Why The Found Footage Festival 2011 Entertained Me, But Left Me Feeling A Little Lost In The Supermarket

"Heavy Metal Parking Lot"
A still from “Heavy Metal Parking Lot”

Anyone who’s been in a thrift store within the past two years know there’s a mass exodus of personal VHS tape collections afoot. I’ve been delighted to find a VHS copy of “Goodfellas” in fairly recent times after trying in vain to check it out from the library, for instance. When it costs anywhere from $2 to $5 to rent something from Blockbuster (depending on what their pricing strategy happens to be that day), and when you’re too lazy to sign up for Netflix, landing an actually good movie for a quarter can be pretty rewarding. It’s a modern day renaissance of obsolescence.

So I like to comb through secondhand VHS collections looking for treasure. So do these guys, albeit they’re coming at it from a slightly different direction.

I had the distinct pleasure of attending the Found Footage Festival’s (third?) appearance in Greater Columbus over the weekend at the Drexel Theatre in Bexley. The uninitiated may suppose the FFF is all about that poignant experience of finding strangely personal discarded things, kind of like an especially voyeuristic shade of second hand anthropology.

No. It’s all about finding the biggest pile of crap train-wreck possible that someone actually bothered to record to magnetic tape and wind up around those little plastic spindles, distilling it by splicing it into small bits, and then mocking it.

In this post-consumer world, it’s taken less than a generation to generate and embrace a technology that literally changed society (the home videotape player), sit back and watch people try to figure out how they can make as much money off it as possible, let the cultural marketplace get ridiculously saturated with utter shit, and then wait for the medium die a slow death. And in retrospect view it all through a thick, slightly washed out and grainy lens of postmodern irony.

I have thought to myself more than once about how even the worst book was still at one point a labor of love. But that means you actually have to write it down and get it published. Getting a videotape made is as easy as stealing a CBS news camera, turning it on, getting drunk, and then whipping your cock out of your sweatpants in front of its immortalizing glass eye. (Here’s a hint about what kind of stuff the FFF features: I didn’t make that scenario up.)

And companies performed the commercial equivalent of that and tried to make a buck off it – maybe one of the weirdest tapes FFF featured was clips of a beyond weird Linda Blair-narrated celeb self-help video about how to bring marginally illegal revenge upon those whom you feel deserve it (a niche that is happily and more effectively filled by the Internet now).

By far the weirdest was “Rent-A-Friend,” apparently an hour-long tape that was 1985’s crack at an ongoing societal effort to fill the void with the latest technology. In it, a guy named Sam stares at the viewer (once he finishes with a little air-jazz-bass) and asks a series of increasingly banal questions… and in doing so gradually reveals things about himself that he probably shouldn’t. One in particular would have made me jettison the IRL conversation waaaay in advance; the point at which he pulled out the high school yearbook to talk about the one that got away was definitely the point I’d pull out the trusty old standby Pretend I Got A Phone Call And Then Never Come Back social disengagement maneuver.

The whole thing was hilarious, no doubt. It even educated me a little bit about similar assholes were in the 1980s to they way they are today. Valuable.

But it also left me thinking: I always kind of get a sense of unease at this relatively new type of enjoyment we derive from things that we don’t actually inherently enjoy. What does that say about our society? That our mass culture is utterly disposable and empty, and we’re a bunch of slightly mean-spirited, self-aware nihilists who are also slightly nostalgic for times when we used to make fun of certain types of things. And the rest of us who weren’t there can laugh along, too. Authenticity can get increasingly elusive.

That’s partially true. But also.

Similar to  to how Youtube brought us both the Gregory Brothers and Rebecca Black alike, the invention of the home video camera to a large extent equally distributed the means of production to make a movie to any prole with a few dollars. I guess that’s democracy, or communism, or something. So people inevitably created some no doubt really culturally worthwhile stuff, but also piled high an infinitely larger volume of total crap. Because most ideas are really, really bad.

And some of them are hilariously bad. I guess that’s OK.

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