As with our obsession with vintage everything, there’s a powerful allure to found footage. To the romance-minded, it offers a peek into the unseen, or forgotten, lives of strangers (or stranger eras). To the thrift-minded, it’s an opportunity to find value in others’ detritus — or to twist found gold into anti-consumerist sloganeering. To amateur anthropologists, it’s a window into cultures, modes of life, forgotten histories.
Nick Prueher, one of the minds behind the Found Footage Festival, finds value in all of these. But when it comes to his own work, he’d rather collect discarded footage of Lanny McDonald singin’ the blues.
“The first time we were in Calgary, we told the audience after the show about this video,” he says. “It was from the ’80s, and it was of the Calgary Flames doing this co-ordinated music video — it had Brett Hull and everything!”
A quick YouTube search explains what Prueher’s referencing: It’s a video called “Those Red Hot Flames,” an embarrassing, mullet-packed video, recorded after the Flames’ 1989 Stanley Cup victory. And if you wanted to witness McDonald’s lip-synched baritone, or Joel Otto blasting away at a trumpet, then the Found Footage Festival is the place for you.
“Super Bowl teams used to film these all the time, and it’s hilarious,” Prueher adds. “And one guy in the crowd said, ‘Hey, I have one of those [Flames tapes]! I picked it up at a Goodwill on the way to the show!’”
And that’s how the Found Footage Festival — an ever-evolving presentation of dozens of montages, edited film snippets and other curiosities, curated and presented by Prueher and partner Joe Pickett — gathers its materials: Some, like the Flames tape, are crowd-sourced. Others, like the reams of exercise tapes, are gathered from tour pit-stops at thrift stores. (“People might not remember this,” he says, “But exercise tapes used to be a licence to print money. They’d be the only VHS tapes you could buy, because movies were priced at, like, $140, because they were for rentals. They end up at thrift stores first.”) And then, there were innumerable times the duo found themselves knee-deep in dumpsters, foraging for discarded, under-loved VHS tapes.
That’s not to mention the curation. Prueher and Pickett screen all their found footage — a process he calls excruciatingly “boring” — in search of gems fit to show an audience.
“They used to make VHS tapes for absolutely everything — like, instructional videos that came with electric razors. And there’s so much stuff that’s incredibly boring that when you find something great, it’s even more of an accomplishment. It almost becomes our child.”
What defines “great” for the duo often varies. Sometimes the videos are disgusting, sometimes they’re hilarious, sometimes they’re tragic. Throughout conversation, Prueher sidetracks with anecdotal evidence: Here, he casually mentions squirm-in-your-seat instructional videos for wound doctors, delivered with straight-faced procedural narration; there, workout videos led by bikini-clad babes or B-list actors, something that “nobody would have watched for the workouts”; here, he mentions masturbation how-tos for the developmentally disabled.
You read that correctly. Among his findings, Prueher found a video about how to choke one out.
“It’s so creepy, it had this home-made quality to it,” he laughs. “And the [narrator], at one point, says, ‘I like to masturbate, but I never do it in public washrooms. I only do it at home, when I’ve locked the door.’ It’s like, he needed to remind people that it’s not acceptable to [jerk off] in public.”
If it sounds painfully awkward, it’s because it is. But don’t expect the Found Footage Festival, now in its sixth edition, to test the audience’s iron guts: Prueher says that he vets his selections, selecting clips that are unintentionally hilarious. Considering his pedigree, that shouldn’t come as a surprise: Along with the festival, he’s spent time writing for The Late Show with David Letterman. Pickett, for his part, wrote for The Onion. And while Prueher suffers for his art — and those nights watching weeping wounds getting stitched should serve as proof — he doesn’t expect his audience to do the same.
“There’s a big difference between something that’s unintentionally funny and something that attempts to be funny and fails. Those can be incredibly painful to watch.”
Or fun, depending on who you ask.