by Dennis Harvey
This week sees the Bay Area return of the Found Footage Festival, with the San Francisco incarnation taking place Thursday and Friday evening at San Francisco’s Roxie Cinema. Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett’s annual touring show has them as droll live hosts for each new program drawn from the “golden age” of videocassettes. They cull the jaw-dropping worst of vintage instructional, inspirational, and just plain bizarre VHS tapes found in thrift stores, dumpsters etc. around the country, distilling it all into an hour of so of unique hilarity.
EatDrinkFilms: It seems like you’ve been coming to San Francisco almost since the 2004 beginning of the Found Footage Festival.
Nick Prueher: San Francisco was one of our first stops when we started touring the West Coast in 2005, and it continues to be one of our favorite cities. We first played the Roxie, then made our home at the Red Vic Movie House for the next five years. One of our career highlights happened there when Jack “Winnebago Man” Rebney came to the show a few years ago and watched people watching his [spectacularly profane] RV commercial outtakes for the first time. The man actually hugged us at the end! Now we are back at the Roxie, and we really like what they’ve done with the place.
EDF: What do you and Joe Pickett do professionally outside FFF? Most people figure you have additional performing lives in one form or another.
NP: Believe it or not, the Found Footage Festival is our full-time job. We spend nine months a year on the road, doing shows and gathering material at thrift stores when we’re on the road. Then we take three months “off” to watch everything we’ve found, and edit it into a show for the following year. We do find time for some odd jobs here and there: Joe contributes headlines to The Onion, and we both directed a music video last year for Larry Pierce, the world’s raunchiest country singer. That’s playing at Slamdance in January. Neither of us really have a performer background per se. I did improv comedy for several years after college, but I think of that the same way I think about how I used to be really into ska.
EDF: So do you remain faithful to material of VHS origin only?
NP: We’re not proud of this, but we have dabbled in DVD lately. I feel like we’re always about 20 years behind the curve with technology, and we’re starting to find DVDs at thrift stores, and some are too good to pass up. What we’ve found is that the formats change, but the misguided ideas are here to stay. That’s encouraging. The one format we’ll never dip into is anything off the Internet. That seems like cheating.
EDF: It must be incredibly tedious going through so much dreck to find usable clips—even the most hilarious exercise tapes get pretty dull watched all the way through. What are your tactics for making that labor bearable?
NP: It really is excruciating wading through hours and hours of the most boring footage ever committed to VHS. I’d say we have to watch about thirty hours before we find something worth showing people. Luckily, we are somewhat masochistic and have developed a pretty high tolerance for bad video. Honestly though, we couldn’t do it if it wasn’t the two of us doing it together. It’s like the buddy system–if you notice one guy go down, you’ve got to scoop him back and get through the second hour of this cash-register instructional video. Snacks help, too.
EDF: Are there Holy Grail tapes out there that you’ve heard of but which have eluded you so far?
NP: Yeah, sometimes it’s frustrating when somebody sends you a link to a video online but you can tell it comes from a VHS tape that you haven’t found. The one that comes to mind for me is called “The Super Broker Shuffle.” It’s a corporate video that came out in the wake of the Chicago Bears Super Bowl Shuffle in 1985 … except instead of charismatic football players rapping, it’s grocery store managers. I’m a big fan of people who have no business rapping trying to rap, so not a day goes by where I don’t kick myself for not finding this first.
|The Found Footage Festival draws big crowds to different venues across the country.|
EDF: You’ve had some pretty gamey stuff in FFF on occasion (say, the penis pump instructional video). But has there been material you wished you could include, but for whatever reasons of taste or legality just couldn’t quite do it?
NP: We never worry about good taste or legality with the show; we’re only concerned about whether something is funny. There is sort of a legendary video we got on the tape trading circuit in the 90s that was a fan video sent to the guitar player Steve Vai. In it, this woman is looking right into the camera, wishing Steve Vai a happy birthday, and then proceeding to perform various “stunts” to impress him. Without getting into too much detail, I’ll just say she’s able to blow out candles on a cake with an orifice that is not her mouth. It’s pretty ridiculous, but the reason we decided not to include it was because the woman is clearly disturbed. She’s got this dead-eyed stare the whole time and her teeth look like some Halloween teeth grills, so it becomes more sad than funny.
However, I should mention that the show we’re bringing to Oakland and San Francisco this week does feature two body parts we’ve never shown in a festival before. If that doesn’t move some tickets, I don’t know what will.
EDF: The current edition marks FFF’s 10th anniversary. Will audiences get something different from prior years?
NP: It’s all new footage, but we did permit ourselves to get a little nostalgic for this big anniversary show. We went back to some of our favorite VHS finds from the early days and delved deeper to pull out stuff we’ve never shown people before. Joe and I were particularly excited to unearth newly discovered footage of John & Johnny, two obnoxious hosts from a regional home shopping network from 1987. Digging that up after 20 years was like opening the Ark of the Covenant. Our faces melted off.
EDF: Anything already in reserves for FFF’s 11th year?
NP: Yes. For the last year and half Joe has been working on a clip called 101 Jesuses . We find a ton of Christian videos, and we love all the different depictions of Jesus. There’s the hunky Jesus, the black Jesus, the cartoon Jesus–all acting out the same highlight reel from the New Testament. We’re cramming 101 of them into one three-minute clip. It may be Joe’s magnum opus.
Dennis Harvey has been publishing film reviews since the era of the typewriter. He’s a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and currently writes for Variety and Fandor’s Keyframe.