Reposted from News@Northeastern
A man lies in a pool of his own blood. A single tear runs down the side of his face, as the light of the moon dances in his eyes.
Does that image ring a bell? No? You clearly haven’t seen “Goncharov” (1973). It’s an early period masterpiece from Martin Scorsese and the greatest mafia movie ever made.
Even film buffs could be forgiven for not knowing about “Goncharov,” mostly because it’s not real. But it does exist, at least in the hearts and minds of people on Tumblr, where users made an elaborate metafiction around “Goncharov,” including a poster, cast list, trailer, soundtrack and scene by scene breakdown. The community made it into a meme that spread across the internet like wildfire last week, to the point where even Scorsese himself was in on the joke.
Rahul Bhargava, an assistant professor of art, design and journalism at Northeastern, calls it “creativity run amok in a delightful way,” and a fascinating case study in how the internet manufactures memes and invents meaning.
“This is one of those examples where social media unleashes peoples’ creativity in positive ways,” Bhargava says.
But how did it all start? The story behind “Goncharov” (1973) begins with a pair of boots. In 2020, Tumblr user zootycoon posted a picture of some knock-off boots with an unusual label on the tongue. In all caps, it read: “The greatest mafia movie ever made. Martin Scorsese presents Goncharov.”
Only Scorsese never made a film called “Goncharov.” The “greatest mafia ever made” would have come out at a time when Scorsese was still making a name for himself. It would have been released in the same year as Scorsese’s “Mean Streets,” a much more modest crime film compared to the epic tale of violence, betrayal and mortality in “Goncharov.”
Users were quick to figure out that the name was likely a misspelling of “Gomorrah,” a 2008 Italian mafia drama that Scorsese endorsed. That didn’t stop Tumblr from taking this random piece of film history and running with it.
In 2020, Tumblr user abandonambition replied, “This idiot hasn’t seen ‘Goncharov,’” perpetuating the idea that this was some long lost masterpiece. For whatever reason, the meme popped up again this year when user beelzeebub created a poster for the film, complete with its stars–Scorsese regulars like Robert De Niro and Al Pacino–and character names and appearances. Photoshopped using images from other films, the poster––and its tagline “Winter Comes to Naples”––was enough to get the Tumblr hivemind going.
For a week, the community made “Goncharov” into an improvisational creative exercise with few rules and even fewer limits on how creative it could get.
The plot, written collaboratively by the community, is almost beside the point. De Niro is the titular Russian mob boss/discotheque owner who has moved to Naples for some reason. His fiancé, Katya (Cybill Shepherd), is a spy, and his partner/rival/implied love interest, Andrey (Harvey Keitel), forms the third point of a love triangle. Meanwhile, there are hints of romance between Katya and Sofia (Sophia Loren), a one-legged Jewish refugee. There’s also Ice Pick Joe (Jon Kazale), an ice pick-wielding villain, lurking in the background.
Does any of it make sense? Sort of. Most of the scenes described in the elaborate Google Doc sketching out the film’s lore wouldn’t be out of place in a historical mafia epic. Users understand the tropes and have made either a loving homage or incisive critique of these kinds of movies. But it’s more important to go along with the joke, adding more context, more backstory and more fiction. It’s the idea at the core of any meme, says Joseph Reagle, associate professor of communication studies at Northeastern.
“They can accrete layers and layers of content and references,” Reagle says. “Things move between contexts, lose their context and accrete context very quickly.”
“Goncharov” is no exception. People have made fan art, shipped their favorite characters and quoted their favorite lines from the film. Within a week, the meme itself got a Wikipedia page. There is a trailer, soundtrack, 1973 Gene Siskel review and countless interpretations and analyses of the film’s deeper meaning. Ice Pick Joe’s tragic backstory makes him an embodiment of the cycle of violence. The use of clocks represent mortality, the inevitability of death, our desire to stop time and enjoy what little time we have. Free of reality, “Goncharov” has been picked apart and dissected more than many real films.
This kind of collective storytelling isn’t new. Reagle says it goes back as far as haiku, which started as a party game. But the way stories and memes like “Goncharov” gain traction and achieve virality is something that companies, content creators and social media platforms are chasing in the modern media landscape. As for why one meme becomes more viral than another, it’s still mostly a mystery.
“At any given moment there’s a cultural vibe and then there’s a technological set of affordances, and the combination of those two produces emergent phenomena,” says John Wihbey, associate professor of journalism at Northeastern. “Sometimes the match drops and the ground is wet and it goes nowhere, and sometimes the match drops and there’s a perfect amount of very dry tinder and then suddenly you have a wildfire.”
Why did “Goncharov” take off on Tumblr? Bhargava speculates that it was the perfect combination of idea and platform.
“Tumblr is built around sharing media assets in a way that encourages a lot of creativity,” he says. “The movie poster and the backstories lend themselves to Tumblr in a way that can only be described in social terms, not in technology terms.”
It also taps into a contemporary cultural need: the collective cinematic experience.
“The collective experience of a movie appearing in culture and people paying attention to it is something that brings people together,” Bhargava says. “We all connect to a story in some way and we share it together and form a shared understanding of it, much like large meme phenomena that we all experience together and suddenly have a shared understanding of what that means–and it’s owned collectively.”
The impact of a meme like “Goncharov” won’t be as seismic as political memes or something like GameStonk. But it’s a helpful reminder, Bhargava says, that at a time when Twitter is facing an existential crisis, the internet can still be a creative, often ridiculous place.
“As we think about the future of these platforms that we collectively call social media, thinking about what pieces of technology, features and social structures help things like this example happen is a really rich question,” Bhargava says. “We’re people and we want to connect with other people and have fun and do silly things, and that is definitely one of the main things that the internet should be for.”