Last week the internet became obsessed with a Brad Pitt film that's 21 years old. By now, online chatter has almost certainly moved on to that goat who can play the bassoon or to some revelation about Ginny Weasley's sexuality, but it is still worth pondering the sudden focus on Martin Brest's Meet Joe Black, released in 1998.
Patient X in this viral outbreak was a tweet by Rose O’Shea, a Californian comedian. “This is the most bonkers one minute of a movie that I have ever seen,” she wrote beneath a clip from the offending film.
If you can’t be bothered to watch the video yourself – how lazy are you, by the way? – it shows Pitt and Claire Forlani (momentarily a star) walking away from one another on a busy urban street. Each turns around periodically to look back longingly, but neither does so when the other is similarly paused. It’s actually a nice bit of romantic business. Both want the same thing, but they are destined to part before revealing what’s in their respective hearts.
Claire turns the corner. Brad pauses in the middle of the street. He avoids one car, another hits him and a third bashes him about like a big, blonde ragdoll. At time of writing the video has clocked up more than 5.2 million views.
It's not hard to see why it has generated such dark mirth. Anyone arriving with no prior knowledge is likely to be knocked back in their seat by the baffling shift in tone. Thomas Newman's glutinous score complements the romantic misunderstanding with the sort of sub-Celtic whimsy that had recently buoyed up Titanic. Claire and Brad look more lovely than summer itself. The street gleams. Then we are confronted with an absurdly violent (though bloodless) death that would be comic even if it didn't arrive in such unlikely circumstances. Look at Brad bounce. It's how one imagines Leslie Nielson dying in Naked Gun. Daffy Duck would be allowed a more dignified demise.
Those still planning to watch the whole film have no cause to whine about spoilers. Bizarrely, the scene appears towards the beginning of the story. Adapted from a fine 1934 film called Death Takes a Holiday, Meet Joe Black finds Death himself visiting earth in Brad Pitt’s still shiny body. There’s some guff about a sub-Faustian deal with Claire’s father (who else but Anthony Hopkins?), but the film is mostly concerned with slowly bringing the two lovely young people together.
“Slowly” really is the word here. The original cut of Meet Joe Black was a staggering 181 minutes long. As we mentioned already, the film emerged in the aftermath of Titanic – a full 15 minutes longer – when the world was presumed ready for romance at epic length. That didn’t quite work out. Costing a scarcely believable $90 million before prints and promotion, Brest’s film needed to break records to make a profit. Helped by disproportionate success overseas, it limped its way to a borderline-respectable $143 million.
Meet Joe Black retains a place in cinema history as the movie punters attended to catch a glimpse of the trailer for Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Legend has it that thousands fled the cinema after they'd scored their intergalactic hit. It was then shelved with a school of glossy, dull 1990s cinema that already seemed dated in the era of Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh. You'll see knowing revivals of Showgirls and The Craft in independent cinemas. Until last week, Meet Joe Black lingered in middle-brow hell.
The film’s unexpected online revival has confirmed its hitherto unnoticed strangeness. The death scene is certainly the highlight, but it is worth persevering further for the sequence in which Pitt speaks Jamaican patois to a lady who fears that Death has come calling for her. The apparent argument that people of colour are more in touch with the spiritual is patronising enough without Pitt attempting the vocal equivalent of blacking up.
The ultimate message is that just about any film can profit from ironic reinvention on the internet. That image of Pitt Brad bouncing between cars has already become an unavoidable gif in tweets referencing disaster, danger and unexpected consequences.
Where will the next memes come from? I’m ploughing Legends of the Fall as you read this.