"I remember my dad buying a beard trimmer in 1990 and it came with a VHS tape on how to use it," says Found Footage Festival's co-creator Nick Prueher. There was a time when "everything came with a VHS tape. The format was so cheap to produce that you got all these weird, esoteric things that maybe should have never been committed to tape."
Happily, that's a boon for Prueher and co-host/co-curator Joe Pickett.
The two have been friends since sixth grade. When, as a high schooler, Prueher found a custodial training video at the McDonalds where he worked, he screened that "perfect storm of ridiculousness" for his buddy. "We share an appreciation for the 'It's so bad, it's good, aesthetic,'" the video collector says.
The two friends not only watched the training tape over and over, but developed a sarcastic play-by-play spiel with which they'd regale classmates. Says Prueher, "Joe and I got to thinking, 'If there are videos this stupid right under our noses, there's got to be tons more out there, collecting dust at garage sales, thrift shops and break rooms, just waiting to be discovered.'"
So, they started keeping an eye out for discarded tapes which they'd compile into collections to amuse their friends. Five-and-a-half years ago, the Found Footage Festival was born. Same idea, larger audience. And all of the material is still sourced from VHS — in this age of YouTube, Prueher and Pickett remain purists.
"VHS was the format that we grew up with and when we started collecting that was mostly what we'd find," Prueher says. Even as he speaks to Xpress he's scouring a thrift shop for new material. "At garage sales, that's what people would get rid of. They'd buy an exercise video and get sick of watching it all the time, so that was the first thing that would go to Goodwill."
Exercise videos are in high rotation at the festival. The curators do post video clips on their Web site and on YouTube, but the real gems are saved for festival viewing. Among that footage is an annual exercise video montage. (Online offerings include a minute or so from Jazz Warm-Up With Traci Lords, the 1990 tape made by the former porn star.)
Another feature in the live show: A montage of "all bad Saturday-morning cartoons from the '80s and '90s," along with the Prueher-Pickett comedic narration. "We try to be somewhat like Anthropologists, explaining where the came from and to put it in context," says Prueher.
Such as the "Hair Again" clip. Notes on the Found Footage Web site read, "More wig styling tips from consummate weirdo Donna Barratt Gilbert, who seems to be having a conversation with a little person who lives inside her head. Found by Billy Taylor in Tennessee."
Of course, much of what makes the Found Footage Festival so funny is that the videos are out of context. The dated outfits, bad haircuts, corny subject matter and infomercial-like presentation all lend themselves to humor. According to Prueher, the footage — never intended to be funny — "has been such a hit, unexpectedly. You're taking a training video you had to watch the first day of your horrible minimum-wage job, but now it's being projected in a movie theater or a rock club on a big screen and there are 300 other people there. We're giving permission to laugh at it."
Know what else is funny? Bikini-clad women with automatic rifles. "Our show last year featured a collection that we called 'Babes,'" says Prueher, who seems immune to the absurdity at this point. "Apparently, if you put a half-naked woman in a video, someone will buy it no matter what. Nude bowling. Topless Macarena. It just makes you wonder why. Why."
The weird factor might help the festival in an unexpected way: Prueher and Pickett can show the clips thanks to fair-use doctrine, and Prueher doubts the duo will be challenged. "I don't feel like the people being 'How to Seduce Women through Hypnosis' are going to come forward," he points out.
It's probably films like that one that lead the collector to reveal, "I wouldn't wish it on anyone to sit and watch the unedited version of what we put ourselves through."
But Prueher and Pickett's works seems to bring more pleasure than pain. "We've developed a nostalgia for the VHS format. All its analog clunky bad-tracking has a charm to it," Prueher says. Plus, "There's a feeling you get when you've watched a ton of bad footage and then you come across something where you just can't wait for the audience's reaction."
The Found Footage Festival is presented locally by the Media Arts Project, Orbit DVD and TV Eye, and the tour is sponsored by The Onion. Help Prueher, Pickett and the future of bad footage: Bring your old VHS tapes to the Grey Eagle screening — the festival organizers are always looking for donations to their collection. "That's our favorite thing in the world," Prueher says. "It's like Christmas morning."
Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: The Found Footage Festival
what: A guided tour through salvaged and unintentionally comedic VHS tape
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Sunday, Jan. 31 (8 p.m., $10. www.foundfootagefest.com)