“We Think of Trump as the First Meme to Hold Office in the White House”: A Conversation with Hello Dankness Creators Soda Jerk
For over 20 years, the Australian video artists Soda Jerk have been making work that samples film, music and other various forms of pop culture. Their films are kaleidoscopic and psychedelic, irreverent and constantly surprising. Their newest film, Hello Dankness, is no different. Set in a fictional suburbia populated by Tom Hanks, Annette Bening, Bruce Dern, and Wayne and Garth from Wayne’s World, Dankness is a response to–and a film about–the 2016 election and its aftermath. After all, an era of American history and politics that so ferociously shred away societal norms and imbued daily life with a lasting weirdness deserves a film just as weird.
I spoke to Soda Jerk about how they got their start as video artists, and how they made one of the most unique and defiantly goofy films in recent memory. Hello Dankness is currently playing at New York’s Film Forum.
Filmmaker: When and how did you two begin working together as Soda Jerk?
Soda Jerk: We’ve been collaborating in this way since the early 2000s, when we were baby queers preoccupied by debates around shared culture, P2P networks and utopian ideas about the cypherpunk future of the internet. It all seems very naive now, but at the time Napster had just been decimated in court and the untapped potentials of the web felt very real to us. We were psyched for the kinds of possibilities that the internet might enable for building new modes of economy and community outside of existing legal and social structures. These kinds of ideas were also interconnected with so many other things that we were into at that time, like illegal raves and artist squats and anti-corporate activism. It felt like the ethics of theft was having a moment. Lots of our friends were also working with audio sampling within the experimental hip-hop and breakcore scenes, and we became interested in how these kind of plunder strategies might be applied to cinema.
So around that time in 2002 we started working together on our big, weird first work, Hollywood Burn, an anti-copyright epic made entirely from pirated films and tv samples. It was very much in the spirit of trash cinema, a kind of free culture manifesto disguised as a sci-fi biblical narrative starring Elvis Presley and an intergalactic outpost of video pirates including Snake Pliskin and Jack Sparrow. The thing was that neither of us had any training in film or video, and it was before YouTube and online tutorials, so we were just messing around pretty chaotically at first, asking friends how to do stuff as we went along. We were sampling directly from VHS and DVDs rentals from Blockbuster, capturing on mini-DV tape and editing on a cracked copy of Final Cut. It was probably our cluelessness that kept us going, because we really had no idea how difficult it was going to be, or how long it would take. We worked on Hollywood Burn for four years, and then somehow managed to keep the collaboration going with other sample-based projects, first within the context of visual arts, and more recently within cinema and experimental film worlds.
Filmmaker: How would you describe Hello Dankness?
Soda Jerk: The baseline would be that it’s a suburban stoner musical about a group of neighbors and how they relate and evolve together as they navigate the unfurling shitstorm of the years from 2016 to 2021. It’s also a political fable of sorts, a kind of Greek tragedy, where each of the characters function as a kind of mask, in the sense that they are highly codified or emblematic. So within the neighborhood, Tom Hanks plays an idealistic Bernie bro, Annette Bening is a histrionic Hillary supporter and Bruce Dern is the trad Republican who ultimately gets pilled on Infowars and QAnon. Wayne and Garth play alt-right YouTubers, and Putin makes an appearance as the Phantom of the Opera. Lots of other Broadway bangers like Cats, The Producers, Annie and Les Misérables too. A friend recently said that she thought Hello Dankness was what might happen if Andrew Lloyd Webber, Joe Dante and George A. Romero collaborated on a documentary project. Mostly though, we hope that the overriding feeling that the film emits is one of deep weirdness. Because ultimately what we are trying to get at with Hello Dankness is the encroaching sense of unhinged-ness that has begun to characterize politics and experience in this era. Our wager is that this isn’t just about a particular cast of political characters, but rather has to do with the cumulative impact of the internet and the emergence of a memetic sensibility that is profoundly reshaping society.
Filmmaker: The film begins with a cold open of sorts. The Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial plays in full, unaltered. Some unaware viewers may think it’s part of your construction, but it’s totally earnest. What is it about that commercial that spoke to you two?
Soda Jerk: That 2017 Pepsi ad has been a genuine muse for us in terms of thinking about the way that the language of the left has been co-opted by industry, and in trying to grapple with the question of what alternate forms of left articulation and protest might be possible and necessary beyond this cringe horizon. We were teens of the ’90s so the concept of corporate cringe runs deep for us. We get that it’s become entirely commonplace for brands to virtue signal, but with this commercial it’s like they forgot to add the virtue part, it’s just pure unadulterated brand synergy. Watching Kendall hand that Pepsi can to the cop is like staring directly into the nihilistic void at the soul of crap-stage capitalism.
Filmmaker: How did you decide what films you would use as the basis for Hello Dankness?
Soda Jerk: There’s always a lot of wrestling between the things you want to work with and the things that actually work best in the edit. So sometimes you are guided by grand conceptual motivations and at other times you might choose a source because of concrete pragmatics like preserving continuity, or the structural logistics of how to advance from one scene to the next. So while some people might know a lot of movie trivia, our cinema knowledge aggregates around things like knowing which film has tidy cutaways, or how the color profiles of films of a certain era will match, or which films are most conducive to classical editing or whatever.
Although we’ve leaned into a lot of different genres for this work, we were particularly drawn to films that have a deep engagement with the American suburbs. A film like The Burbs is already such a deft suburban satire, and we were interested in what it might mean to consider it concurrently with something like American Beauty from a decade later. We were curious about what kind of insights and resonances might emerge from collapsing their proximity and allowing them to inhabit the same narrative matrix. I guess we are always thinking about the sources relationally, how they gel and the kinds of frictions they generate.
Filmmaker: There’s several layers of meta narratives and inside jokes happening in the film. For instance, Tom Hanks’s character is sick with COVID, and Tom Hanks was one of the first high-profile COVID cases. Did you have these kinds of connections planned out beforehand, did some come to you in the moment?
Soda Jerk: Tom Hanks getting sick was definitely something we hadn’t anticipated, in fact we were quite deep into the edit by the time of the pandemic so COVID was itself a massive plot twist that we had to suddenly reroute into the narrative. We’d also sampled Hanks watching Mr Rogers on television, before he was cast as Fred Rogers in the film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. So Hanks weirdly turned out to be quite a lightning rod for these kinds of uncanny meta conjunctions. We’ve also been thinking lately about the kinds of things that reverberate for the film even after it’s finished. Like recently when Hello Dankness played to audiences during peak Barbenheimer, you could sense that Greta Gerwig’s presence in the final scene had shifted in some kind of palpable way. Films really are these ridiculously encrypted documents, these complex webs of connection and affect that are constantly shapeshifting as they move through time. Deciphering these encrypted dimensions of cinema is part of what we are thinking about when we use a sample, but at the same time we’re also drawn to the fact that the meaning of a work can never be completely locked down, there will always be an excess that necessarily escapes our best efforts. And the viewers are themselves part of that unquantifiable equation, bringing their own unknowable associations and personal history to the text.
Filmmaker: There’s been a lot of talk about AI and how that may be used in the future of the film industry. What do you make of all that?
Soda Jerk: We’ve got some complicated feels on this. On one hand, in terms of labor and jobs, there’s no doubt that AI will be devastating for certain fields of practice. But honestly if we had a robust universal basic income, or something like that, then all this unemployment and restructuring wouldn’t be such an issue. So in that sense perhaps we are worrying too much about the threat of AI overlords and are missing the bigger picture, that we are already living an economic nightmare ruled by a robotic elite of billionaires like Zuckerberg, Bezos and Musk. So that’s one side to the current AI hysteria that’s justified and considered. But if we come at these kind of debates purely from the point of view of the technology, then we’re actually really down for it. We don’t buy into the whole binary between human and mechanic creativity. Artists have always been cyborgs, we’ve always worked with tools and used technology as a kind of prosthetic. Our film practice is already deeply enmeshed with tech and coding and algorithms, so we don’t see AI as being categorically different. We’re fascinated for the kind of evolutions in our practice that it might propel.
Filmmaker: Were you surprised that your film was able to get a theatrical release, given the material you made it with?
Soda Jerk: We’ve really got to credit Film Forum for making this theatrical release happen, it’s wild. These are deeply risk averse times, especially for institutions, but Film Forum got behind Hello Dankness really early on when they saw it at the Berlinale. The legal provocation of our work is also very much a part of it, of its intended action, and we think of the film as a necessary probe to test the contours of the law, so we welcome whatever unfolds in that respect. Also perhaps worth noting that, having studied law in Australia and the US, the Fair Use doctrine that we have here in the States is actually quite robust and fascinating.
Filmmaker: Why do you think the establishment failed so miserably in their underestimation of Donald Trump?
Soda Jerk: This goes back to what we were saying earlier about the emergence of a new digital regime, a memetic paradigm that has been unleashed by the internet. What people failed to anticipate was how well-suited Trump was to this new media landscape. It’s like the political debates of the 1960s, where Kennedy smashed Nixon on television, because he had the right demeanor for tv. He runs cool like tv while Nixon runs hot like radio. And Trump has something different altogether. His scattershot presence surpasses television somehow, there’s something about his mode of presentation that meshes incredibly well with the virality of contemporary politics. We think of Trump as the first meme to hold office in the Whitehouse.
But also let’s be real, the establishment Democrats didn’t just fail in their estimation of Trump, they also failed on their own terms. Failure to enact significant legislative change, failure to alleviate the very real material pressures and precarity that people face, and failure to make the kind of audacious moves necessary in the face of climate catastrophe. Guess we feel pretty bleak about the current political situation and the fractured state of the progressive left that followed Bernie’s defeat. Electoral politics just feels like a shit sandwich whichever way you slice it, and the only consistent winner seems to be Daddy Warbucks.
Filmmaker: Were you hoping, in making this film about the last seven years or so, that you could provide some sort of catharsis to your audience? Or do you think your film could traumatize people all over again?
Soda Jerk: You know, what’s traumatizing is having to face a Trump Biden rematch.