I nominate filmmakers Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett, two New Yorkers (by way of Wisconsin and Minnesota) who have channeled their natural irreverence to a far more pressing public service: rescuing inspired bits of weirdness from the heaps of VHS tapes deemed useless in our age of Blu-ray, DVD, and digital downloads.
As the low-fi viral video of its day, VHS was the media of choice for loads of inane corporate training videos, home movies, and public access shows. Recognizing that in this kitsch there’s a great deal of unintended humor, the guys scoured dumpsters, thrift stores, garage sales, and church basements for discarded tapes and even lifted some from former employers (McDonald’s in the early days and later Late Night With David Letterman, where one of Prueher’s jobs was to find embarrassing tapes from guests’ early careers).
Four years ago, Prueher and Pickett turned their collection into the Found Footage Festival traveling comedy show, in which they introduce and comment on their finds, a la Mystery Science Theater 3000. The festival helped finance their first feature film and has spawned DVDs, T-shirts, and talk of a TV show.
I’m bummed that their two-show engagement last night at the Heights Theatre turned out to be essentially a live version of their Found Footage Festival Vol. 3 DVD—but what the heck, the enthusiastic, near sold-out crowd made it an event. The Heights’ organist warmed up the audience by performing “Big Spender,” “Anything Goes,” and a medley of other chestnuts, though anyone who has seen a Found Footage show knows there’s nothing particularly quaint about the nostalgia Pickett and Prueher peddle in.
Their curatorial interests lie in low- to no-budget, early eighties, do-it-yourself video productions that are played completely straight because they really are that unbelievably bad. The mullets, Working Girl-era wardrobes, slapdash computer graphics, and make-do sets generate easy laughs, but the best clips are also brief windows into marginal characters and extremely obscure interests (like, uh, the guy who collects mucus from his mouth and heats it up with a blowtorch).
The stars of this latest batch of Found Footage include everymen philosophers trafficking homemade self-help tapes (Pretty Boy Floyd’s “Secrets of Pool Hustling”), public access nutjobs (“Cheering Makes School Fun” is hosted by creepy guy Jim Hawkins who is obsessed with middle-school cheerleading), and washed up celebrities slumming it in direct-to-video (Angela Lansbury lathers herself in lotion, naps, and takes a bubble bath in an “exercise” tape loaded with sexual overtones).
In a knife-fighting tutorial shot in some guy’s garage, the instructor stabs a hunk of raw meat to illustrate technique. Husband-and-wife videographers-for-hire Fred and Sharon of Kelowna, British Columbia, make a very unreassuring pitch for their services in the dismal promotional tape “Who Needs a Movie?” And an industrial safety video from Minnesota's own Federated Mutual Insurance illustrates a series of workplace mishaps-waiting-to-happen (electrocution, stepping on a nail) in the completely unintended manner of a SNL skit. (Prueher and Pickett warn that they have a Federated mole who promises to smuggle them still more safety videos in the years ahead).
The hometown hero, though, was Mike Geronsin, star of the public access gymnastics show “Mikenastics.” Our Found Footage hosts tracked down Geronsin in Coon Rapids and invited him to join them on stage (naturally, he made his entrance on stilts). Offering an explanation as to why he decided at forty-three-years old to clear the furniture from his house, jerry-build some gymnastics equipment, and record himself tumbling and vaulting through the hallways, he says his high-school wrestling coach had talked him out of joining the gymnastics team all those years ago and it seemed like time to reclaim the dream. Discard your VHS tapes wisely, people. At the next Found Footage Festival, this might be you.