Soda Jerk on Trump-era satire Hello Dankness
Soda Jerk, mashup heroes of our times, take satire to higher levels with Hello Dankness, a hilarious collage film retelling the Trump era using the rejuvenated ashes of your favourite stoner movies
Soda Jerk are a New York-based arts collective made up of Sydney-born-and-raised siblings Dan and Dominique Angeloro. Their practice involves sampling and remixing hundreds of clips from cinema and TV history to create wild works of speculative fiction. Previously they brought us the blistering Terror Nullius, a dismantling of the Australian national psyche featuring Mad Max, Skippy the Bush Kangaroo and Picnic at Hanging Rock. That film opened the Glasgow Short Film Festival in great style back in 2019, and they return to the festival this year with their new work Hello Dankness, which sees Soda Jerk turn their attention to the other side of the Pacific, taking on the perils of America.
It’s been quite a time since their previous visit to GSFF. “Since we last spoke it feels like the whole trajectory of history got sucked into a pandemic vortex and neoliberalism was upgraded to an even more crushing and sinister cyber-feudalism," they say. "These feel like distinct and different times that demand a radically new arsenal.”
Hello Dankness focuses on the mind-boggling years of 2016-2021 in American politics, and Soda Jerk’s approach rips those years apart, before reassembling them anew. The film takes place in an American suburb, where everyone has a different political preference, from Hillary supporters to Bernie birds to flag-raising Republicans. Soda Jerk’s radical interpretation recontextualises not only films but familiar faces in a quixotic cast, bringing together Tom Hanks, Annette Benning, Seth Rogen and Bruce Dern to portray the neighbours. The film's meta layers grow as actors play fictional characters, people play themselves, and actors play real people, like Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg. These dizzying permutations can be read as expressing the levels of reality/unreality at play in the virtual/real world we are occupying together.
Warning: this trailer contains flashing images
Pre-pandemic times could seem like a field of rose-tinted wheat compared to where we are now, but the ground was already shifting in 2016, and it’s from that quagmire that Hello Dankness emerged. “Ever since the unprecedented dumpster fire of 2020, it has become easy to forget the already strange WTF feels of the year 2016,” Soda Jerk explain. “Our wager was that this weirdness was not ultimately about a particular cast of political characters but about the cumulative effect of the internet on the structuring of experience.”
Ah, the internet, that vast digital extension of humanity, a rolling wave of deep fakes and darkness, co-existing with a bright democracy of open contribution and shared knowledge. Social media in particular is ubiquitous. We’re one step away from scrolling the skin of our palms (someone is surely working on how to embed mobile tech into our flesh), and algorithms govern our feeds, while tech bros decide the nutritional standards. How quickly Cambridge Analytica’s harvesting of private Facebook data has faded. Soda Jerk document this unreality, and by doing so ask what it “might obscure or reveal about the material realities and power structures of the current moment.” Described by the duo as part political satire, part disaster movie, part buddy film and part zombie flick, Hello Dankness explores an era in politics that represents a culmination of social and political change in what they refer to as the memetic aesthetics of the internet.
Politics is known for embodying elements of performance; the oratory, the presentation, invoking repetition (recall the Obama era of “Yes we can”, and Labour’s winning refrain of 1997 in the UK, “Education, Education, Education”). “Obama’s cool demeanour and deft oration connect him to the era of television, whereas Trump’s scattershot presence is more suited to the virology of the internet," says Soda Jerk. "Trump is both shitposter and shitpost personified. He is the first meme to hold office in the White House." Move aside TV – memes are the new sound bites.
Hello Dankness is a collage on film. Invoking the intertextuality of linking separate settings, characters and stories alongside each other by its nature re-frames and shifts the perspective. Soda Jerk explain: “For us, images are not just representations, they are vectors for the accumulation and circulation of memories, effects and knowledge systems… All our films deal with the politics of images, but Hello Dankness also deals with the image sphere of politics.”
Soda Jerk tell us that Hello Dankness leans heavily into stoner films and musicals because they are the two cinema genres most committed to the exploration of “bent realities”. The samples are primarily drawn from suburban dramas of the 80s and 90s “because they capture the dark heart of normie neo-liberalism.” In total there are over 300 different film and TV sources sampled across the film, and 250 audio sources. It's a visual feast, and an impressive organisational feat too. “The total amount of sources we’re working with was well over a thousand,” they tell us. “So things can get unruly really quickly, and we rely on elaborate spreadsheets to keep track of timecodes and transcoding data.” Assembling this into a cohesive narrative seems like a geometric exercise. “Trying to squeeze classical continuity from different samples is really challenging, and the only effective strategy that we have found is to mount a brute-force attack. We sample as many films as possible and relentlessly attempt to generate as many alternate edits and script ideas as we can think of.”
Each sample chosen or not chosen opens or closes entire new avenues of story ideas. While it's not unheard of for filmmakers to edit while filming, the typical process is to come to the editing after production. For Soda Jerk, “we’re constantly in a loop of writing, sampling, editing and rewriting throughout our entire process. There’s a gross amount of wasted labour in this workflow, as you might be trying to realise a scene that you’ll never find the pieces for, or have the perfect sample that just can’t be worked in.” (It's a similar story with this article, where a discussion of a specific technique Soda Jerk use – rotoscoping – doesn’t quite flow.)
Towards the closing stages of Hello Dankness, two mice from The Witches voice “I want a dyke for President”. These mice, originally children who have been transformed by the laced chocolate of the Grand High Witch, end their recitation on not wanting to have to choose between the lesser of two evils. Yet it often seems that it is the choice, whatever may be hoped for – which political option is “less worse”. Hello Dankness suggests that the dawn of a left-leaning political leader alone won’t necessarily be the panacea needed.
While Soda Jerk’s work can seem like a form of antidote, they say: “We generally try to resist the idea that artists should be the custodians of hope. We don’t have answers, and are not here to persuade anyone that everything is going to be alright… Perhaps we will all be forced into tending the fields of cyber-feudalism, or uploading our consciousness to A.I. overlords, or maybe we will all rave our way to revolution and use the bones of our oppressors to fertilise the dreams of Acid Communism. We don’t know, but if anyone has any arguments in favour of optimism, we are ready to be convinced.”