By Jordan Reisman
Photo courtesy of Raquel Baranow.
If you’ve ever gotten into a discussion with someone a few generations older than you about film or music, they’ll inevitably bring up the ‘Golden Age’ of that medium. The ‘Golden Age of Film’ was apparently in the 1970s and “The Golden Age of Rock n’ Roll” was the years between 1965-1972, according to some here at BTR.
However, it seems that no one has attested to the ‘Golden Age of Video,’ meaning home video. Well, not any longer. Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher, curators of the Found Footage Festival, spent over twenty years scouring the Salvation Armies and garage sales of the United States to compile what they find to be the Golden Age of Video. Or, that age being the 1980s and ’90s.
The Found Footage guys met in sixth grade in a town near Madison, Wisc. In ninth grade, Nick obtained a training video at the McDonald’s he worked at, and the inspiration behind the Found Footage Festival was born.
In their conversation with BTR, Nick remembered thinking upon finding that tape, “The world needs to see this. So I stole it and took it home and it became this cult thing among our friends where we’d sit around and watch this McDonald’s tape. That kind of started our passion for finding other stuff like that.”
Pickett also described the video, “It’s the quintessential training video, it’s as good as they get. They invented their own mythology behind it. The thing is, McDonald’s is obviously this multi-gazillion dollar corporation and THIS was the best that they could do.”
From there they made it their mission to give these old crappy tapes the recognition they deserved.
Joe and Nick couldn’t just create this movement from a single McDonald’s training tape alone, they needed to be on the prowl for new tapes all the time. They did and still do this in a myriad ways. In the ’90s, Joe worked at a video production house in Minneapolis and stole training videos. They say the best place by far to find grade-A VHS glory is at the Salvation Army.
“The reason I say that is because they don’t filter anything,” says Joe. “They just take it and they put it out on the shelf. So you get home movies that way.”
Following this statement, he said for the record that Goodwill sucks for the reason that they organize their stock too carefully (whereas Salvo is a big, beautiful mess).
When asked what the best parts of the country were for finding bad videos, Nick said that the “far flung” parts of the country (he used Anchorage, Alaska as an example) have a lot of great stuff. They also mentioned a divide in the country between what types of videos they tend to find.
“I think East Coast and West Coast focus on the movies but I think the Midwest is where a lot of the industrial videos came out of,” says Joe. “And so, that’s where we started doing our show, we’re from the Midwest originally.”
An important part of the Festival is “getting it,” that is, the irony of the videos. They’re featured because they’re bad. Every so often, some in the audience don’t understand that aspect, and so they usually just leave.
Joe remembers one particular attendant grunting in response to the premise of their show, “Stupid videos? Why would anyone want to watch stupid videos?”
Clearly not the Found Footage demographic.
Having attended the Festival back in January myself, I also felt this ethos that there was more to this festival than just laughing at badly made VHS clips. I had to know if this was a part of why they do what they do. Nick’s answer was unexpected, yet kind of touching in a way.
“I think, even though it’s unintentional, I mean we’re not certainly setting out to be archivists or artists or anything like that but I think anytime you’re hanging on to a dying medium, especially one that was so unique that captured,” says Prueher. “It’s sort of like The People’s History of the United States, the Howard Zinn thing. If you’re only looking at the AFI Top 100 Movies, it’s a pretty incomplete picture of who we were as a people. And so this particular time period captures, in particular the videos we’re looking for, a kind of that ‘warts and all’ approach to history that’s like, here’s some of our mistakes. And it does say a lot. It says that we’re an incredibly ambitious people who plow forward even if our ideas aren’t great.”
Joe added facetiously that they’re doing “God’s work” but he also acknowledged the truth in Nick’s sentiment. There’s something magical that occurs when you put 150 people in a room watching something on a screen – something that’s lost in the YouTube model of watching something by yourself on the computer. That said, the clips that they show aren’t generally available on the internet since they were created long before the internet was around. So, in a way they are keeping these clips and medium alive.
It’s this pre-Digital Age aura that the curators feel provides a heavy dose of nostalgia that goes into the Festival.
Nick said, “It does kind of feel like a reunion in that there’s a lot of people who come to the show every year and they’ll bring friends to it, so it’s kind of a way to share this mutual appreciation. And nostalgia’s part of that.”
But Found Footage can’t claim complete autonomy from the great and powerful world wide web. One notable YouTube reunion they orchestrated was a man named Jack Rebney, aka “Winnebago Man.” He was known for this promotional video for a Winnebago mobile home but would swear incessantly and the camera crew never stopped filming those outtakes. He was dubbed as “The Angriest Man in the World.”
After Prueher and Pickett edited these clips, the video went viral. They eventually convinced Rebney to appear at a Found Footage tour show in San Francisco, during which Rebney was unable to hold back cracked smiles and sharing hugs all around.
As the Found Footage Festival makes the most of the woefully forgotten VHS format, the questions remains whether or not people secretly miss the medium. The guys are spearheading a legion of multi-media geeks who choose to stay true to the format, and they compare that to enthusiasts who only buy music on vinyl or cassette.
“I think that might be an appeal of our show is that there is a nostalgic factor to it and you remember, like right when a video starts up that the picture’s kind of bad and you have to adjust the tracking,” says Pickett. “I think there’s a certain charm to that that people miss. I think that people miss it when they see it, but I don’t think people are like ‘Oh man, I wanna watch 2001 on a shitty VHS tape.’”
And despite its shortcomings, the duo will always appreciate how unique VHS was for its time and keeping a record of this era remains at the utmost importance to them. After all, the ’80s and ’90s were the Golden Age of Video… man.
The Found Footage Festival is currently on tour, and dates can be found here.