The Was: Sampling from Memory

(Edit: Due to massive amounts of copyright infringement, The Was has been taken off Vimeo. It can now be found here.)

The gang’s all here. When Soda_Jerk and The Avalanches get together, they invite everybody they know. The recently released collaboration between the two sample-based groups is one of those things that, having happened, now seems utterly inevitable. Both make new things out of old things, one with film, the other with music. The fruit of their union comes to us in the form of a thirteen minute audiovisual collage of movies and cartoons spanning more than sixty years, accompanied by a medley of songs from The Avalanche’s latest album, Wildflower.

The experience of watching it is a kind of sensory unmooring, a drift back through the cultural consciousness in a series of scenes laid over one another with the cohesion of a dream logic that never seems to quite reveal itself, just as the music never quite settles into this or that song. We see faces we know, places we recognize, but the words don’t always match up to the movements of the lips, and the people aren’t always where they should be.

Just before the halfway point, Beavis and Butthead trudge through the paint-huffing scene from Citizen Ruth. A naked Steve Martin from The Jerk wanders by, covering himself with dogs. “Marie, Marie!” He cries.

Everything decent’s been done,” says Butthead, borrowing a monologue from Pump Up the Volume. “All the great themes have been used up, turned into theme parks. So I don’t really find it exactly cheerful to be living in the middle of a totally exhausted decade, where there’s nothing to look forward too and no one to look up to.”

But the early 90’s malaise doesn’t last long. The next scene has everyone pillaging the supermarket to the tune of Biz Markie, pulling things off the shelves, gorging themselves on whatever they can find. This is how sampling works. The Was is an exercise in defeating the exhaustion of the used-up by breaking it all down, picking up the fragments and rearranging them into something that is both unrecognizable and familiar.

From there, the video moves into a realm of double exposure as the Lords of Dogtown skate through a mashup of pool parties. The pool is at once empty and full, the water receding with a rush into the blue concrete wave of a SoCal afternoon. The finale comes in bursts of flame across suburbia, on roofs and bushes, a faint fire that might be in front of the couples kissing beside whitewashed houses, or might lie just beyond them. It’s difficult to tell, with everything as a calculated unsettling of the images, all of them flickering together at once. All in all, it’s a strangely comfortable feeling of disorientation.

“It’s a world of fantasy,” sing the chorus girls, and they’re right. It still is. It always was.

Henry Whittier-Ferguson

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