Rewinding VHS tapes in a digital age

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  • Dark Lord Blood, the featured guest on a local New York talk show, terrifies people during the height of "satanic panic" in the 80s. Photo courtesy of Found Footage Festival

  • Found Footage Festival hosts Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher got booked on three local morning news shows by claiming to be a strongman duo called Chop & Steele. Photo courtesy of Found Footage Festival

How an infusion of video archives from the Letterman show transformed the Found Footage Festival

By Alizah Salario

It was the call Nick Prueher, a former researcher at the “Late Show with David Letterman,” had been waiting for his entire life.

In 2015, when Letterman announced his retirement, a friend of Prueher’s who still worked at the show called to let him know that Dave’s video archives were headed for demise.

“He said everything must go, it’s going in the dumpster, do you want it?” said Prueher.

Boy, did he ever. Prueher drove straight over to the Ed Sullivan Theater and filled his Toyota Prius to the gills. Then he made a second trip, saving about 300 videos from incineration.

What, exactly, did he plan to do with a boatload of antique VHS tapes, most of which were esoteric (an instructive video on how spot counterfeit Beanie Babies) or inane (a video of Andy Rooney teaching people how to act, a training video for ferrets)?

Prueher is the co-founder of the Found Footage Festival, a traveling showcase of obscure and oddball VHS clips narrated by Prueher and his co-host Joe Pickett. As teenagers in Wisconsin in the early 90s, Prueher and Pickett began collecting random VHS tapes from thrift stores and garage sales. Their collection grew, and they began screening them for friends in their basement.

“We thought we were a very specific group of weirdos who got together and tried to find these tapes at thrift stores,” says Prueher.

Prueher thought wrong. By 2004, he and Pickett had gone from screening videotapes for friends in their Wisconsin basements to screening them for the public at Bar Rafifi (R.I.P.) in the East Village. Fans packed Rafifi’s Cinema Classic room, equipped with a screen and projector; shortly thereafter, the Found Footage Festival was born. This year marks the thirteenth season in New York.

“It seemed like people were ready to look back at the VHS era and laugh,” says Prueher. “There was sort of this wide-eyed innocence about people making these videos. For the first time you had an affordable format, and at the time it was kind of a gold rush.”

Many of the clips screened at the Found Footage festival can’t be found online. The hosts edit them for maximum effect; a montage of religious videos called “101 depictions of Jesus” (“claymation Jesus, handsome WASP Jesus, etc.”) was a real crowd-pleaser. Still, in an age of curated consumption, where every person on a subway car can view a different scrap of media simultaneously, collective viewing might seem like a throwback to a different era. But Prueher suggests that the appeal is more about a contemporary need than nostalgia.

Says Prueher. “Something magical happens when you can take this footage that was never meant to be shown in public, and you show it in public.”

If you go: Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Ave.

Fri. Oct. 20th 7:30 and 10 p.m. $15

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