Interview by Greg Carlson
A collection of weird and hilarious clips pulled from straight-to-video, cable access, thrift stores, garage sales and other unexpected VHS sources will be hosted in Fargo on April 25, 2011 by co-curators Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett, who are currently on a 75-city tour of the U.S., Canada, and the U.K.
Found Footage Festival co-curator Nick Prueher shares some thoughts on the found footage phenomenon.
You were a collector of this material before you took it to the public. What was the first “found” VHS tape that made you take notice?
Nick Prueher (co-curator, Found Footage Festival): This is our 20th year of video collection and the seven-year anniversary of our first live Found Footage Festival show. We trace it all back to this training video I found in the McDonald’s where I worked in high school. It was called “Inside and Outside Custodial” duties and out of boredom one day in the break room I decided to pop it in. My jaw just hit the floor when I saw how insultingly dumb this video was. It starred an overly perky crew trainer, a dopey trainee named Chris, and traced his quest to find something called “Mc C,” or McDonald’s clean.
I thought that the world needed to see this, so I smuggled it home in my backpack that night and showed it to Joe [Pickett, Found Footage Festival co-curator]. And that really began the quest to look in other out of the way places for more VHS gems to entertain ourselves and our friends. In 2004, we had collected enough great material to take this hobby out of our living room and into a movie theater.
You have said that 99 percent of the material you look at is garbage. How have you developed such a high tolerance level for sitting through so much junk to find the good stuff?
NP: Well, we’re a bit masochistic when it comes to subjecting ourselves to awful material. We’ve come to sort of perversely enjoy the pain. But what keeps you going while you’re watching some videotaped conference call that goes on for two hours is the hope that there just might be something extraordinary about to happen. And when you do find something that’s bad in just the right way, you cannot wait to show it to people. That said, I wouldn’t wish it upon anybody to have to sit through the kind of stuff we do in its raw, unedited form. We are trained professionals.
You don’t procure material from the Internet and rarely even use DVD. What is special about the VHS format? Is it linked to the time frame during which VHS was dominant?
NP: We have a real fondness for VHS because it’s the format we grew up with. The clunkiness, the bad tracking, the washed out colors – we’ve actually come to really appreciate these in the same way vinyl purists come to love the hisses and pops of records.
There’s an analog charm there that DVD and Blu-ray and online formats can’t replicate. But primarily, it’s because we find more VHS tapes than anything else at thrift stores. In the mid 80s and early 90s, everybody in America had a VCR, so it was a real gold rush for video producers. Anybody with a bad idea and a little money could produce a video, so you ended up with a lot of weird, esoteric stuff on tape. Thankfully for us.
You included Jack Rebney’s behind-the-scenes tirades before “Winnebago Man” was made and also appeared in the documentary.
NP: Joe and I were working in video production in Minneapolis in the late 90s and a fellow crew member told us about this disastrous shoot he was on in 1988 in Iowa. It was an industrial video for Winnebago RVs hosted by Jack Rebney, a guy who kept losing his cool during the shoot. The crew decided to keep the cameras rolling between takes and capture the craziness, and our pal gave us a bunch of original footage, which we cut together into our favorite obscenity-laced tirades.
That clip became a big hit at live shows and another version made its way online and got passed around. We tried to track down Jack Rebney to no avail, but then a filmmaker hired a private investigator and found him living in a remote area of Northern California. Apparently, he was none too happy that we were showing this video but he somehow agreed to appear at our show in San Francisco a couple of years ago.
It was pretty great to see Jack watch the video with an audience for the first time. When he saw how much joy it brought to people, he suddenly warmed up and gave us a hug. It was the like the Grinch Who Stole Christmas when he hears the Whos singing and his heart grows three times its size. Definitely a career highlight.
Do you and Joe Pickett have a method for deciding how long the clips should last before audience burnout sets in? Do you fight over which parts or how much of a given tape to include?
NP: We’re always very conscientious about an audience’s tolerance for this type of material, so we try to edit things together in an entertaining way and pare things down to just the highlights. Over the years, we’ve found that a 90-minute show is just about the limit for most people, but we still get into heated arguments over which parts of a video to include.
In the new show, there’s a medical video for something called Caverject, which is something men would use before Viagra. It very graphically shows a hypodermic needle injecting a very sensitive organ. Anyway, Joe though we should show the needle going all the way in; I thought we should get out right before that. I am happy to say that I won out, but I think it’s funny that it never occurred to us not to include that clip at all.
What do you think makes exercise and workout videos such a rich vein of content for the Found Footage Festival?
NP: We find more exercise videos at thrift stores across the country than anything else, so there’s a lot of content to choose from. Something about the hairstyles, the shiny Lycra outfits, the music, and the sight of B-list celebrities working out is just perfect material for our show.
One of my all-time favorites is a tape that Angela Lansbury put out in 1988. It’s called “Positive Moves” and it comes with a free poster, but my favorite part is how it’s less about exercising and more about Lansbury’s New Age-y ideas about health and well-being. At one point, she talks about her love of bubble baths and you see way more of the star of “Murder She Wrote” than you probably want to.
We very rarely exercise along with the videos. The exception is this video called “The Caveman Workout” where it shows you how to hit yourself really hard in the chest and stomach to build up muscle. I actually tried that but stopped because of all the bruising.
Have you ever run across something so graphic or gut-wrenching you thought, “there is no way I would ever show this”? Does your journey as a curator of the awful, the misguided, the miscalculated, and the amateurish ever make you question your faith in humanity?
NP: We have no qualms about showing nudity or swearing, as long as it makes us laugh. A long time ago we found a fan video that this woman sent to the guitar player Steve Vai. In it, she looks directly at the camera and says, “I love you, Steve, and I’m going to prove it,” and then she proceeds to demonstrate various odd stunts to show her affection. Stunts like blowing out candles with an orifice other than her mouth.
It’s pretty silly, but the woman clearly has a few screws loose, so it comes across as more disturbing than funny. That one has never made the cut. And yes, our faith in humanity is called into question every day, but we’ve chosen to celebrate its downfall rather than wallow in it.
The Found Footage Festival arrives in Fargo at the Aquarium on Monday, April 25th, 2011 beginning at 8:00 p.m. Tickets are ten dollars and will be available at the door.