Experimental Collective Soda Jerk on Trump-Era Art Film ‘Hello Dankness’: “Reality Has Started to Feel Baked”
Remember that weird movie from the ’90s that somehow starred Tom Hanks as a Bernie Bro, Annette Benning as a Hilary Clinton stan, Wayne and Garth as alt-right drones, Donald Trump as himself and The Phantom of the Opera in a Vladimir Putin cameo? Well, thanks to the Australian artist duo known as Soda Jerk, this film actually does exist — and it just might be the most original and bizarrely elevating movie of the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival.
Titled Hello Dankness, the film is assembled exclusively of samples — some 300 of them from vintage film and TV sources, along with another 250 pilfered audio clips. An array of recognizable characters from the collective unconscious of recent American pop culture are deftly re-deployed into a new narrative that stages them as members of a suburban community living through the bizarro years of 2016 to 2021 — following them “as their shared reality disintegrates into conspiracies and other contagions,” as the filmmakers describe it.
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Jesse Eisenberg emerges as Mark Zuckerberg, surveilling and exploiting the American citizenry — and later mercilessly executing them when they morph into election-denying Trump supporters staggering towards their vision of revolution. Daddy Warbucks plays a Third Way Democratic mega-donor. Bruce Dern pops up as a trad Republican who gets pilled on QAnon. Ice Cube appears more or less as himself, as does Napoleon Dynamite. There are scores more.
A monumental and obsessive editing exercise, the film sculpts a compelling and coherent satirical narrative out of this mega-abundance of cultural effluvia, redeploying genre conventions to its own ends. Perhaps most impressive, the variously repurposed characters convincingly appear to exist within one off-kilter world. And despite plunging headlong into the rancor and surreality of recent American politics, the project somehow manages to generate a feeling of levity and reflective distance — rather than just more reflexive scorn and spiritual exhaustion.
“Politics in America have always been divisive, but what emerges after 2016 is not just discordance but dankness,” the members of Soda Jerk write. “It becomes psychotropic like dank weed. Viral, janky and confounding like dank memes. It is a time of presidents with pee-pee tapes, baby-eating Democrats, child-trafficking in Wayfair furniture, and unhinged coronavirus conspiracies implicating Bill Gates, China and 5G towers.”
They add: “Instead of trying to smoke out the facts from the fake news, Hello Dankness leans into these mythologies, attempting to make visible what they may reveal and obscure about the deep cultural fissures and devastating material conditions that characterize this moment.”
Soda Jerk generally reveals few facts about themselves, beyond that they are siblings, originally from Australia and have been based in New York City since 2012. The duo has previously collaborated on projects with the cyberfeminist collective VNS Matrix and the electronic music group The Avalanches. Hello Dankness follows their gleefully controversial political revenge fable Terror Nulls (2018), which was disowned by its commissioning body in their home country, who called the film “un-Australian.” They tend to operate within art world and experimental film contexts (Hello Dankness was supported by the Adelaide Film Festival and Samstag Museum of Art), and given the realities of copyright law, the new film is unlikely to ever be commercially exhibited. But that’s OK with Soda Jerk.
They say: “We wanted it to be a record, written from the time about the time, about the way experience was shifting under the emerging regime of the internet.”
Ahead of the Berlinale, The Hollywood Reporter connected with Soda Jerk for a brief exchange about their novel approach to moviemaking.
Who is Soda Jerk? To the extent that you’re comfortable sharing this stuff…
We’re siblings, but cringe at origin stories about growing up together, it just feels too twee. We prefer to think of the collaboration as something that rose from the grave of Napster. In the early 2000s when we were living in Sydney, we were both interested in the free culture skirmishes that were emerging between industry and early file-sharing initiatives. We were also into the experimental breakcore scene which was accelerating audio sampling, and artist squat communities and illegal warehouse raves that were co-opting real-estate. We understood all these things as related, as ways of seizing privatized resources and reappropriating them. We were also heavy sentimental for cinema, so we ultimately turned these methodologies of sampling onto film. In 2002 we began collaborating on our first feature film called Hollywood Burn. It’s an anti-copyright sci-fi biblical epic in which Elvis Presley gets abducted by intergalactic video pirates who make a video clone of him and send it back to 1955 to face off against the tyrant Moses and his Copyright Commandments. It was entirely constructed from hundreds of VHS and DVDs pirated from video rental stores.
What’s the story of Hello Dankness‘ genesis?
Ever since the unprecedented dumpster fire of 2020, it’s become easy to forget the already strange WTF feels of the year 2016. But this is where Hello Dankness really emerged, from that feeling of disbelief at the surrealness of US politics that was emerging at that time. Our wager was that this weirdness, this dankness, was not ultimately about a particular cast of political characters but about the cumulative effect of the internet on the reordering of culture. Our broad mission for the film was to find a way of documenting this sense of unreality, the raw feeling of it, and also what it might obscure or reveal about the material realities and power structures of the current moment.
Can you tell me a little about your process? How do you even get started and go about making steady progress with such a monumental digital assemblage like this?
For Hello Dankness, we ultimately sampled over 300 film and TV sources, and around 250 audio sources. But the total amount of sources we were working with was well over a thousand. So things can get unruly really quickly, and we rely heavily on spreadsheets to log timecodes and transcode details. We also use sprawling wall maps in our studio to track different possibilities and potentialities for sequence structures and concepts.
But the thing that really holds the project together for us is to begin with a clear idea of the narrative we are telling, and that is always driven by real events and documentary artifacts. We think of ourselves as rogue documentary filmmakers in that sense, even though our films also lean heavily into more speculative and genre-based modalities. So when we began scripting Hello Dankness in early 2019 we had plotted the events we wanted to cover, such as the 2016 election night, Pizzagate, Russiagate, the Trump Access Hollywood tape — and later as the pandemic unfurled in 2020 we scrambled to fold new events into the project as they emerged in real-time, such as the pandemic lockdown, the rise of corona and QAnon conspiracies, etc.
One of the biggest technical and creative achievements of the project, for me, was how effectively you create the feeling that these various co-opted characters live within one strange, continuous world. What are some of the editing secrets, or key techniques, to giving such diverse material a contiguous feel?
There is a lot of fairly invisible FX in the film, such as altering the color of a polo shirt to create continuity for a character, or replacing the background of a shot so that it will form a better match with the footage around it. In our work more generally, it’s common for us to deploy extensive rotoscoping techniques to cut characters out of their original footage and place them within new shots. But for Hello Dankness we really wanted to double down on the world-building potential of the edit itself and challenge ourselves to push the classic strategy of the cut as far as it would go.
Trying to squeeze classical continuity from different samples is really difficult, and the only effective strategy that we’ve found is to mount a brute-force attack. We sample as many films as possible and relentlessly generate as many edits and script ideas as we can think of, in an endless multiplication of alternatives. Each sequence undergoes hundreds of different iterations with different characters or narrative frameworks. Whereas a filmmaker might typically shoot their film and then edit the footage, we’re constantly in a loop of writing, sampling, editing and rewriting throughout our entire process. There’s a gross amount of wasted labor in this workflow, as you might be trying to realize a scene that you’ll never find the pieces for, or have the perfect sample that just can’t be worked in.
But our goal is never complete continuity and immersion in the new narrative we are constructing. As sample-based artists we’re also extremely interested in the seams where different sample-worlds collide. This was something that influenced our approach to the color-grade, for example. While sometimes we would grade for continuity, mostly we were interested in retaining the samples original color divergences as a way of preserving the relation to the original context.
How much time would you estimate you spent on the film, in total?
Prior to the pandemic, it was already a kind of joke amongst our friends that we would go into “lockdown” when we were working on a film, disappearing off the face of the earth into our underground studio bunker until it was done. When the term lockdown started to be used in the context of Covid-19, we were already a year into our own lockdown with the project, and the pandemic only turned up the intensity on that. We spent four years working with ridiculous intensity on the film, from early 2019 until late 2022.
What does the title Hello Dankness mean to you?
What it means for us is that reality has begun to feel baked, and that spheres such as politics have begun to take on a deeply viral logic in their formation and dissemination. What we like about the term “dankness” is that it has many meanings. It starts as a way of describing moisture, is then adopted as a term for really potent weed, and finally migrates to describe memes that are especially janky or strange.
The title is also a riff on the Simon and Garfunkel song ‘Sound of Silence’ that itself has become meme-ified. The invocation of the sixties counter-culture feels interesting to the current moment, because in a sense we are living out the nightmare destiny of that historical vector. Today’s platform capitalism is what happens when the utopian libertarianism of hippies implodes into the cyber-corporatism of Silicon Valley.
Is it weird to you, as Australians, that American political discourse so completely suffuses the internet that your very surreal but nuanced depiction of recent U.S. political events in this film would be easily legible to viewers from almost anywhere?
Dolly Parton nailed it in 2016 when she said that American politics is the greatest show on television. It’s tough to pry your eyes from. It’s lurid and ludicrous, and yet also an incredibly significant force shaping material realities nationally and internationally.
Is there a character from the film that Soda Jerk feels the most affinity with?
Weirdly enough, the character who most closely embodies our personal experiences of the period is Tom Hanks. As committed Bernie Sanders supporters for both the 2016 and 2020 election cycles, we too had to negotiate feelings of despair and melancholy around the loss of that brief moment of hope on the radical left. But our affinities also shift throughout the film, so sometimes we might identify with the kid holding the ACAB sign at Robocop, or the queer mice that hide under the floorboards at Biden’s election party speaking the poem ‘I want a Dyke for president’, or we might feel sympathy for a zombie shot by Mark Zuckerberg, and also feel implicated in the complexities of the Annette Bening character. Each character in the film is complicit, no one escapes blame. We also don’t intend for our affinities to map onto that of other viewers, we welcome the way that different people will inhabit the film depending on their own political orientations and past cinema experiences.
Can you tell us a little about the material/financial/business conditions surrounding the film’s creation and dissemination?
It’s such a relief not to spend our time at film festivals chasing industry execs around the hotel breakfast buffet. We see our filmmaking as operating within the tradition of civil disobedience, our work is not designed to sit safely within the law but rather to test the contours, traps and loopholes of these frameworks. We exist between the visual art and experimental film worlds, and while institutions commission the work, they don’t have a financial stake in it. So, there’s no money to recuperate and no goal to get distribution, just our own commitment to getting the work seen by whatever means emerge. There is a long history of artist cinema that have worked in this way, but no real model, it’s just something we make up as we go along. There is no goal to make bank, just to be able to bring enough scrappy hustle to keep on keeping on.