If watching Alaska women in leotards gyrating in front of snow-capped mountains doesn't sound like your idea of a good time, then you probably won't see the art in the Found Footage Festival, running tonight and Friday at Hollywood's M Bar.
But for Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher, two Wisconsin-born anthropologists of the ephemeral, it's not just a life's work, it's a calling. "In this media-obsessed culture," says Prueher, festival co-founder, "where everything is deemed worth posting, you need someone to take you through it all. To separate the wheat from the chaff."
The Found Footage Festival, which began in New York in 2004, is in some ways the opposite of a film festival: Instead of looking for the best work from far and wide, Prueher and longtime friend Pickett, both 33, assemble their program by finding the very worst.
For years, they've been digging through thrift stores, garage sales, even dumpsters -- looking for aerobics tapes, home movies, corporate training videos and other footage that seemed like a good idea at the time.
The first festival included a television preacher who was also the world's least funny comedian, an unforgettable piece of video boasting by recovering teen star Corey Haim and a 1983 promotional film on Arnold Schwarzenegger's trip to Brazil, where he dances the samba and discusses his favorite part of the female anatomy.
"I think VHS is really an unheralded form," Prueher says from his Brooklyn office. "Yes, it's clunky and the tracking's bad, but like vinyl in the '60s, it was so cheap to produce, everyone with a camera could make their own tape. You got this glut of esoteric, weird stuff that probably never should have been committed to videotape. It may not be as sexy as record collecting, but we're happy to be reviving the format."
Pickett and Prueher's revival goes way back. The two have known each other since sixth grade, where a "so-bad-it's-good sensibility" brought them together. When a teenage Prueher found an old training video for custodians in a break room at the McDonald's where he worked, the lightbulb appeared: "Videos this dumb," he realized, "were just waiting to be discovered."
So the two dug through Goodwill, Salvation Army and thrift stores to find more and realized there was no shortage of goofy footage: Because of the arrival of the DVD, people were getting rid of their VHS collections. And Prueher began inviting friends over to show off their finds. "It comes down to, there wasn't a whole lot going on in our hometown in south-central Wisconsin," Prueher says. "To entertain ourselves, we had to get creative."
Destiny seemed to be conspiring with them. A few years later, Pickett took a job at a video-duplication company so he could make copies of anything, especially the films corporations make to scare employees into following safety rules.
Prueher was hired as a researcher at "Late Night With David Letterman," a show whose irreverent sensibility and love of oddball Americana had shaped his own. One of his jobs was "to find embarrassing footage of celebrities, from commercials and old TV shows, to ambush them with on the show."
In 2004, they rented out a bar in New York's East Village to screen their finds and encountered an outpouring of enthusiasm. The similarly inspired Found magazine had started up three years earlier, and this junkyard twist on found-object art was becoming its own movement.
And what had started with two friends in a Wisconsin living room became, before long, an annual touring festival. As the show traveled the nation, the collection grew: Pickett and Prueher scoured thrift stores in every city they landed in. "There's stupid videos in every part of the country," Prueher says.
The duo's best yield ever was in Anchorage, where the Bishop's Attic provided so much gold -- including a line of aerobics videos called "Shape Up Alaska" -- that they checked three boxes of tapes on their flight home. "So we've got to play Anchorage every year so we can go to the Bishop's Attic. If you're in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, everything is pretty picked over," Prueher says. "All the ironic T-shirts are gone."
This year's festival includes a montage from a 1987 dating show and a commercial for a "male-pleasure device" large enough that it has to be carried in a suitcase, called the Venus 2. "Which makes you wonder," said Prueher, "what went wrong with the Venus 1?"
Prueher and Pickett currently have something like 3,000 videotapes, enough to fill two apartments, an office and two storage spaces in Queens. There's an art, they say, in picking just the right clips and creating the running commentary that they perform live at screenings. "I think the important thing for us is that the films have context," Prueher says. "Everybody can get the keyboard cat in their in-box and chuckle and forget about it. But this is footage we have a connection to -- we found it. These things would be forgotten if we hadn't dug them up."