Hello Dankness

Hello Dankness
September 10th 2023

If you’re reading this, odds are that your inner life is, to a disquieting extent, coauthored by Pepsi jingles, Preston Sturges zingers, and cathartic exchanges from sundry Very Special Episodes. To be a late-capitalist subject is to be a hatchling condemned to imprint on a rolling landscape of audio-visual fragments. Upon arrival in this world, we’re instantly remade in the images humanity has made of itself through mass media, a frame vast enough to house F. W. Murnau and Young Sheldon. This compulsory education is easily beckoned to the surface by quote-athon conversations and Möbius strip parodies-within-parodies that run the high-low culture gamut. In these moments we’re all slack-jawed onlookers jabbing index fingers at our screens in euphoric identification, a la Leonardo DiCaprio’s faded TV actor in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019), or infants on the cusp of passing the mirror test. The arrangement produces meaningful engagement with the human condition as well as a bottomless trough of nearly unbearable joy, but the piper insists on being paid, and his most pernicious demand is legal dominion over the raw materials of our selves. The image-makers and songwriters irrevocably malleate our gray matter, but we regurgitate these materials back into the world beneath increasingly shaky legal protections. Lennon/McCartney may have claimed part of your soul, but you’ll answer to SONY/ATV and Sir Paul’s people if you score your autobiographical short film with “Your Mother Should Know.” Copyright law is complicated, and deserves some sort of gratitude for preventing Tucker Carlson’s use of Black Flag tunes for his intro, but the view from 30,000 feet suggests a one-way street that unjustly limits our ability to process and express the contours of lived experience.

Few filmmakers traverse post-modernity’s boundless sea of copyrighted signifiers with more righteous glee than Soda Jerk, the “two-person art collective” who specialize in ebullient collages of reclaimed, re-edited, and recontextualized clips lifted from decades of popular cinema. Their latest film, Hello Dankness (2022), conscripts Tom Hanks, Mike Meyers, and dozens of famous faces in an After Effects Passion Play of post-Obama decadence. Campaign signs for Bernie and Hillary materialize in the backgrounds of American Beauty (1999) and Wayne’s World (1992) while zombies and cops fill the streets. Everyone is heading for disaster. From hundreds of well-known sources, the duo fashions a faultless portrait of American democracy’s descent into paranoia and chaos. Popular culture has been given over to men whose childhoods were spent wondering how Batman and Superman would get along. Soda Jerk posits a more compelling what-if, in which no cultural object can escape from a shared universe as ugly as the day’s headlines.

Yet the Jerks don’t throw their material—that is, our collective unconscious—around cynically. When everyman Tom Hanks, in footage from The ’Burbs (1989), investigates his creepy neighbors, recast here as Trump voters, SJ align themselves with Joe Dante’s cheeky vision of suburban dysfunction. But when Albert Finney’s Daddy Warbucks is composited behind Joe Biden, seemingly instructing the new President where to sign a no-doubt nefarious bit of legislation, they undermine Annie’s (1982) political sentimentality. There’s much fun to be had watching Soda Jerk’s wavelength coalesce and diverge from that of their source material, often within the same sequence. Theirs is a most resourceful sort of filmmaking that recognizes our world as paradoxically made out of images. Making sense of these representations—redeeming them, abusing them, worshiping them, recycling them—is an act of self-discovery. Movie-brained delusions architected a world in which a made-up drug in Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) plays a central role in sober-eyed pedophilic conspiracy theories taken seriously by a U.S. president. In such circumstances, it’s not unreasonable to hope that movie-brained romps through recent history will help break the fever.

Hello Dankness is presented by Other Cinema at Artists's Television Access on Saturday, April 27.



Hello Dankness is now playing at Film Forum.