"Skippy and the Kuleshov Effect":
Soda Jerk's Terror Nullius

by David Cox

Fast Paced Jams Jerks, but What's to be Done?

Terror Nullius (dir: Soda Jerk, 2018, 54 mins)

Australian born and now New York based, Soda Jerk have made a large-scale cinematic tour-de-force collage-essay from the greats of Australian Cinema history to comment on the nature of contemporary Australian national civic discourse. The concept of land rights, national boundaries, who polices whom, racism, sexism and gay and lesbian rights are interwoven with scenes set in Australia's outback.


In the 1920s, Kuleshov's solemnly staring-to-camera actor may have been the visual glue that joined later edited-in shots of "mourner", "soup", and "child", but the audience was absolutely convinced the actor was responding to each subject in turn. That was the point of the experiment. The "Kuleshov effect" is the secret weapon of every collage-essay film maker.


The "Kuleshov effect" is the secret weapon of every collage-essay film maker.


Terror Nullius
employs this and every other classic movie editing technique to weave together famous Australian movies into one larger narrative which seeks no less than to reclaim the national story.


The use of the landscape as a play field or terrain of themes desert, beach, forest, etc. works well as a cutting/gathering device. But the selection of what appear to be whole sections of Picnic at Hanging Rock and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert make it less the collage/essay and more the assemblage. How much of a sample can be taken before citation becomes lengthy quote? 


In reclaiming the footage do Soda Jerk seek to realign the memory of the film to new purpose? The choice of duration between shots and within sequences varies to the point where a consistent sense of narrative is replaced by more of a sense of a collection of images.


The isolation of the children at the start of Walkabout, gay men at the start of Pricilla and their busted bus, and their right wing talk show host rudely sticking his face in. This is the great trope of Aussie film: the wandering lost white subject in the desert in search of identity. But the Nature/Culture divide is not as great as that between the classes. The lost professional in the desert is out of place, but he still in theory 'owns' it.


So we have that opening scene from Walkabout of the kids, who survive attempted infanticide at the hands of a demented professional played by John Meillon, who then suicides in the film. The pressures of life are unexplained in the film and this is its most creepy aspect.



The spray-painted aboriginal land rights sign on the car door by the little boy surprises not because it is incongruous to the film's visual style and emotional tone, which it is, but because it, for me at least, undermines the gravity of what we know to be this original scene's ultimate conclusion. The sign on the door is cool to be sure, but in taking the attention off Meillon, it defamiliarizes in a disarming way when you've spent so many years seeing the film unadorned. For all his bourgeois rententiveness, Meillon's Walkabout everyman (doubtless like many like him in the early 1970s in the rapidly modernizing Australia) was at his wit's end. We only see the children leave him and his VW bug, to go their own way in the desert, so their departure reads as a frustration with the white man's racial inflexibility rather than the desperation of the abandoned.


Also part of me wishes that the culture jammed moment could be left to the material itself and emerge from within the existing shot rather than be added to from outside. The effect of compositing can be a conflation between diegetic and non-diegetic content is what we are seeing part-of-the-scene or an add-on? I also felt this way about the girl-car-pile-up in the Mad Max culture jam though I can see how much fun it would have been to composite.


It is the distinction between motion *of* the frame as distinct from motion *within* the frame.


Part of me wishes that the culture jammed moment could be left to the material itself and emerge from within the existing shot rather than be added to from outside.




The banality of the juxtapositions sometimes, until one waits, belies the seriousness of the larger issues being addressed.


Features of the landscape are employed as 'themes', much like a theme park. Disneyland and Dismaland were based on themed areas and this film is also. Three chapters also.


The shots overall cut together sometimes really well like they were destined to be together.





The desert area eventually leads to cliffs we follow a woman from a truck driven by Stacy Keach in the Australian/USA co-production Road Games. The cliffs lead us to the beach. On the beach the famous scene from Jane Campion's The Piano with a musical soundbridge to hide the cut. Co-production beach, far away in time...


The beach girls scene from Puberty Blues is next. The sunbathing girls watch as middle east boat-borne immigrants arrive. They come ashore, are welcomed warmly (which officially does not happen in Australia). A Footscray Football Club jumper wearing Nazi in the form of beachcombing Russell Crowe from Romper Stomper is quickly dispatched by a razor-beaked Eagle or Hawk flying in from the sky, all courtesy of masterful Jerk digital compositing. The whole beach sequence is made up from pieces of five to ten different movies.


By the time the film ends, the entire Australian animal world has come out of nowhere to take command of the landscape and to rid it of the toxic racists, and ultra right. 


Co-production beach, far away in time...


"Stable" nature


Nature as a kind of level playing field politically as if nature were a model of stability if left to its own devices would normalize the political upset.


Skippy the Bush Kangaroo depicted a perfectly regulated world of helicopters, wildlife and white, efficient management of the anthropocene. Sonny and Skippy from Skippy renegotiate the terms of their encounter with the Picnic at Hanging Rock girls when the kangaroo helpfully points out matters about Australia's history. Sonny and Skippy end up at an all-night psychedelic doof party in the rainforest somewhere in far north New South Wales.


The collision within these films at Soda Jerk's hands means that the characters seem indeed to actually break out of their assigned roles. Digital puppets cut loose from the strings of time.



In Sweetie, the main character celebrates the spearing of Max Rockatansky from an offscreen woman-with-crossbow from the original Mad Max. In Walkabout, the teenage girl walks off from her dad of her own accord, brother in tow (not exiled by circumstance, hence victim).


The impression I have watching is similar to watching a Vicki Bennett movie, of being taken out of one's seat and placed in a seat about four seats down the aisle and then made to see about three different films on three different walls, then being placed back in my original seat again. Then it happening again with different seats.


According to Ghassan Hage, in reflecting on what he describes as a 'paranoid' style of nationalism, non-white, non-British subjects have been perennially positioned as "dangerous and disruptive" (Hage, 2003). The same might alas also be said for the working class and poor in general in Australia, at least admist what might be called the 'chattering classes'. The low-income group lacks access to information, ideas, resources to construct alternatives to the dominant mainstream.  Narratives of paranoid nationalism of the Pauline Hanson variety are fed by increasingly draconian neoliberal economic policies by both parties in power. These favor the interests of the professional and educated elites. Right wing populism takes the place of popular progressive movements. 


Narratives of paranoid nationalism of the Pauline Hanson variety are fed by increasingly draconian neoliberal economic policies by both parties in power.


How does this set of realities find expression in filmic praxis? What can be done in film making terms? Break it all down into bits! Break it into fragments. Objects. Lev Manovich discusses database cinema where a film is made of fragments which can remain a listing until compiled into a narrative. Dziga Vertov shows us this dichotomy in The Man with a Movie Camera where all the spools comprising the film itself are included as subject matter within the frame. The frame can include other frames. With digital compositing frames within frames and seamlessly composited pieces of any element from any film can join any other. This modular, mutable patchwork remediation is the aesthetic and performative philosophical methodology of Soda Jerk.


Ghassan Hage in his books often gives us great insights into nationalism, that calls into question the barrier between so called "evil extremists", and "good multiculturalists". Nationalism, he argues, is what motivates people to think that they have the right to govern the nation, worry about immigration, and actively shape the national community. 



Russell Crowe's Nazi character is killed on the beach, but is nature as a stabilizing force reliable in this role? Can nature be relied upon to be that which offers equilibrium in a world where the hate of the right has been universalized? Nature is nothing if not chaotic, and literally a fairweather friend. Can nature really be relied upon to play antifascist neighborhood watch? The hippies found out to their cost that they could not rely upon nature to offer the basis for a stable society and economy.


The birds and the sheep and the wildlife which come to the rescue to save Australia from the racists, homophobes and haters at the end of Terror Nulius seem thus improbable and anticlimactic. The tears of the powerless liberals in their cop cars and other officials at the end cannot compensate for the amplification of the sense for so much more to be actually done. I was utterly unconvinced in fact by this crying, and felt the film was let down by it. 


A film that seemed to have action on its side and at its core ended on a total Jerky wimp-out. Colonial reach meets its end as women arrive at self realization, okay, I get it, but the crying guy in the car? Please. At the end he should save his tears. The battles have yet to begin. The critique I hear from the left is what is going to be done given the absence of a plan for what is next? It is a good question for which I have no answers.


Colonial reach meets its end as women arrive at self realization, okay, I get it, but the crying guy in the car? Please.


All this said, Terror Nullis is a wonderful effort made with real passion and considerable effort. I agree with ALL of its aims, just not many of its assumptions about the relationship of the problems to the current system of power. I have certainly not reached its same conclusions about what the future holds and thus how we should imagine our role in relation to the matters at hand. In Australia. In the USA. In Europe. In Eastern Europe. In Asia. Everywhere.


The problems of racism are economic. They are global.


While he was in office, Barack Obama was able to tilt the balance toward better healthcare. That was at least something. A shift like that in Australia toward a more democratic society economically and geopolitically can happen. A revolution can be simply letting migrants stay. 



Terror Nulius is not Soda Jerk's best work but certainly the most polished and a film with a real sense of its own cinematic center of gravity culturally. In wanting to square away the demands of national justice with the filmed moments of cinematic history, it warrants continued viewings and reviewing.


When it comes to mastery of the layered movie upon movie compositing culture jam look, Soda Jerk are matched only by People Like Us and Bryan Boyce. These artists approach their subject matter from a different direction, examining the material, obsessing over it almost, interrogating it for evidence as it were. Soda Jerk are the undisputed masters of the feature film as ventriloquist puppet and fireworks show combined.


David Cox, September 11th 2018.


David Cox first met Soda Jerk at ATA gallery in the Mission district of San Francisco in 2007.
Soda Jerk are, individually, Dan and Dominique Angeloro.


David Cox is a filmmaker, artist, writer and teacher based in San Francisco's Mission District. His books include the nonfiction Sign Wars:The Culture Jammers Strike Back, published via LedaTape. He teaches Programming in Python, Making Games in Unity, Virtual Reality and Augmented Realty subjects at San Francisco State University, City College of San Francisco.

Published Sep 16, 2018. © David Cox, Sep 2018