HOT SUGAR’S COLD WORLD follows sound artist and Internet sensation Nick Koenig who performs under the name Hot Sugar, a name he picked up in high school, whose music videos are entrancing Internet mashups and digital renderings that morph with the music’s beat. The film is divided into six chapters. Hot Sugar composes his music from sound recordings he collects—everything from the silence of a room during a funeral, to fireworks going off in a gym, to the catacombs in France, to the sound of dinner cooking. Watching the film is a sort of anthropological investigation into the world through sound.
In this year’s 25th Annual New York Jewish Film Festival lineup of 38 feature films, HOT SUGAR’S COLD WORLD stands out as a beautiful film which embodies the investigative sprit of science. The Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Jewish Museum are partnering to present the festival which will run January 13 to 26, 2016. HOT SUGAR’S COLD WORLD is executive produced by David Gordon Green. Adam Bhala Lough, one of Filmmaker Magazine’s Top 25 Independent Filmmakers to Watch, directs the film and spoke with Science & Film.
Lough who wrote, directed, and produced the film told Science & Film over email that he was drawn to make the film because of a YouTube video.
“Nick [Koenig] made a YouTube video a few years back called ‘Hot Sugar Making Music.’ I also saw an opportunity to document and get to know Nick's generation and people of his age a little better. This is the generation right under mine and though we share some similarities, there are a lot of differences. Lastly, the fact that Nick lived in Manhattan played into my decision a lot. I lived in the East Village a block away from him in the late 90's so there was definitely a pull to go back and document the area and see what had changed and what had not. Actually, not much had changed despite what a lot of people say. I remember eating breakfast at the same bagel shop with Nick that I had eaten at 17 years prior.”
Like John Cage, Nick Koenig believes everything is music. He visits astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson to discuss sound in space, who says that “sound simply is a pressure wave through a medium.” He confirms Koenig’s conviction that everything has a sound by describing how anything that has a temperature is vibrating.
The way Koenig communicates using social media, the way he makes his videos, and the way he composes his music are all heavily dependent on the Internet and technology. For a date he takes a woman he met on Twitter to UCLA to visit the birthplace of the Internet where computer science professor Leonard Kleinrock sent the first message using the Internet in 1969. Koenig makes music in the room while she listens. He is a lonely figure and the way he connects with everyone in his life is by way of their participation in his process of sound recording. According to Lough,
“Technology appears in every scene in this film. From Nick's unique recording style–the small ZOOM field recorders he uses to capture sounds in the field, to his production style using various consumer or prosumer software on a laptop. There are also little moments that stick out in my mind like the ancient child's microphone he gives KOOL A.D. to record his verse, and even just the simple shot of the electric guitar on the wall. These were all cutting-edge technologies at one time.
“Of course, there is also the way I used social media posts on screen to show the characters communicating with each other–that has been pointed out and discussed many times by critics already. Some critics have made a big deal of my usage of social media posts, both positively and negatively, but if you think about it, it's rather silly. The telephone was invented in 1876, not too long before motion pictures cameras. Do you think back then some critic would have written, ‘and the filmmaker had all these scenes where the characters talk to each other over telephone’ like it was some big deal? This is just the way people communicate now: when you wish someone good night, sometimes you do it in front of all your friends and followers so everyone can see. It's perfectly normal.
“I saw technology as a motif that would keep coming back throughout the film. And Nick was definitely down for that because he was obsessed with technology and the Internet already. There was even a scene we cut out of the film where Jim Jarmusch talks about not having an email address (he still doesn't!)”
HOT SUGAR’S COLD WORLD, which is being distributed by Amplify and is rolling out on Vice’s Noisey, has played at two other film festivals—SXSW and Hot Docs, and is available for download on digital platforms. Regarding the film’s diverse distribution strategy, Lough says:
“I wanted to do something different, to try a new approach to distribution, and I was in the unique position where I could do that because I own the film and my investor partners at Rough House had full faith in any decision I made. I had been thinking about releasing a film in parts on YouTube and in theaters and VOD all at the same time, and I had initially approached Pharell Williams' iamother YouTube channel but his producers didn't end up making me a deal. A few months after SXSW, when Amplify was already on board to handle theatrical, I joined the roster of this commercial agency Alldayeveryday. They mentioned they were working with Vice on another project, so I asked them to screen it for Vice. Trevor at Noisey loved the film and jumped on board.
“That is a really roundabout way of saying I chose to do this to experiment with a new distribution model. My feeling is that different groups of people watch movies in different ways, some in theaters, some on iTunes some on YouTube and some illegally. I think you should cater to all those people if you can. And I could. The choice was not without controversy. Nick did not like the idea of putting it on Noisey. He thought it ruined the ‘flow’ of the narrative by breaking it up in pieces, among other complaints. But this was Nick's first film and my seventh. I had already done the more traditional distribution method many times in the past and had no interest in doing that again, especially not with this one. I recognized early on that this was a film I needed to experiment with both creatively and otherwise, so I took every opportunity to do that.”
The screening of HOT SUGAR’S COLD WORLD at the Jewish Film Festival will take place January 23 at 9:30pm. Lough sees the film attracting “Indie music fans, college kids, cult-film fans, and mostly people who seek out films that are out of the ordinary, in form and content.” The festival was founded in 1992 and is one of the oldest Jewish film festivals, premiering films from around the world.