Flowers from the Barrel of a Gun:
In 1985, the film critic David Thomson wrote a novel titled Suspects. Its premise is simple, but goes a long way – it could go to infinity, in fact. What happens to beloved movie characters before and after the boundaries of the narratives that contain them? What did George Bailey (James Stewart) do after his life was put back together by a handy guardian angel in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)? What if he was somehow related, through secret family ties, to Private Detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) in Chinatown (1974)? What if they had both been romantically involved, at separate moments, with Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) in Casablanca (1942)? And so on, and on. The movie industry that pumps out sequels and spin-offs tries to tame and manage this kind of imagining, but it runs rampant, anyhow, in all our heads as well as in contemporary artworks of every kind.
Even some feature filmmakers have caught the bug. Steven Soderbergh took Terence Stamp’s character from Ken Loach’s Poor Cow (1967), of all things, and speculated on his later criminal life in America as The Limey (1999). Claire Denis, in a similar spirit, poached the actor Michel Subor (plus his character name of Bruno Forestier) from Jean-Luc Godard’s enigmatic, political thriller Le Petit Soldat (1960) and placed him in the Foreign Legion – still making those same, enigmatic gestures before his mirror reflection – in Beau travail (1999). Cinema as the portal to fantasy and immortality collides, in these cases, with the very visible effects of real-time ageing on its corporeal vehicles, its humble actors.
This presents us with an intriguing paradox, one that is, of all the audiovisual media, most characteristic of cinema. As long as an individual movie remains finite – as long as it closes its own walls in around itself, and marks itself off from all other texts by acting as if it is classically self-contained and complete – it has a shot at the fantasy of immortality, of eternal life; its characters and its world can live on in our minds, its actors forever in their prime. But as soon as film admits its constitutive intertextuality – once it opens itself to the infinity of possible connections – it runs directly into the embarrassing evidence of every kind of mortality, every ravage of time. It was a melancholic moment for postmodern culture when it discovered that its free-floating signifiers could no longer ensure eternal youth!
The video-making duo known as Soda_Jerk (comprising sisters Dominique and Danielle Angeloro) have made this precise, paradoxical connection between intertextuality and mortality the subject of several pieces in their series Dark Matter (2005, ongoing). They describe these works as “séance fictions”, arranged in installation as video loops, and hinging on evoked states of dream, reverie or hallucination. In After the Rainbow (2009), Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz (1939) enters the crystal-ball parlour of Professor Marvel (Frank Morgan). Her subsequent psychic whirl transports her into the future – not as Dorothy but now as the real performer, Judy Garland, 24 years later, belting out the sad lines of “The Man That Got Away” (“The dreams you’ve dreamed have all gone astray … ”) on a 1962 TV special. Reverse motion takes her back to the reassuring home-space of the original film, but the loop-point guides her, once again and forever more, to Prof. Marvel …
In an illuminating article, Darren Tofts has described the work of Soda_Jerk as an art of post-production – i.e., the manipulation of pre-existing material – in the midst of an argument that all creativity amounts to a gesture that is (in some sense) fundamentally unoriginal, drawing its elements and tropes from elsewhere. (1) For Tofts, novelty and ingenuity arise from the spin that an artist is able to put on his or her borrowed, recombined materials – and the surprising discoveries they may make in the process.
In essence, this is an idea familiar from much celebration of remix culture and its (by now) several generations of practitioners. Back in the mid 1980s, Meaghan Morris had already given the post-production concept its own, surprising spin: “The primary modes of film and auteur packaging”, she suggested, “are advertising, review-snippeting, trailers, magazine profiles” – where the acts of appropriation or reassembly are what she calls the “pre-condition, not post-production, of meanings” in our media culture. (2)
Pre-condition, pre-production: the idea chimes in well with the musing of critic Stephanie Van Schilt standing before After the Rainbow as it was installed at Melbourne’s Next Wave Festival in 2010. (3) Van Schilt’s mind raced to the writing of Lesley Stern, who made the claim in her splendid 1995 book The Scorsese Connection that intertextuality in cinema is as much about memories, associations and expectations that we bring to a film before we view it, as what we experience during its physical unfolding. “It is not just the story we anticipate”, suggests Stern, “but the sensations. Even before the first image, we are remembering”. (4)
It’s true: in our heads, those time-honoured distinctions that define and draw the limits of classical narrative – distinctions between actor and role, between on-screen fiction and off-screen public celebrity, between storytelling and advertising – have already collapsed, long ago. And perhaps it’s always been like that, virtually since the inception of cinema. The Time that Remains (2012), another instalment in the Dark Matter series, takes up these themes.
Across two concatenated screens – one freezes as the other begins its loop – we witness a ghostly duet made famous by the movie-gossip industry: Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, two actors who dealt (in very different ways) with their on-screen ageing, and who also engaged in a decades-long feud that is today the stuff of legend [and an underwhelming 2017 TV series]. Again, as in After the Rainbow, these stars come face to face (thanks to digital image-compositing) with themselves in their earlier roles; the only essential difference is that where Davis made a gleefully exaggerated show of the phantasmic grotesqueness of her older age, Crawford did everything in her mortal power to resist it. Memories not only of the many classic-era Hollywood films sampled, but also of cultural phenomena such as the Mommie Dearest tell-all memoir and subsequent movie of 1981, are in the forefront of our consciousness as we witness The Time that Remains.
Nonetheless, just as these stars are eternally bound in trashy books of scandal-reportage like Shaun Considine’s Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud (1989), here they are locked together in the video-loop of hellish repetition, where each one seems to dream the plight of the other.
Whether, in relation to the work of Soda_Jerk, we choose to speak of pre-production or post-production, or (best option of all) both processes in a complicated dance, it is clear that the key, missing term in the middle of this sequence is precisely production. Unlike many contemporary Australian artists, from Tracey Moffatt to Polixeni Papapetrou [1960-2018], Soda_Jerk is not “into” staging, theatricality or mise en scène; they do not themselves photograph bodies in poses, or design and build sets. They go to work on found material – or, more precisely, on the old, sedimented associations that already accrue to this material, and the new associations that can be created, sparked by their juxtaposition. The statements made by the duo often bristle at the reflex notion that their work is some simple “celebration of pop culture” in remix mode. Their formulation (borrowed, as are other remarks quoted in this essay, from their channel) is more careful: “Archival history is folded into new constellations, producing virtual proximities between disparate temporal moments”.
The aura of SF (whether you prefer science fiction or speculative fiction as its spell-out) looms large over the Soda_Jerk oeuvre: time travel, parallel worlds, spaceships, alien invasions. This is particularly true of the epic, 51 minute “piracy manifesto” Hollywood Burn (2006), and their Astro Black series (2007, ongoing) which delves into the fertile link between SF mythologies and the culture of Afrofuturism associated with the visionary musical artist Sun Ra and more recent theorists of the movement including Joseph Nechtaval and Kodwo Eshun. Much creative work in this area deliberately vacillates between regarding its SF iconography as either reality or metaphor: sometimes the aliens and whatnot are posed as really existing (Chariots of the Gods style), and other times as simply the best, shorthand, most extravagantly expressive way to talk about more pressing, material, earthly problems.
With Soda_Jerk, we pass more firmly over to the side of metaphor. The communication between worlds allowed by corny SF scenarios enables an enactment of dizzy exchange between different cultural styles, eras, generations, nations – best represented by the fulsome introduction of Chinese characters from the Japanese TV series Monkey into the Elvis Presley-starring storyline of Hollywood Burn. But, even more importantly for my purpose here, these SF plot devices also serve to reflect the chief artistic, formal weapon in the entire Soda-Jerk arsenal: montage.
The art of Soda_Jerk is an art of montage. Harun Farocki distinguishes between two broad forms of montage: soft and hard. Hard montage, creating a collision between two consecutive pieces by cutting between them, is the more traditional option. Such sequential collisions in the Eisensteinian school can still pack a wallop, such as when a cut in Hollywood Burn transports us from Elvis to a reverse-shot of Clint Eastwood in a Sergio Leone Western, supposedly nearby in the landscape, beadily watching.
Soft montage, by contrast, is defined by Farocki as “a general relatedness, rather than a strict opposition or equation”. (5) It involves putting different images together simultaneously, and Soda_Jerk explores every available variation on this procedure: across installation screens (The Time that Remains); within an image that is divided by a split-screen (as in Tap Hop, 2009, which compares different eras of dancing); and – more ingeniously as their work develops – within a single, digitally assembled or composited image. Soda_Jerk began with relatively simple insertions – a face or a crowd from one film placed inside the window or screen of another – but have gone on to wittily explore many variations of mobile cut-and-paste, playing on often comical discrepancies of scale, luminosity, colour and shape.
For Farocki, the diverse forms of soft montage allows a certain freedom to the spectator, because the work “does not predetermine how the two images are to be connected; we must build up the associations ourselves in an ongoing way as the film unfolds”. (6) This is consonant with Soda_Jerk’s idea of new constellations and virtual proximities.
Stylistically, Hollywood Burn stands in a critical relation to later work by others that has since emerged in an “expanded supercut” vein. To take a prominent example: György Pálfi’s elaborate, feature-length Final Cut – Ladies and Gentlemen (2012) has been celebrated as offering “a coherent, and to a certain degree even immersive and complex story from mainly unaltered bits and pieces of other stories”. (7) From fragments, narrative clichés and pure stereotypes plundered from mostly glossy, mainstream movies and strung together into a kind of master-plot, Pálfi has managed to create (according to one argument) a new kind of captivating, thrilling, emotional movie experience. Whether or not this is true of Final Cut – I personally find it hard to cohere Jack Nicholson in one shot and John Travolta in the next, thereby sucking myself into an imaginary hero’s-journey, even if they both happen to shaving at the bathroom mirror – the terms of this positive judgment surely bear no relation whatsoever to what Soda_Jerk sets out to do.
The Soda_Jerk project belongs far more in the tradition of, for instance, the militant, American audiovisual collagist Craig Baldwin (Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America, 1992) – who also uses SF tropes primarily for their socio-political metaphors – where the desired effect is not seamlessness (either in the plot or the audiovisual effects) but precisely heterogeneity, our active perception of all the joins and borders involved, at the exact moment that they are run together in the montage. (8) Like Final Cut, Hollywood Burn indeed constructs a story – in the Baldwin or Suspects vein, a deliberately outlandish, surreal story. But the particular virtuosity in Soda_Jerk’s case is not in hiding tricks or smoothly blending materials: when a chase sequence links up Elvis’ speeding red car, the plunge of a similarly covered vehicle over a cliff from the finale of Thelma and Louise (1991) and a toy-model moving over water in a Thunderbirds episode, nobody is meant to be fooled or illusionistically immersed in the event. Our enjoyment, and our engagement, happen on a different level – more akin to Christian Marclay’s overrated, 24-hour loop-opus The Clock (2010), but with far richer content than a simple collation (I hesitate to even call it montage) gimmick.
I am watching The Was (2016), the most recent video by Soda_Jerk at this moment of writing, made in collaboration with the musical remix unit The Avalanches. In a more orderly fashion than Hollywood Burn, this one has the structure of a linear plot, or rather an unfolding, overlapping movement, a montage-flow that joins many things in an incessant relay: people walking down the street, getting on the subway train, going to the supermarket, and so on. The piece (for me, the most outstanding audiovisual event of 2016) bursts with uncanny collisions at every turn: Charlize Theron in Monster (2003) with the skater kids of Larry Clark’s Wassup Rockers (2005), Jean-Luc Godard with Edward Scissorhands, Cheech & Chong with Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine (1998). But all that might remain a clever pop game of spot-the-collaged-element, if there was not some special connection there for an individual viewer to make, recognise or discover.
One such moment occurred for me the first time I beheld, in The Was, the virtual proximity of kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst, in full Symbionese Liberation Army garb and sporting a rifle, and what I instantly took to be Martin Sheen from the start of Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973), collecting garbage along a sleepy, suburban footpath. Two images of 1970s USA, therefore, in an almost cause-and-effect relation of dialogue: the stultifying boredom of everyday oppression and miserable working life, giving way to the no-less unreal fantasy of identity-transformation and instant, revolutionary, terrorist action.
The juxtaposition stirred some obscure connection in my own, teenage history: coaxed into a life of cinephilia by the enigmatic, poetic Badlands at the age of 14 viewed on a big screen on its first release, a film which queasily, knowingly turns even serial murder into a kind of childlike, pastoral magic; while, in the exact same year of 1974, I was following on the nightly TV news the fascinating but disturbing rise-and-fall of Hearst, with its murky, black-and-white images of daring bank robberies and hideout cells set aflame by police bombs. For me, this juxtaposition in The Was captures, within a single, composite image, the vivid, historical analysis that Jean-Baptiste Thoret offers in his book American Cinema of the 1970s: for this society poised between ennui and hysteria, the question is always “what are we going to do with all this energy?” – collective as well as individual energy. (9)
But hang on! While I well knew that Patty appeared here as a fictive reconstruction – incarnated by Natasha Richardson in Paul Schrader’s fractured, sardonic Patty Hearst (1988) – I did not immediately realise that it wasn’t Martin Sheen in Badlands at all that I was seeing in The Was, but his son Charlie in a much later movie, Men at Work (1990), where he stars alongside his brother, Emilio Estevez. The allegory of American energy gone berserk that I read-in is still there, but its reference-points are now dizzily multiplied, and its stable ground stirred up: actor-daughter of Vanessa Redgrave meets actor-son of Martin Sheen, as the simulacrum of Patty shares the frame with a film made in homage to Badlands! As often in the work of Soda_Jerk, the real and the imaginary, the original and the copy, the descendant and the ascendant, swiftly change places, and never stop spinning.
Another significant aspect of Soda_Jerk’s practice, in this regard, is the indexing of technology, and especially of what is called nowadays a media archaeology. The way we perceive culture and the way we remember its past (as well as our own, lived pasts) are filtered through specific audiovisual vessels or containers that are constantly changing: from the boxy TV screen in the loungeroom to the laptop computer screen, from landline telephones to mobiles, from large cameras to near-invisible sensors. All the support formats of media distribution change over: Beta, VHS, DVD, Blu-ray – and all the ways they can be stored, archived and exhibited. Soda_Jerk’s pieces play with this culture’s own representation of its carbon-dated, technological paraphernalia – whether in latest-thing or nostalgic-retro modes – but they also mess with a weirder, more uncanny side of our perceptual and affective recall.
Split-second glitches are staged, whether of the filmic rolling-frame-line or burning-celluloid kind that Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez expensively mocked up in their Grindhouse (2007) double feature; or the electronic pixel breakdown that leads to the momentary blurring-out or slowing-down of figures and faces in The Time that Remains. At such moments, our unconscious brain itself, and all its processes, seem to have ineluctably become part of the all-pervasive media machinery.
No wonder that, in After the Rainbow, our attention is drawn to the relational interplay of black-and-white and colour sections in The Wizard of Oz – which are then duly overlaid in a single image or scene, in order to scramble the distinction between them; or that the wonderfully edited vocal inserts in Hollywood Burn (supposed movie dialogue constructed of audio samples from many sources, including anti-piracy ads) sound exactly like our landscape of pre-recorded messages played back on train station platforms, or heard at the other end of some annoyingly protracted call to one of the many large, service corporations that rule our every day. In their whirlpool of pre- and post-production, Soda_Jerk’s works tap into a texture of modern life, and the modern world, that is both superficial and subterranean, everywhere evident and nowhere graspable.
Among the delights of The Was is the way it freely combines photographic depiction with animation: not only recognisable characters like Beavis and Butt-Head, but also small, abstract flourishes that return us to the psychedelic era of George Dunning’s film for the Beatles, Yellow Submarine (1968). And as if to cap off my tangled Sheen family/Hearst epiphany, Soda_Jerk adds to the tip of Patty’s menacing gun something quite lovely: a burst of animated flowers.
MORE Soda_Jerk: Terror Nullius
(2) Meaghan Morris, The Pirate’s Fiancée: Feminism, Reading, Postmodernism (London: Verso, 1988), p. 266. back
(4) Lesley Stern, The Scorsese Connection (London: British Film Institute, 1995), p. 166. back
(5) Harun Farocki and Kaja Silverman, Speaking about Godard (New York University Press, 1998), p. 144. back
(6) Ibid. back
(7) Miklós Kiss, “Creativity Beyond Originality: György Pálfi’s Final Cut as Narrative Supercut”, Senses of Cinema, issue 67 (July 2013). back
(8) See Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin, “The One and the Many: Making Sense of Montage in the Audiovisual Essay”, The Audiovisual Essay website, 2014. back
(9) See Jean-Baptiste Thoret, Le Cinéma américain des années 70 (Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 2006). back