Meme Symbolism

“brick in tree == inescapable fate
(images from How To with John Wilson)

Reviewed by Charles Smith

An obvious tagline for the internet might be: Say a lot of stuff, and say it short.

Internet posts say something short. Shorter than a minute if it’s a TikTok, shorter than a paragraph if it’s a Tweet. Can these posts lead to something, in the way that notebooks lead to novels and sketches lead to paintings? Or do they lack the openness of such outlines, those loose ends which permit reweaving?

John Wilson is a filmmaker who works with video clips shorter than TikToks, and thoughts shorter than Tweets. Wilson works in miniature. His silent snapshots of life at first seem so mundane that they would resist opening up into a larger artistic project. Yet, Wilson is expert at unraveling loose ends from material that appears closed.

How To with John Wilson just finished its second season. It consists of six, twenty-five-minute episodes stitched together from short interviews and documentary footage shot mostly on the streets of New York. Following this sequence of clips, Wilson stumbles towards a life lesson with his endearing, amateurish narration. Yet, Wilson is no sage—he makes manuals out of his own meandering quest for knowledge. This season’s episodes include attempted lessons like “How To Remember Your Dreams” and “How To Throw Out Your Batteries.”

The show is more than a slightly esoteric remix of “How It’s Made,” although this season Wilson does visit a recycling facility and a bowling ball factory—where he indulges in a Dziga Vertov-style genuflection towards the machinery at play. Wilson is interested in people, too. Without a glimmer of a wink, he approaches his human subjects, which include an Avatar movie fan club/support group, an expert tenant evictor and the landlord from whom he leases his office, a ventriloquist with a piano that plays itself, and a leg-amputee who fought the hospital for the right to own his bones. Wilson establishes a silent air of respect with his interviewees. He has them hold his only mic.

Wilson’s wholly sincere approach is a distancing effect through which we glimpse the peculiarity of these interviewees’ relation to the world. If Wilson merely trolled his subjects by putting them into ridiculous situations or asking gotcha questions, the viewer’s tendrils of sympathy would instantly retract. The unusual human interviewee would be blocked from our view by a caricature. Wilson attempts to break free from Joan Didion’s maxim about writers: that they “are always selling someone out.” Instead, Wilson plays it straight up and innocent. He asks the landlord if tenants and landlords can ever be friends.

Wilson’s video guides never reach their advertised goals, at least not directly. Last season’s popular episode on “How To Put Up Scaffolding” starts with hardhats and construction zones, but proceeds to discuss scaffolding’s cultural value, and the emotional supports that keep each of us aloft. Wilson understands the formal power of digression—the resolution forever delayed just over the horizon and thus magnified in value. He also understands comedy. This season, an episode about “How To Find a Spot” begins with first-person footage on the trials of finding NYC parking, before it digresses towards an interview with people excited that their pre-purchased graveyard plots are near the parking lot.

Wilson has found a way to create human, unsanctimonious meaning out of a culture based on recording everything we see. Joan Didion critiqued such a culture, questioning the use of our notebooks full of observations and lines that merit this description: “A better line in life than it ever could be in fiction.” Like Joan Didion, Wilson almost exclusively cares about real life, but has found a way to make its chance lines read with the vision of fiction. He does this by resolving a meticulous formal structure into episodes which appear like unguided reveries.

Writers often focus on Wilson’s cultivated sense of awkwardness—both his almost immaculate sense for the uncanny (honed, in part, by producer Nathan Fielder), and his stuttering, nerdy delivery of the monologue which undergirds How To. Let us be clear: Wilson’s sheepishness, his constant ‘stumbling into’ people and situations which are truly ridiculous, truly unusual—this is a planned and articulated spontaneity, not an accidental one. Wilson finds and develops stories unfolding in the world instead of dreaming them up alone. His journalistic ability stems from his architect’s grasp of structure.

How To captures the experience of spontaneous discovery which drives journalistic work and accompanies the strange feelings which only the unknown can evoke. It is ironic that this feeling of serendipity is not a product of spontaneous chance, but a result of Wilson’s intricate mechanisms for weaving together a huge archive of documentary footage.

We see the seams of this work when Wilson begins to tell a story he claims unfolds in real time. Yet, when the video cuts between two seemingly sequential moments, we move directly from spring to fall. These ruptures which expose How To’s structure are more than errors—they are evidence that his tapestry is not given, but woven.

So, Wilson is not wide-eyed. Just his camera is.

Let us also be clear, that when we discuss the John Wilson in How To with John Wilson, we do not mean the biographical person. John Wilson stands for a team of writers, editors, and producers. You can find their names here.

With this scaffolding set up, we can discuss the most striking part of Wilson’s work: his use of montage. Here is how How To was made.

Wilson’s constructs his montages by forming an immediate metaphoric link between each of his (literally) pedestrian videos and a tangibly human situation. His camera finds the novel and the vital in the mundane and the overlooked. In doing so, Wilson defamiliarizes his videos’ images with cutesy charm. The plainness with which Wilson’s narration accomplishes this defamiliarization makes it funny.

On the wings of memes, Wilson uncovers a new comic symbolism.

Let me give an example: Wilson is talking about the problems involved in planning things. He shows a video of a tree in a sidewalk plot, the base of its trunk deformed by a concrete brick around which the tree has grown. Obligations, Wilson says, “can make you feel like your fate is set in stone.” Who sees a stone on the street and thinks of fate? John Wilson does, because he knows how to see things and how to be amazed by them. His work “makes the stone stony,” as Viktor Shklovsky would say (and as Shushan Avagyan translates in her masterful new version of Shklovsky’s On the Theory of Prose). Wilson makes us see things which life renders automatic and invisible. In doing so, as Shklovsky described a famous speaker, “He establishes a new relationship between word and object, never just naming the thing and never just establishing a new name.”

Each video, each image in How To feels like a discovery, because Wilson’s narration rips the image from its original context and makes it new. Wilson relinks the given video on screen with his metaphorical idea (video of brick in tree == inescapable fate). Following the Frankfurt School’s thought-images, which interrelate critical thought and art within a brief snapshot, you might call Wilson’s device an idea-video. An idea-video is similar in form to those internet memes which overlay a stock image with words that recontextualize its meaning. Behind those memes, and behind Wilson’s work, is the assumption that every image carries the promise of infinite reinterpretation.

The second part of Wilson’s work is to string a whole series of idea-videos together, like words in a sentence. Wilson forges a natural-seeming narrative out of wholly unconnected videos which were filmed ‘in real life,’ in different places, in non-chronological order. The pieces are strung to the rhythm of Wilson’s speech. The editor cuts to the next video as Wilson reaches the next idea in his narration. These idea-videos pack such a high density of information (both visual and auditory/textual) that it would be tedious to transcribe even a minute of them into written text here. Each idea-video often contrasts starkly with the ones proceeding and following it, though we are never granted any unambiguous conclusions.

The ‘brick in tree == fate’ idea-video is buttressed by a comic vision of spontaneous freedom—two women dancing, masked, on a basketball court. Then, we see the potential dangers of such unplanned living: videos depicting the mass of black cables which tangle like steel wool on the poles and facades of the city. These cables provide us power, television, and internet. To untangle them, you’d have to shut down a whole neighborhood. As Wilson zooms in on the knot of cables, he says: “Stick with me, and I’ll show you how to live in a world of endless possibility, where you won’t know where one experience ends, and the next one begins. And you can finally understand what it truly means to be spontaneous.”

How To with John Wilson threads its component videos so tightly that one does not experience them as merely street photography, but as documentary footage of the mind. Each video flows into the next with a human touch. Yet, if seen from above, a How To episode’s structure would resemble the serpentine coil of cables which for Wilson represents spontaneity and its opposite—consciousness.