twenty minutes of camp gold. This is where the timing is key. The Wicker Man almost seems to have been designed for a YouTube generation, containing little nuggets of excess that can be extracted from their original context and thrown together into compilations that can be easily shared.

Indeed, it’s arguable that The Wicker Man works best in that format, reduced to a lot of shouting and bizarre imagery that made only a little more sense within the larger context of the movie. It’s notable that the final act of The Wicker Man arguably has a strange and enduring legacy. It is hard to watch Nicolas Cage fleeing cultists while dressed as a bear (in what Cage cited as an homage to Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death) without thinking of the climax of the similar (but more successful) pagan horror Midsommar.

The internet’s image of Cage was arguably forged in that moment. This version of Cage wasn’t the version who actually starred in The Wicker Man, reacting with a tired “goddammit!” to a nightmare-within-a-nightmare in which he imagined a dead child in his arms. Instead, it was the version that existed in widely-circulated YouTube videos taking the peaks of the actor’s emotional intensity and mashing them all together.

After all, it should be noted that Nicolas Cage’s performance in The Wicker Man wasn’t necessarily far outside the bounds of earlier performances. In hindsight, key moments from films like Vampire’s Kiss would become memetic in their own right. Cage was always a performer whose work would lend itself to this sort of memetic sensibility, it just so happened that The Wicker Man arrived at the perfect moment, where the film around it was both bad and dull enough that his performance could be pulled out of context and completely displace it.

To be fair, at least some of Nicolas Cage’s subsequent career was driven by other factors. Cage invested his money notoriously poorly, and was severely affected by the financial crisis of 2008. Indeed, Cage would find himself living in Nevada, finding that the lack of a state tax “was helpful at the time.” This seems to have influenced Cage’s choice in role, driving him towards movies that paid well relative to the demands imposed on him. These films often tended to be cheap and melodramatic, doing their own part to erode Cage’s reputation as a serious dramatic performer.

Still, The Wicker Man feels very much like ground zero for the modern image of Nicolas Cage, the “big bang” moment from which so much of the actor’s public image and subsequent career radiates outward. The Wicker Man gave the internet the Nicolas Cage, and the internet erected a giant monument to him.

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