In the run-up to the release of Lars von Trier’s four-hour long Nymph()maniac (2014), a carefully crafted publicity campaign teased viewers with a series of publicity posters, still photographs, and a mock behind-the-scenes tableau featuring the film’s all-star cast members in an array of highly suggestive poses. Amongst these were posters of the film’s main stars—including Shia LeBeouf, Jamie Bell, Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Uma Thurman, and Udo Kier—seemingly naked, and captured in medium close-up against a white background performing their best orgasm faces. Memes of these ‘O-Faces’ rapidly emerged on user-generated websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. Similarly, Shia LeBeouf’s bizarre act of donning a paper bag for the film’s Berlin Film Festival screening has become an acknowledged part of Nymph()maniac’s publicity campaign, as audiences at Curzon cinema’s ‘One Night Stand’ screening of volumes 1 & 2 in Chelsea were presented with captioned paper bags to wear over their heads. Photos of paper-bag wearing cinema-goers Tweeted by various attendees were quickly re-Tweeted to form part of the official marketing campaign for subsequent release dates, while the paper bag has taken on a life of its own outside of the context of the film.
What, if anything, can these memes tell us about the ways in which viewers and users engage with extreme cinema and its provocations in a participatory network culture? On the one hand, such memes provide evidence that, in a convergence culture, ‘if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead’ (Henry Jenkins 2009). While extreme cinema has long relied on the marketability of provocation to secure audiences, in a digital culture, audiences are required to participate in new ways in the circulation of extremity. But what needs to be acknowledged above all is the playful nature of such paratexts – memes involving googly eyes and cute cat grimaces are anything but extreme. Furthermore, the memes that market extremity do so to a much wider audience than the film was ever intended for and use humour to construct extremity as a kind of joke. What is compelling about these not-so-extreme memes is how they seem to actively skewer fantasies and anxieties about the pornographic accessibility of graphic images in a digital network culture by draining the explicit sexuality out of the film’s images. They offer further fodder to the marketing of extreme cinema as a visceral experience, at the same time as they seem to undercut its very practices of provocation.