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Thursday, April 25, 2013

Lil Bub Hits the Tribeca Film Festival

Mike Bridavsky and Lil Bub at the Tribeca Film Festival.Robin Marchant/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival Mike Bridavsky and Lil Bub at the Tribeca Film Festival.

If you are the type of person who is inclined to watch YouTube videos of cute animals doing even cuter things, you’ve probably encountered Lil Bub: the adorable walleyed kitten with a perpetually protruding strawberry pink tongue.

Videos and photos of Lil Bub bounding around a living room or eating yogurt have earned her countless global fans, and the feline was even considered a celebrity at the inaugural Internet Cat Video Film Festival. So it was probably only a matter of time before there was “Lil Bub & Friendz,” a documentary about famous felines showing Thursday at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Over the weekend, the movie was screened in the spring chill outdoors at the Tribeca Drive-in, behind the World Financial Center in downtown Manhattan. The sun was just beginning to slip behind the cityscape when Bub made an appearance, lovingly carried out by her suited-up owner, Mike Bridavsky, who gently set his star on a podium and invited attendees to pet and take pictures with the cat.

“She’s so cute!” wailed one little girl, as she angled her cellphone to get a better shot. Children and adults alike pressed against waist-high steel police barricades to get a glimpse of Bub’s face. Bub was dazed or unfazed, possibly a combination of both. She rested on her paws, tongue out as always, while dozens of little hands smoothed her fur.

Cats have long been a popular Internet phenomenon, with Maru the box cat and others leading the charge. They are ripe for parody, the film explains, as owners and fans enjoy analyzing their seemingly ungovernable behavior and relish projecting comical personalities onto their expressive faces and bizarre behavior.

But the Vice Media documentary, directed by Andy Capper and Juliette Eisner, also suggests that the rise of Bub along with Grumpy Cat, whose markings convey a very salty attitude, and Nyan Cat, a pixelated animation of a flying kitten with the body of a Pop-Tart, represents a turn in popular culture: rather than offering a few seconds of enjoyment, they are now on par with well-known and loved characters in movies, video games and television shows.

“No one cares about Bart Simpson anymore,” Ben Lashes, a “meme manager” who helps Internet celebrities broker appearances and sell shirts and stickers, says in the documentary. ”This is it. This is popular culture.”

If this documentary is a mile-marker in the continued migration of niche Internet fads into the mainstream consciousness, then it also highlights the seediness that can be found during any boom, online or otherwise.

The cat owners featured in the documentary seem to genuinely adore their animals. Still, the unsavoriness of the media tours and the relentless merchandising â€" stickers, books, shirts, calendars and stuffed animals made in their likeness â€" is difficult to shake. Then there are the profits from ads that run alongside the popular videos. In Bub’s case, the entrepreneurship is particularly unsettling because her lovability hinges on severe genetic deformities, including stunted bone growth, a misshapen jaw and a lack of teeth. The severity of her condition is a running theme in the film: Bub can barely walk without falling over and when she does move, she creeps along in a military-like crawl.

But Mr. Bridavsky offers one gem in explaining the popularity of Bub and his desire to share her with fans, when he calls her “therapeutic” and says that spending time with her relieves the stress and aggravation from his regular life. “She’s like a daughter to me,” he said. “Bub means more to me than any of this Internet stuff.”