WADING THROUGH GARBAGE TO PICK OUT GEMS
by ETHAN GILSDORF
Celebrating the Dark Ages of VHS, the Found Footage Fest kicks off its international tour
Nowadays, an eight-year old armed with a Flip camera and iMovie can shoot and edit a video as sophisticated as what, 25 years ago, required a TV studio teeming with technicians. That same pesky kid can upload content in minutes to a potential audience of millions.
But once upon a time, if one dare imagine such a horrifying past, YouTube and Facebook didn’t exist. You couldn’t burn a DVD from your laptop. God -- aka Al Gore --- hadn’t even invented the Internet yet.
These were the Dark Ages of VHS. To shoot a home video meant lugging around a camera, tape deck and battery pack a heavy as a Renault LeCar. The only way to disseminate your video awesomeness to friends (real friends, not virtual ones) was to invite them over. Or entrust the videotape to the US Mail.
The Found Footage Festival recalls that cruder, less ironic “Golden Age of Home Video” of the mid-Eighties through the mid-Nineties, a time when how-to videos exploded and CG effects were only a few steps evolved from your Commodore 64.
The 2011 fest has kicked off its 75-city tour, with stops in many cities, from Boston to New York; Montreal to South Bend, Indiana; Buffalo to Tucson; San Francisco to
Winnipeg; and dozens of destinations in between.
For those old enough, video artifacts from that era exhume painful memories of mullets and shoulder pads. For others, their amateurish look is unintentionally hilarious. The Found Footage Festival rides that edge, alternately touching our funny and nostalgia bones.
“We come from the old analog world where to watch a video you had to trade it with someone,” say Nick Prueher, 34, festival co-founder and co-host, by telephone from his home in Queens, NY. “It used to be a social thing.”
Prueher and partner in crime Joe Pickett have revive that communal element by touring a selection of found videotapes --- corporate training videos, public access programs, home movies --- they’ve freshly culled from thrift stores and garage sales. During the live show, the two add context and off-the-cuff commentary: “What we were doing in our living room,” Prueher says. “‘Pre-Mystery Science Theater 3000,’ we were already making fun of bad TV.”
The show has one mandate. The footage must exist on physical media: VHS, or occasionally three-quarter inch U-matic videocassette.
“We don’t take anything from the Internet,” says Pickett, 35. “No one wants to see a YouTube video all blown up.”
The 2011 lineup includes all new footage Pickett and Prueher found while on last year’s tour. Their website --- www.foundfootagefest.com --- archives top finds from the thousands of tapes they’ve scrutinized; on the big screen is what Prueher calls “the cream of the crop.”
Clips that rose to the top include: how-to ventriloquism videos found in an Atlantic City Goodwill store; self- hypnosis videos promising better performance in tennis, bowling and lovemaking; exercise videos featuring an impressive assortment of celebrities including Cher and the American Gladiators; a Linda “The Exorcist” Blair instructional tape called “How to Get Revenge”; a montage of 25 hunting call videos with names like “The Mouth Yelper A to Z” and“The Magic of Squirrel Calling”; and dozens more.
“It’s burly, mustached men in camouflage making funny sounds,” says Pickett of the hunting call compilation. “It almost sounds like freeform jazz.” In a segment called “Lying & Stealing,” they show tapes obtained while claiming to run a meat processing plant, or by working at a video store, for a day.
Where possible, a video’s director or on-camera talent are tracked down and invited to come up on stage. Or, sometimes the hosts get the call. Pickett recalls when the makers of a shopping video contacted him. “We thought they were pissed, because it’s not very flattering footage. But we met them and they loved it. They came [to a show] and did a reenactment.”
Prueher make it clear that while the festival screens only the highlights, er, lowlights, the edits aren’t manipulative. They’re “true to the tape.” Pointing out the poofy hair and Dokken concert T-shirts gets laughs, he says, but the point isn’t ridicule.
“There’s partly that nostalgia. There’s partly that remembering the format and the production values of yesteryear and cataloguing and preserving it,” says Prueher. “The AFI [American Film Institute] is preserving ‘Citizen Kane.’ We’re preserving ‘Cutest Cat Capers.’” For them, these tapes are a more accurate portrait of the American people. With their bad tracking and washed-out colors, they “have more truth,” Prueher says, than any AFI top 100 films list.
“One thing we learned is there is a surprising amount of racism in ventriloquism,” he deadpans. “I always wanted to be a ventriloquist as a kid.”
Friends from the 6th grade, when they hailed from Stoughton, Wisconsin, Prueher and Pickett began their collection in 1991 after finding a McDonald’s training video called “Inside and Outside Custodial Duties.”
“Our friendship is based on our appreciation for things that are so bad that they’re good,” Prueher says. “We didn’t excel in school other than that. Our sense of irony was very well developed from the age 12.” Prueher went on to be a researcher at the “Late Show with David Letterman,” Pickett a film technician, and both have written for “The Onion.”
In 2004, living in New York, the two were encouraged by friends to turn their private screenings of Reagan-era archeological AV finds into a show. Sold-out performances in the East Village snowballed. Since then, they’ve appeared at theaters and comedy festivals, and on cable and network TV. Today they hit the road for nine months out of 12, hosting 75 to 100 shows a year. The Onion's “A.V. Club” features their web series; also in the works is a book.
While the rules forbid soliciting videos, sometimes Pickett and Prueher stumble across something too brilliant to resist. Take one film called “Spring Break ’85.” After attending a screening last year, Rockland, Mass native Rudy Childs handed over a tape with a curious backstory. One of Childs’ friends worked security at Reagan’s inauguration; his job was to guard CBS TV equipment. “They should have had a security guard watching him,” Childs, now 50, recalls. “He stole badges, hats, microphones.” Childs brought a video camera on vacation to Fort Lauderdale, and he and his buddies wandered the beach, posing as news reporters with a genuine CBS microphone.
“We were dressed up in shorts,” Childs says. “They [the interview subjects] didn’t know what to make of us. You have a beer in your hand, and long hair, asking questions. ... Video cameras weren’t that prevalent back then.” Childs was in attendance at the Brattle Theatre screening in Cambridge, Mass., to reveal more about the making of “Spring Break ’85.”
Another video breaking the “thrift store only” rule is “Heavy Metal Parking Lot.” Directed by Jeff Krulik and John Heyn, the 16 minute cinema verité short captures the caterwauling, beer-swilling, zebra-stripe-spandex-wearing populace outside a 1986 Judas Priest concert. Passed around Hollywood and the indie rock scene --- everyone from Sophia Coppola to Ed Norton to Dave Grohl (of Nirvana/Foo Fighters) saw it --- “Heavy Metal Parking Lot” was dubbed a cult classic, and has joined the festival to celebrate its 25th anniversary.
“It was an underground thing from jump,” says Krulik, now 49, by phone from D.C. “We gave it away. We threw it in the public domain by accident.” Krulik and Heyn have since shot explorations of other “weird, eccentric subculture” behavior: at a Neil Diamond show parking lot (same venue as the Judas Priest concert, but a decade later), in line at a Harry Potter book signing.
Krulik and Childs just completed a “making-of” documentary called “Heavy Metal Picnic,” about a Potomac, Maryland, blues fest; the organizers decided to bring in heavy metal for two days. “Shirtless men running around, fights breaking out – everything you love from ‘Heavy Metal Parking Lot,’” says Pickett.
As for the future, one might wonder if the age of broadband might conquer the Found Footage Festival’s low-fi nostalgia trip. Nick Prueler thinks not. With the superabundance of downloadable material out there, he feels people appreciate the Found Footage Festival’s curatorial role. As Prueler puts it, “Two people wade through all the garbage to pick out the gems.”
Besides, in 20 years, they might be showing stuff they find on DVD or SD memory cards --- even YouTube or Facebook. Prueler: “Bad ideas never change.”
Then Prueler and Pickett will rescue those bad ideas and bring that terrible, beautiful garbage to a theater near you.
Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks.” Reach him through his website www.ethangilsdorf.com