Arts & Culture

Festival brings laughs through old videos

Contributing Writer
Friday, November 9, 2012


On the vintage vinyl cushions of the Cable Car Cinema Monday, the appreciative howls of the Found Footage Festival’s laughing audience confirmed the age-old adage: someone’s trash is another’s treasure.

The Found Footage Festival is a patchwork of the often unflattering past of film, as seen through the merciless lens of the present. To the contemporary viewer, it’s a bit like the television show Tosh.0 except that it showcases old videos from 30 or 40 years ago. For those who grew up in the 1980s, it’s “Mystery Science Theater 3000” with an ironic twist of modernity.

This year’s program featured a collection of outrageous footage with a reservoir of colorful, often psychotic characters, including a woman who expressed her passion for craft sponging through guttural noises of pleasure, a documentary on raising ferrets in which enthusiastic owners warned of their penchant for theft and the uncontrollable aim of their anal glands and a scantily-clad exotic dancer who performed for horrified senior citizens with a chicken down his thong.

The collection commenced with an “opening act” of found classroom films from the 1960s and 1970s. This montage featured an industrial training video that employed comic uses of fake gore and an instructional video on masturbation with the “production quality of a terrorist video,” as quipped in the introduction by Joe Pickett, one of the curators of the event. When a frumpy teacher recited the many synonyms for genitalia in order to instruct a class of disabled adults on the colorful spectrum of terminology at their disposal, the audience recited it along with her.

The festival has been featured on National Public Radio and critically acclaimed in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and the Chicago Tribune, said Nick Prueher, the other curator. It can also be viewed biweekly through the Onion’s A.V. Club, and in Picket and Prueher’s new book, “VHS: Absurd, Odd and Ridiculous Relics from the Videotape Era.”

Both wisecrackers hosted the screening in person while providing their own lacerating commentary on their uncovered gems.

Pickett and Prueher began collecting found videotapes in 1991 after stumbling across a training video entitled, “Inside and Outside Custodial Duties,” at a McDonald’s in their home state of Wisconsin. Since then years of sifting through thrift stores and garage sales has lent them an extensive reservoir of moronic VHS tapes, bizarre relics of a simpler, and seemingly stupider, time. 

Prueher admitted there are the occasional downsides to what appears to be a faultless career track.

“It takes a really long time to lock yourself in your apartment and sit through a bunch of really bad TV,” he said. “The hardest part is wanting to fast forward through parts of it – but right when you’re about lose hope, that’s usually when you come across something incredible, something so bad it’s pure gold. You want to share it with people.”

Prueher said that it is this desire to share this experience and impart amplified reactions of shock and disgust, which pays off for the countless hours of “mindless tedium.”

“I’ve found that even though the audiences are always a little different, the reactions are usually about the same,” he said. “I think on some very basic level, people relish the indecency of every taboo being broken and every boundary line being crossed. Hell, if we didn’t show some full frontal nudity at least every production, I think they’d actually be disappointed.”

The process of putting together compilations in the most strikingly offensive way possible is “mostly a product of trial and error,” Prueher said. He described his strategy as starting with “a bang, and gradually amping up” to the more wild, the more vulgar and outrageous. “Then, right when they’re already gasping for air – bam! That’s when you unleash the penises,” he said. 

Indeed, the audience reacted overwhelmingly favorably to the production. “I can’t remember the last time I’ve laughed so hard,” said Judith Clark, another audience member.

It is this positive reinforcement and praise that makes the months of searching, editing and producing worthwhile, Prueher said. “We actually get paid to be professional smartasses. What could be better?”

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