In our regular column, Less Than (Five) Zero, we take a look at films that have received less than 50 logged watches on Letterboxd, aiming to discover hidden gems in independent and world cinema. This week Conor Bateman looks at the ambitious and hilarious video art collage Hollywood Burn.
Date Watched: 2nd July, 2015
Letterboxd Views (at the time of viewing): 1
Dan and Dominique Angeloro, sisters who work under the moniker Soda_Jerk, have been making waves in the Australian video art scene since 2002. Their approach for many of their video installations and works has been to re-appropriate existing footage from film, television and video games to make statements on both our engagement with video as a form of entertainment, as well as a running commentary on the importance of remix culture, with Hollywood Burn (which they made in collaboration with Sydney-based artist Sam Smith) the most meta intersection of those ideals.
I first heard about this film back in 2006, when it was originally titled “Pixel Pirate II: Attack of the Astro Elvis Video Clone”. I’m not sure where exactly I found it, but I remember watching the trailer for the film and snippets of it over on Soda_Jerk’s official website, back when it looked like this.1 The full film, viewable on Vimeo, opens with Soda_Jerk’s 2002 short The Dawn of Man, which sees Kubrick’s apes from the start of 2001: A Space Odyssey discover something decidedly different when that infamous bone is struck at the ground. In the world of this short, the apes discover beats, playing out LL Cool J’s “I Can’t Live Without My Radio”. What follows this opening is a delirious narrative set-up involving a group of ‘pirates’ (played by various film characters who wear eye patches of some description) in the year 3001, who plot to take down corporate film distribution by kidnapping circa-1955 Elvis Presley, cloning him and sending him to ‘The Present’ where he is tasked with killing the keeper of copyright law, Charlton Heston’s Moses from The Ten Commandments. On route to this battle he runs into a plethora of bounty hunters sent by The President (Martin Sheen in The West Wing), including Adam West’s Batman, Indiana Jones, the Ghostbusters and, in a memorable sequence titled “Copyright Cops”, David Hasselhof from Knight Rider.
Ross Rudesch Harley, now the Dean of the College of Fine Art at UNSW, wrote in 2009 that “the history of video art sits oddly with the emerging logic of remix as defined thus far…the present retelling of this history in books and its presentation in museums, galleries and art events is often disconnected from the far-reaching changes underway in today’s networked media world.” The role of the internet with regards to video remixing is clearly positive in access but perhaps negative in terms of the more mainstream definitions and ideas of video remixing. The very concept of video remixing online gained mainstream recognition not as longform explorations of image and sound but rather through mostly simple re-cuttings of film clips; made for YouTube, things like “The Shining as a Romantic Comedy” and the countless re-subtitling of a scene from Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall paradoxically stoked the imagination of viewers whilst reducing the concept of video remixing to basic punchlines, a repetitive premise-as-joke.2
The work of artists like Nicolas Provost and Vicki Bennett (to pick two examples from a wide plethora of people) is something of a far cry from these YouTube sensations, as they re-purpose both content and form. Provost’s Papillon d’amour, which I’ve previously espoused the virtues of, turns a Rashomon scene into a primal transformation of physicality. Bennett, in her short 4’33” The Movie, cuts out all dialogue from the climactic scene in John Huston’s Key Largo, resulting in a dissipation of tension through a narrative told only through glances; like the YouTube trailer parodies, here too there’s a genre shift, but it’s not focused on following an accepted formula or structure, it is a shift in restraint.
Harley also noted that the meaning in these remixed works “is largely determined by the extent to which audiences can connect to the cultural codes that artists absorb and re-animate” – essentially, that the potency of remixed works often relies on recognition of source. This is fairly applicable to Soda_Jerk, who are doing something vaguely similar to Bennett and Provost in stripping an original film/character/image of its genre but not its iconography, yet just as often they are parodying familiar genre structures; a lot of Hollywood Burn could be broken down into parodic sections, of ’50s sci-fi serials, video game boss battles, the idea of the ‘house party’ and celebration on film (in a fairly brilliant merger of an Elvis film as House Party and House Party 2, which serves as visual joke and commentary on conservatism and race). This clash of ideas and ideologies, embodied in the form of using Hollywood film clips to comment on the evils of copyright control from Hollywood, emerges in most of Soda_Jerk’s other work; their 2011 Artbank-commissioned The Popular Front sees them re-edit the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” section of D.A. Pennebaker’s Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back by altering the words on the cards he holds up, replacing his revolutionary message with references to internet memes. It’s as much a comment on change as it is discourse generally, the influence of the internet in our consumption of ideas and culture. Hollywood Burn is a defense of one particular mode of consumption – consumption by reduction and alteration.
I’m not sure cultural connection is entirely necessary though, at least in a specific sense. Knowledge of Elvis and his films generally still allows the elements taken from 1961’s Blue Hawaii in Hollywood Burn to be funny and, to a greater extent, the works of filmmakers like Adam Curtis, Craig Baldwin and Arthur Lipsett, which all also remix existing footage, often don’t at all rely on a familiarity with content, but with instant reaction to montage and editing.3
Something Soda_Jerk shares with Curtis in particular is an impressive control over music and sound. The focus for much of Hollywood Burn‘s runtime is on the visual reappropriation of symbols, characters and images, yet a lot of the humour comes from the re-purposing of dialogue and score.4 In addition to the aforementioned LL Cool J drop, there are some other great uses of popular music, notably Prince’s “Batdance”, the 20th Century Fox theme and an expansive final mix that plays over the film’s 8-minute credits sequence. They often use audio to reassert their Australian origins, in fact one of the biggest laughs in the film, for me at least, was in their faux-Star Wars opening credit crawl, with cut up voiceover outlining the copyright conspiracy the film relies upon for plot. As it moves down to a very specific phrase – “pirate tapes” – the tinny American voice cuts out in favour of a clip from the piracy warning that opened every Australian VHS tape, a somehow both relaxed and authoritative voice intoning this fear-inducing message. It’s not only an act of humour, or even nostalgia, but also cross cultural commentary, Australian copyright policy having obediently followed that of the US since the Australia–United States Free Trade Agreement in 2004.
Unlike the work of Adam Curtis, in particular his impressive mediation on pop culture It Felt Like A Kiss, Soda_Jerk and Sam Smith lack a level of political weight and argumentative nuance in their attack on copyright in Hollywood Burn. That said, nuance isn’t their focus, and they manage to raise the idea of fair use in remixing culture through the very existence of the film. For the most part, then, Hollywood Burn acts as a cleverly connected highlight reel of the zany possibilities of a longform work from video remix culture. By putting the entire work online, they further this idea of access to art and ideas, though Hollywood Burn‘s central thesis would collapse were it not freely accessible and available to the public, accompanied by an encouragement to download, remix and share. This focus on awareness runs parallel with something they told The Creators Project in 2012, that “what is most important about the way that sampling reconfigures the past is that it points towards an alternative and inclusive mode of historiography”. Hollywood Burn succeeds as a work in that vein, promoting a scrambled idea of studio-led cinema and a defiant call for legal protection for video remix artists.