“A Psychic Ledger”: Soda Jerk Discusses ‘Hello Dankness’
By Dan Schindel
In Hello Dankness, the opening scenes of Joe Dante’s 1989 film The ’Burbs play out as usual—except Tom Hanks’s character has a “Bernie 2016” sign in his yard, while his neighbor has GOP elephant stickers on his windows. Annette Bening’s character from American Beauty (1999) drives by, an “I’m With Her” bumper sticker on her van. Wayne and Garth from Wayne’s World (1992) are now Donald Trump supporters rather than harmless, rock-loving goofballs. Trump’s election hits this world as a literal cataclysm, rendered via apocalyptic scenes from the apocalypse comedy This Is the End. These characters and many more from myriad film and television sources—ranging from Napoleon Dynamite to Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network (2010) sometimes crossing over with his character from Zombieland (2009)—collectively experience the 2016 election, Trump’s presidency, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the chaotic 2020 election.
The film is the latest collage experience from the Sydney-originating, NYC-based filmmaking duo Soda Jerk. The pair specializes in such sampling-based work, having previously made similar films like the anticopyright broadside Hollywood Burn (2006) and the satirical look at Australian mythmaking Terror Nullius (2018; which angered one arts trust that funded it to the point that the organization condemned the film as “un-Australian”). Hello Dankness is their most ambitious piece yet, epic in the number of different media sources it draws together to replicate the surreal experience of living through the Trump years, digitally inserting face masks or memes like Pepe or WWG1WGA into works such as Land of the Dead (2005) or PEN15 (2019–2021).
Ahead of Hello Dankness’s opening in theaters, Documentary corresponded with Soda Jerk via email to talk about the malleability of images and symbols, working through lockdown, and the art of reappropriating media. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
DOCUMENTARY: What filmmakers and artists, both historical and contemporary, influence your use of found materials and narrative collage? I thought several times about the work of Anti-Banality Union while watching this.
SODA JERK: For sure, Anti-Banality Union are mates from our Spectacle Theater days—a microcinema collective we got involved with when we first moved to New York a decade ago. But it was Craig Baldwin who really drew us to the U.S. He reached out after he saw our first work, Hollywood Burn, and we began visiting him on the West Coast, crashing on the floor of his basement archive in a sleeping bag amongst all the film canisters. He’s been a real mentor for us, not just in terms of found footage and weirdo approaches to documentary but also, you know, how to get by in crap-stage capitalism with your dignity intact. Radu Jude is another filmmaker friend who we also feel that way about.
But also, sometimes influences get funneled down these default avant-garde trajectories, and we try not to lose sight of the fact that sampling was not something that came to us initially through film. It was more of an extension of the music scenes and internet torrent cultures we were part of in the early 2000s in Sydney—the kinds of sampling practices that were coalescing around breakcore and hip-hop, and the shared culture debates that were emerging around platforms like Napster and Pirate Bay.
D: You started this film in 2019 and then had to roll with a lot of punches, what with COVID and the way the election and its aftermath developed. Was it always the plan to incorporate so many contemporary events and developments, perhaps still naturally culminating in the 2020 election? Or had you originally anticipated something more retrospective about the Trump years?
SJ: COVID was a plot twist for sure. We always knew the project would span the presidential election cycle from 2016 to 2020, but obviously we were completely unprepared for just what a shitshow was going to unfold over that period. In early 2020, we thought we pretty much had the main structure of the film locked down, but as the events of the pandemic began to unfurl, we decided to gut the existing narrative to make room so we could be more responsive to the moment.
What is most weird, looking back, is that even prior to the pandemic, the idea of virality was something we were already working with. We were thinking about politics as a form of memetics, as contagion, as virus. For us, the film was never fundamentally about politics; we were trying to use the lens of politics to get at the profound sense of unreality that was emerging with the escalating memetic regime of the internet. We wanted to cover Trump because he’s the embodiment of this new memetic modality. We think of him as the first meme to hold office in the White House. So, when virality suddenly became this extremely literal thing with a global infectious disease, it was confounding to [figure out] what to do with that conceptual mirroring and all the profound grief and trauma that the pandemic brought with it.
D: The movie took around four years to complete. Did continued societal upheaval due to COVID, the lockdowns, the election, and such delay things at all? Did you find yourselves compelled to keep watching to see what would happen next that you could incorporate? Did you have to set a firm moment to stop at?
SJ: We sometimes refer to the work as a psychic ledger—specifically, the feeling of living through those years, rather than the kind of academic attitudes or opinions that might shake out later, in retrospect. We’re always suspicious of that kind of retrospective action of history making, how things get shaped and contoured to suit whatever constellations of power that preside over the present. We weren’t interested in this kind of neatness at all; we wanted the messy uncertainty and despair of our feels at the time.
For this reason, we were kind of militant about not changing the narrative after Biden’s inauguration. We really stopped work on the conceptual development of the film at that time. We continued to sharpen the edit and work on the visual effects, but our attitude was kind of baked in and frozen at that point.
D: While there are hundreds of visual and audio sources, there are a few structuring works that get used throughout—The ’Burbs, Wayne’s World, This Is the End, etc. Did you consciously seek this kind of bedrock to work with, or was that naturally how the film developed?
SJ: Most things evolved as we went along, but The ’Burbs was there from the beginning as a core text we wanted to build around. It’s already this exquisite suburban satire, so we had the idea of inhabiting that framework of the neighborhood and bending it toward the unhinged politics of today. Wayne and Garth were another early touchstone, and we were especially interested in how their community television gig foreshadows the kinds of user-generated broadcasting that have been ushered in by the internet. In Hello Dankness, we recast Wayne and Garth as alt-right trolls with a YouTube channel, but we were also thinking a lot about platforms like 4chan and the kind of internet sludge and shitposting that gives birth to things like Gamergate and Harambe.
Beyond the whole neighborhood angle, what really guided us initially were musicals and stoner films, because both genres embody a sense of how moments of unreality and psychotropic spectacle can merge with the everyday. We looked to the works of Seth Rogen, for example, because he is basically the Hitchcock of stoner cinema.
D: When scripting the film, did you have a detailed plan for the story and the characters you wanted to feature, and for finding the media you needed to fill those elements in, or did the materials that you used shape the story? Or was it a mixture of both?
SJ: There’s a constant push and pull between the story you imagine and the one that emerges. To be honest, it’s not something that evolves organically and elegantly; it always feels like a bit of a fight. We’re always concurrently working on many alternate edits, with different characters and scenarios and tonalities or whatever. It can feel deeply unsettling to be constantly recalibrating the narrative, but we’ve learnt not to be precious about the labor we’ve already invested. Sometimes you have to lose things that you’re really into, or have expended a lot of labor on, because they just don’t service the rest of the project.
But generally, what really anchors the narrative and gives it shape are the historical events we’re trying to cover and the documentary artifacts we want to use. Like, we knew we wanted to include the Trump Access Hollywood tape, so we would build lots of different edits and scenarios around that until we finally landed on the Napoleon Dynamite sequence in which to embed it.
D: Modern meme pop culture is mixing with traditional celebrity-based pop culture in interesting ways in this film. Tom Hanks the American everyman becomes a Bernie Sanders supporter, Daddy Warbucks from Annie is a Democratic Party mega-donor, Alex Jones is mostly playing himself. How much was that kind of commentary factored in? Fox Mulder listening to conspiracy theories about government experiments comes across very differently in the 2020s than it did in the ’90s.
SJ: Images are a real trip. We’re completely fascinated by the way films don’t just age in this tidy historical way; they are sticky and attach themselves to real events and unforeseen contingencies. The Kevin Spacey sexual assault allegations can’t help but shift the meaning matrix of American Beauty, and Rosanne Barr’s attachment to QAnon also can’t help but attach itself to her screen image. So, films are this incredibly chaotic and unstable matrix, a kind of horizon point where reality and fiction collapse into one another.
We guess what interests us most is mobilizing those points of implosion and putting them into new constellations that speak to the present. Then there is also always a personal element to how each person relates to footage, and that is something we can never truly anticipate. It relates to how and where and what you were doing and feeling at the time you encountered a particular film. It still amazes us that recorded media carries all these things, how infinitely vast and epic the scope of it is. That’s part of the reason we feel that image culture cannot be privatized. It’s part of a collective memory, a shared historical record.
D: There’s a heavy invocation of memes here, but the film doesn’t quite feel like “being online,” as they say. It’s more like the boundary between online and reality has collapsed. Does it take a lot of digital tweaking of the material to strike the right balance? Did you ever pull back and decide on fewer effects for a particular scene, or realize you needed to saturate it more?
SJ: First thing to say is we’re old. We were teens in the ’90s, we grew up in ye olde days without mobile phones or social media. We misspent our youths smoking cigarettes on suburban train station platforms and waiting for Y2K to end the world. So, in a real sense, we’re just speaking in the language we know, the archaic language of classical cinema and MTV and sitcoms and midday movies. If someone is going to lay claim to speaking Internet, it’s going to be the filmmakers emerging now.
But also, we do feel that the cliches of internet aesthetics sometimes become an overly familiar default that obscures the idea of how deeply strange and disordering this new structuring of society is. So, this is where the idea comes in of bringing the ’90s and early ’00s suburbia into Hello Dankness. This period of film functions as a foil, a kind of contrast to pull focus on the truly weird tenor of the contemporary moment. We wanted to find a way to make a film about the internet that didn’t necessarily look like the internet.
It’s interesting what you’re saying in terms of saturation, too. Earlier in the project, we did go through a phase where we were obsessively layering the film with effects and minutiae, inserting posters onto walls and other kinds of clues and references throughout the backgrounds of scenes. But ultimately, we decided to strip it right back. We want to allow space for the viewer to be immersed in the narrative and ride the flow of the film. All the meta nerd-out stuff about sample-spotting and encrypted meanings is necessary and nice, but we always want it to stay secondary to the basic movie magic of building a world for the viewer to hang out in.
Dan Schindel is a freelance critic and full-time copy editor living in Brooklyn. He has previously worked as the associate editor for documentary at Hyperallergic.