Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing
by Conor Williams
Dir. Soda Jerk, Australia
Playing September 8–10 at Film Forum
The period of 2016 to 2021 marked a truly strange time in U.S. history. After eight years of the country at the arguable height of its power, with economic prosperity, social equality, and a ruthless barrage of missiles brought down on the Middle East, the Obama era ended with a twisted punchline. Donald Trump, whom Slavoj Zizek would call the “first postmodern president,” won the 2016 election and accelerated the United States toward autocracy.
The political establishment had been proven wrong. The media didn’t know what to do. At first, there was a sheepish assurance that at least these troubling times could allow for a new renaissance of protest art—but few works rose to meet the moment. (Some movies that did include Get Out, Hypernormalisation, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, BlacKkKlansman, and Borat 2: Subsequent Moviefilm.) Broadly speaking, however, pop culture fumbled. At the same time, there was an inflation of more crude, reactionary mass culture. Social discourse was weakened. Conspiracy theories abounded.
Using pirated media, found/remixed footage, and some clever edits, the two-person Australian art collective known as Soda Jerk has constructed a film, Hello Dankness, that attempts to illustrate this five-year span across several acts. The film’s cast is star-studded. Tom Hanks is a Bernie Sanders supporter. Annette Bening is a Hillary Clinton supporter. Bruce Dern is a Trump supporter. Wayne and Garth from Wayne’s World are alt-right. Instead of rocking out to “Bohemian Rhapsody,” they groove to a song about the memed late gorilla Harambe. They live alongside Seth Rogen and the girls from Pen15 and Jules and Rue from Euphoria in a suburbia stitched together from different films. The titular sausages from Sausage Party prognosticate about the election results. When Clinton concedes, the liberal apocalypse is spelled out through Rogen’s meta-disaster comedy flick This Is the End and a scene from Euphoria in which Rue’s world gets turned upside down along with the neoliberal hegemony.
There are countless gags playing on several levels of meta-narratives—Tom Hanks watches Mr. Rogers, whom he would portray in the biopic A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. His character comes down with a bad case of COVID, just like Hanks did at the beginning of the pandemic. Some bits are stronger than others. The pandemic is illustrated through the image of a young Asian boy throwing bottles of Corona onto people’s lawns, before absconding into a secret lab where Bill Gates and a team of scientists are hard at work on biological warfare. At the end of this sequence, a Facebook notification pops up that reads, “This page has repeatedly shared false information,” suggesting that what we’ve just seen is a hoax. Hello Dankness delights in satirizing both sides—there’s many laughs to be had at the expense of the liberal shock at Trump’s victory, and the toothless response from both the Democratic Party and the mainstream media. QAnon believers take the form of talking trash cans and zombies, and PizzaGate truthers dwell in the sewers with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Like an episode of South Park, the joke is on everyone, but that sort of edgy equivocation doesn’t always land. At its weakest moments, Hello Dankness feels not so dissimilar from the kind of pop culture it’s making fun of—at times certain aspects feel reminiscent of the cultural artifact that is JibJab, the e-card platform that Americans used in the 2000s to turn George Bush and John Kerry into silly singing puppets.
When Hello Dankness specifies its critiques of the left beyond “LOL, the libs got triggered,” and meditates on the profound sense of a revolution deferred with the concession of Bernie Sanders, the film manages to accomplish a bit of poignancy. While Soda Jerk’s schadenfreude refuses to let up, there is still an earnest emotion to be found here. The nationwide uprising brought on by George Floyd’s murder is exemplified briefly when RoboCop gets down on one knee. Set to The Producers’ “Springtime for Hitler,” clips of real (?) footage of Black Lives Matter protesters, along with Trump’s strange Bible photo-op where he sicced riot police on reporters, are interspersed with fictionalized portrayals of our police state. Annette Bening’s Clinton supporter collapses in a heap of white liberal tears.
The film reaches a joyous conclusion with the election of Joe Biden. Annie’s Daddy Warbucks, playing the role of “Big Daddy Donor” and looking eerily similar to Jeff Bezos, rejoices at the reinstitution of our comforting capitalist order. It’s a multicultural jamboree, and down below, rats recite Zoe Leonard’s poem “I want a dyke for president.” The bros from The Hangover watch his inauguration on a gas station TV. “He’s actually kinda funny,” Bradley Cooper admits, and then wonders, “Is he all there? Like, mentally?” The film ends on a more somber note, however, when Greta Gerwig and Kieran Culkin in Wiener Dog pick up Mexican hitchhikers. “America…so lonely,” one of them moans. “Like a big fat elephant drowning in a sea of despair.” There’s an awkward silence, and then a cut to black. Hello Dankness here evokes the same mood with which it began—with a deeply American uncertainty about what our future holds. All we can do, Soda Jerk seems to argue, is laugh the pain away.