On Sunday night, in a gallery at the edge of a deadened Kings Cross, Australian video art duo Soda_Jerk unveiled their latest film: The Was, a 14-minute collage short smashed together from 129 different films and television shows, in which characters are neatly cut out of their host film and positioned within the in-between spaces of another. Jay and Silent Bob play with a boombox in the New York subway as Jean Reno in Subway makes the rounds. The titular gang from The Warriors make the same train as John Travolta’s Tony Manero. Jerry Seinfeld just misses his connection as Daria Morgendorffer watches on.
What gave Sunday night’s quiet screening an even greater air of excitement wasn’t just the quality of the editing or the vague concerns about copyright but that the short was created for (and soundtracked by) a special collaborator. The Avalanches, who for fifteen long years labored under the public expectations of a worthy follow-up to 2001’s wonderful Since I Left You (robbed of the Best Album ARIA Award by Powderfinger that year, we still remember), announced their second album, Wildflower, through a cryptic documentary trailer and then a single-purpose hotline earlier this year. The Was is no documentary but it is clearly a film in the vein of The Avalanches’ work; whilst billed as “Soda_Jerk vs The Avalanches”, the short is less a competition between visual and aural collage than it is a beautifully surprising coalescing of sensibilities.
Those of us who saw the film on Sunday didn’t quite anticipate what has happened this morning: the sudden and mysterious release of The Was as a download link and also streaming on Vimeo. It makes sense that it hit the web before Wildflower‘s release this week but it’s the kind of work that should have landed online weeks ago, considering it uses grabs from most of the songs on Wildflower, as well as alternate mixes. In that sense it’s one of the cleverest album trailers in recent memory but, in classic Soda_Jerk style, it’s so much more than what it says on the tin.
The Avalanches have made it a trend to pair their music with inventive visual accompaniment, whether actualising the mesh of dialogue and sound in “Frontier Psychiatrist” on one sound stage or collapsing film genres in their video for “Since I Left You”. The Was does a bit of both, housing many film elements — animation and live action co-existing, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?-style — within a straightforward narrative framework.
Unlike their 2006 feature-length Hollywood Burn, which saw a shape-shifting Elvis Presley leap through galaxies, deserts and time, The Was is locked into a familiar space and fairly linear time. It’s a tour of a neighbourhood, a tour that is psychogeographic in nature and mapped out through nostalgic interpretations of cinema.1 We open on a small-town diner from Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, take a train in New York’s subway system and end up in a neighborhood filled with brownstones, before venturing deeper into suburbia via supermarkets and backyard pools before resting at the white picket fence. The nostalgia isn’t just contained to the films of others, there are also some sly nods to Soda_Jerk’s earlier work, in particular the 2005 short The Phoenix Portal, which surfaces through the appearance of River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho late in The Was.
The method of collage and video mashup in The Was isn’t exactly unique, if you search hard enough in Vimeo or YouTube you can find similar videos that play with character re-location, like production company Gump’s viral 2015 short The Red Drum Getaway, which smashed together images from the films of Kubrick and Hitchcock. Red Drum is well cut, amusing and particularly successful in how it holds suspense midway through, yet it lacks a clear purpose; it’s a very pretty editing showcase. The Was is suffused with a warmth brought on through its evocation of collective memory. In a sharp remove from Red Drum, Soda_Jerk have actively sought to move away from the over-representation of white masculinity in cinema; The Was pulls from unexpected sources to present a diverse and welcoming in-film space.
Where Hollywood Burn was a hilarious and bold protest against the restrictive grasp of copyright law in Australia and the United States, The Was is a freeing celebration of the impact of cinema and television on memory, just as The Avalanches’ music draws similar from wells of nostalgia. In INCITE, an experimental media journal, Soda_Jerk presented what they called The Anarchivist Manifesto. A found-text piece, they ended with this from artist Victor Burgin:
“…when two-thirds of global copyrights are in the hands of six corporations, the capacity to rework one’s memories into the material symbolic form of individual testament and testimony is severely constrained. We rarely own the memories we are sold.”
The Was, produced in collaboration with a band and (presumably) a major record label, goes some way into staking a claim for the right to rework memory into a material form. It’s not just production, though, that stakes this claim but also mode of delivery. I don’t know who released the short—whether Soda_Jerk, the band or the label—but by putting it online as something free to watch and, most importantly, free to download, the work encourages repeat viewings and obsessive analysis.
On Sunday, The Was looped over and over again on the gallery wall. By the fourth or fifth time through, I was seeing clips I hadn’t noticed before (look out for Daisies) and looking out for brief moments of looping and reverse footage throughout (there’s only a handful of each). As of this morning, The Was moved from the whispered secrecy of the gallery to the internet (via Reddit, apparently). As that Vimeo view count rapidly rises, The Was should not only be seen as a bold piece of music marketing, spreading the gospel of The Avalanches, but also as a wonderful introduction to the work of Dan and Dominique Angeloro and their place in Australian remix video art.