Interview: Soda Jerk on Hello Dankness
This article appeared in the May 4, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Hello Dankness (Soda Jerk, 2023)
The artist duo Soda Jerk (the alias of siblings Dan and Dominique Angeloro) formed in Australia in 2002, and has been based in New York since 2012. Their collaboration to date has sparked numerous short works built from sampled images and audio from television shows, films, and other media ephemera that are stitched together and digitally altered to construct entirely new narratives. Describing them as something like the very online descendants of Bruce Conner and Craig Baldwin comes close to capturing the spirit of the work, but special attention should be paid to Soda Jerk’s foregrounded politics. Their 2018 mid-length feature TERROR NULLIUS, which weaponizes images from canonical Australian films to highlight the country’s papered-over histories of racism and colonialism, was renounced by its funder, a philanthropic trust, for being “un-Australian.”
With their anarchic new feature Hello Dankness, Soda Jerk undertakes a similarly ambitious excavation: diagnosing the source of the cultural disquiet that led to the Trump presidency and has haunted the U.S. ever since. Drawing from hundreds of sources spanning 1937 to 2022, the film’s narrative opens in 2016 with images of the suburbs, and proceeds to follow a group of neighbors as they navigate their political differences, the pandemic, and the strange new social reality emerging around them. You’ll spy the familiar likes of Tom Hanks, Annette Bening, Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar, Ice Cube, and others, recast—via playful editing and selective rotoscoping of source material—as a motley assortment of Bernie Bros, crushed Hillary supporters, and alt-right trolls on the march. Look carefully at every frame: you might find an “I’m With Her” yard sign tucked into a shot from American Beauty, or the leads from The ’Burbs sporting “Bernie 2016” T-shirts. Oh, and Hello Dankness is also a musical.
But for all of the film’s manic juxtapositions and reframings (one particularly demented sequence built from Garfielf-inspired cartoon memes places Jon Arbuckle in the role of the Democratic party, weakly hectoring the continual transgressions of Garfield-as-Trump), wacky humor never overwhelms Soda Jerk’s lancing criticism of the American political scene. Blame for the current reactionary stagnation and unease is heaped across the political spectrum. As the duo told me, “Some might feel that political critique should not sit side by side with lulz, or sincerity with shitposting. But we feel like interesting things can emerge from these kinds of confluences.”
The pair were kind enough to answer a few questions over email about Hello Dankness, which screened in New York last evening as the opening-night film of the 2023 edition of Prismatic Ground.
How do you begin a project like Hello Dankness? Is there a narrative spine you have in mind that you then scour for images to plug into? Or are there certain image sets you’re inspired to start working with?
Hello Dankness developed as a response to the profound and profane weirdness of U.S. politics around 2016. Prime-time news channels were reporting on presidential pee-pee tapes, Democrats eating babies, and pedophiles communicating in coded pizza messages. American politics has always had a flair for spectacle, but what felt different was the pervading sense of dankness. It felt like a historical vibe shift, a threshold over which we all tumbled into a new memetic regime. Our intention with this film was to try and document what this period of history felt like, to create a kind of psychic imprint or ledger.
Perhaps the most difficult thing about structuring the narrative was that we were attempting to make a record of the time, written during the time. From the outset, we knew we wanted the narrative to cover the period of the Trump presidency, but as history got sucked into a pandemic sinkhole in 2020, we had to scramble to fold in new events as they unfurled around us.
In Hello Dankness, you torque images from different sources using the the grammar of popular cinema—shot/reverse shots, cutaways, establishing shots, eyeline matches—to create passages that feel like “scenes.” Archival material is so often used merely in a blandly illustrative fashion. In the best case, we might find an attempt to intriguingly collide elements to create something new. But what you’re doing reads as something different entirely.
Our interest in sampling is as a means of terraforming. We want to create a narrative space that has its own veracity, where characters from different films can interact and form relationships and unforeseen confabulations. At the same time, we’re also really compelled by the historical dimensions of the sample and the encrypted traces they carry. We want both these things at the same time: the world-building potential of classical cinema and the deep time of the archive. So rather than thinking of film as a purely linear unfolding, we’re interested in approaching the cinematic narrative as something that is dense and deep and encrypted, like a meme. But there is no one way to skin a sample, and we’re deeply indebted to the legacy of found-footage filmmaking, especially that of our dear mate and mentor Craig Baldwin.
When you’re working with archival material, how much are you thinking about the referential quality of a particular image—for example, wanting a viewer to recognize and think about, say, American Beauty—versus its purely instrumental use in constructing a sequence?
Different samples work in different ways. Some function entirely instrumentally, while others are intended to carry the baggage of their original source. It’s our role to try and guide the viewer through these shifting registers so that the experience of sample recognition deepens the conceptual framework of our film, rather than overwhelming it. We think about it as a question of whether we are owning the samples or the samples are owning us. Hopefully what emerges is some kind of syncopation between what we are trying to achieve and the layers of personal and historical context that are encoded within the samples.
When you’re sifting through images, do you find that certain texts from the past now read as somehow prophetic? Seeing shots from Wayne’s World, American Beauty, and Friends in the context of this film gave me a jolt—like it was all there right in front of us, but we just couldn’t see it. American Beauty, especially, now seems like a clear sign that things were on the wrong track.
Part of what interests us about American Beauty is that it sits within a series of other films from that time that were reflecting critically on American suburbia: a kind of neoliberal angst cycle that includes films like Magnolia, The Virgin Suicides, The Perfect Storm, Happiness, and Fight Club. In various ways these films register an acute sense of the horrific drudgery that can emerge from the suburban dream of an office job, mortgage, and marriage. Yet the incredibly bleak visions of these works feel oddly muted from the present perspective. In the years since, the suburban imaginary has been further eroded by crushing material conditions, unemployment, social divisiveness, and the opioid epidemic. The suburban horror of one era becomes the trad nostalgia of another.
The casting of Wayne and Garth as alt-right trolls in Hello Dankness also produces a similar generative friction. Of course there’s already plenty that’s sus about the original Wayne’s World films when revisited with a contemporary lens, but we were also interested in the ways that the cultural mythology of white-bro broadcasting has different connotations now than it did in 1992. Somehow in the decades that have elapsed, that basement space of LOLs has been encroached upon by the specter of white nationalist ideology, shitposting, and the manosphere.
Were you mostly grappling with films and shows you were already familiar with? Or did you also pull from texts that were new to you?
We’ve been torrent freaks since The Pirate Bay was a baby, so we’ve amassed a formidable stash of film and TV files over the last two decades. This personal archive usually forms the starting point of our research, and then we isolate specific trajectories that we want to dig into more thoroughly. With Hello Dankness this included genre dives into suburban dramas, musicals, stoner films, zombie flicks, netsploitation, political satires, presidential biopics, and YouTube poop. We’re low-key relentless about it, so if we’re digging into a canon, we’ll attempt to get our hands on every source that’s available. But, regardless of the scope of this research, the core sources we end up using are almost always ones that we already have a deep affinity with. No matter how pragmatic our intentions are, the personal dimension seems difficult to shake.
Hello Dankness opens with the entire extended 2017 Pepsi: Live For Now commercial. I kept waiting for a record scratch, some kind of editorial or aural assault. But it’s even more discomfiting because you didn’t touch it at all.
The moment Kendall Jenner hands that Pepsi can to the cop, it’s like we pass some kind of cringe horizon from which we cannot return. It becomes impossible to deny the crisis the Left is facing in regards to the corporate recuperation of political imaging and messaging. There was no need to intervene in the ad because it was already a perfectly obscene historical document. To flip it would have only destroyed its veracity. That is also true of our non-interventional approach to the other documentary artifacts in Hello Dankness. Whether we’re dealing with the John Podesta emails, Trump’s Access Hollywood tape, Alex Jones’s Infowars rants, or Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard commencement speech, our intention is to preserve the integrity of these documents so that they can be experienced in all their confounding glory.
This film is also, among the many other things we’ve talked about, a musical. What made you settle on that genre framework?
Our broad mission for the film was to find a way of documenting the sense of unreality that has encroached upon contemporary life in the age of the internet. Stoner films and musicals seemed like the two genres most committed to the representation of bent reality and ruptures to the everyday. Musicals also seem galvanizing and collectivizing somehow? Even when they are way past their prime, they remain oddly charged with affect. They are the lowbrow version of highbrow.
The musical is so often about the delivery of pleasure. Could you talk a bit about pleasure—your own in making a film like this, and your thoughts about crafting an object that’s really quite enjoyable for the viewer?
While there are certainly laughs to be had, it was also important for us that this was knotted together with considerable grief, anxiety, and moments of stark discomfort. This turbulent tonality was also something that emerged from a desire to problematize the position of the narrative so that it never has the chance to petrify into a static pose of ironic distance. But, given the baked and bombastic nature of these times, we continue to wonder whether satire is even still possible. In that sense, we don’t know if Hello Dankness is a satire or a eulogy for satire.
Jeff Reichert is an Academy Award–winning filmmaker and the co-editor of Reverse Shot.