When you grow up in a small town, anyone with a connection to it who becomes famous (or even semi-famous) serves as a point of pride. For my hometown, Milton, Wisconsin, that meant former Seattle Seahawks quarterback Dave Krieg, who attended (the now-defunct) Milton College before going on to a 19-year NFL career during which he set the record for most career fumbles. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention my Milton High classmate Mike Saunders, who had a successful 8-year career as a running back in the Canadian Football League.
Other than gridiron stars, though, Milton has had little to contribute to popular culture. Until now. For this correspondent, who cut his video-store teeth in 1980s Milton before going on to a film-crazed adulthood, Joe Pickett seems to be living the dream. He’s the co-founder of the Found Footage Festival, now in its tenth year, which stops at the Hollywood Theatre this Saturday. Pickett and partner Nick Prueher have been hunting and hoarding the ephemera of the physical media era for nearly twenty years, exposing a surreal array of instructional films, home movies, public access disasters, and more to appreciative, sold-out crowds. He may not have grown up in Milton, but then again neither did Dave Krieg.
Using my Miltonian bona fides as an in, I managed to score a few minutes on the phone with Pickett, and after some proper Midwestern reminiscing (“road sodas” came up), we talked about the joys of VHS, the endless supply of found footage fodder, and…Quentin Tarantino?
When Pickett and Prueher started showing off the videotapes they’d been collecting in high school and then college, there was no idea it would become what it has. “The first show we did was just stuff we had found in the Midwest. We did two volumes and thought that was pretty much it for dumb videos. We were wrong!” says Pickett. At the time, many people were selling all their videotapes to thrift stores, so there was plenty to choose from at low prices.
When the festival began to tour, the pair would spend the day prior to each evening’s show seeking out local thrift stores to raid. “And then people started sending us videos,” says Pickett. “We get probably a couple boxes a week. I just got a catheter insertion video today. It’s a bottomless pit.”
Although the late 1980s and early ’90s may have been the golden age for inexplicable video oddities, there are more recent examples. “Last summer, somebody sent me a Victoria’s Secret training video from 2016,” says Pickett. “All of our training videos come from the ’80s and ’90s, stuff that we had to sit in a smoky break room and watch by ourselves. I wondered if they’d improved at all over the years, and the answer is no.”
Some filmmakers, most notably Robert Altman, got their start working in industrial films, and it turns out he’s not the only one to get his initial credits in this cinematic backwater. “Some of the training films we have from the 70s are actually really well done, and sometimes I wonder if someone like John Carpenter was involved and used a pseudonym,” says Pickett. “But the best one we have is Quentin Tarantino’s first production credit of all time. It’s on a Dolph Lundgren exercise video, and he’s listed as a production assistant in the credits. It’s on our website.” It turns out that Tarantino isn’t too eager to revisit that work. “We talked to Tim League from Alamo Drafthouse, who knows him, and he told us that Quentin doesn’t want to talk about it.” True to obsessive form, however, Pickett and Prueher tracked down a gaffer who worked on the shoot and interviewed him for an issue of their zine devoted entirely to celebrity workout videos.
This year’s highlights, per Pickett, include a montage of old Pizza Hut training videos. “We’re always excited about training videos, because you can’t usually buy them. Somebody has to steal them from the workplace. I got a job at Suncoast Video just to steal their training videos. Well, I borrowed them and made copies.” There’s also an ambitious public access show made in Iowa City called Cinema City. It’s a “gritty cop show” made by a university cafeteria worker: “He wanted to do like a Michael Mann type thing, but he clearly had no training or experience. And he made twenty one-hour episodes!”
Pickett’s most excited, though, about another public access gem, this one from Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, called The Club. “There were fifteen episodes, as legend has it, and we got one about thirteen years ago and just recently another. It’s about a guy who finds a stick in the forest and is convinced that it’s a prehistoric weapon. But you never see the guy, you just see the stick. He talks about it constantly, and he always uses the phrase ‘plum simply awesome’. I wish I could be that passionate about anything.”
The festival has evolved over the years from a simple presentation of curiosities into more of a creative endeavor for its founders as they investigate, remix, and provide context for these relics of an analog age. (The rule is that the discoveries must be embodied in a physical format, almost always VHS, mostly because it would be far too easy to strip-mine YouTube for ridiculous content.) Although future formats may foster their own found footage—after all, imagine how intense a fast-food employee training VR experience would be!
Unearthing those gems may be a task for generations to come, however. “We have 13,000 VHS tapes right now. We’ve watched maybe 41% of them, and new ones show up every single day. So I think we’re pretty set,” says Pickett. “We found our lane and we’ll mostly stay in it.” (Found Footage Festival Volume 10 is at the Hollywood Theatre on Saturday, Dec. 2. The show is sold out, but Pickett and Prueher will be making an in-store experience at Movie Madness earlier that afternoon.)
ALSO THIS WEEK
The Settlers/Los Colonos: This presentation of the Portland Latin American Film Festival is Chile’s submission for Best International Feature Film at next year’s Academy Awards, and it’s one that certainly deserves inclusion on the category’s 15-film shortlist, due to be announced next month. This is a harrowing look at the brutalities of colonization in early 20th-century Tierra del Fuego, specifically the efforts of wealthy landowner José Menéndez (Alfredo Castro). He sends a three-man team composed of a Scottish army officer, an American mercenary, and a young mestizo on a mission to discover a route to the Atlantic side of the territory for a sheep drive. Based on recently confirmed historical fact, the film vividly and unflinchingly demonstrates the role of rapacious capitalism in the genocide of the indigenous Selk’nam people. (Thursday, Nov. 30, Hollywood Theatre)
Dogtooth: With the approaching release of director Yorgos Lanthimos’ new film Poor Things (spoiler alert: one of the best and weirdest of the year), what better time to revisit the 2009 film that put the face of the so-called Greek Weird Wave on the map. Like Poor Things (and Lanthimos’ filmography in general), Dogtooth is interested in how humans acquire knowledge and the absurdity of traditional morality. A couple and their three adult children live in a closed-off compound, the younger generation having never been exposed to the outside world. (Yes, there is incest.) This nightmarish, bleakly funny fable is in the Lars von Trier/Michael Haneke school, so not for the squeamish. But it’s a marvelous foreshadowing of the Greek auteur’s later career and remains one of his signature works. (Friday and Saturday, Cinema 21)
Can’t Seem to Make You Mine: This locally shot indie drama about a recently released prisoner trying to re-establish a bond with his ex-wife and son has its Portland premiere, with a post-film Q&A from the filmmakers. (Wednesday, Hollywood)
Bloody Bridget: The latest effort from cult filmmaker Richard Elfman (Forbidden Zone) is about a burlesque dancer who becomes a heart-eating vampire. Screens as part of a multi-media Grand Guignol evening. (Friday, Clinton St.)
For This Time Only and other films: Portland filmmaker Nick Peterson (Yellow, Field Guide to November Days) put down his camera a decade ago. Now, following an accident that cost him the use of one eye, he has picked it up again with a sense of urgency and will screen a selection of his recent work. (Saturday, Clinton St.)
Psychotronic After School Christmas Special: Curator and projectionist Greg Hamilton presents his annual celebration of yuletide weirdness on 16mm. (Clinton St.)
Revolutions per Movie Presents: R.E.M. by MTV: This live podcast recording hosted by Chris Slusarenko will include a screening of the 2014 documentary on the role of MTV in the career of alternative rock’s first massive success. Slusarenko will then be joined by R.E.M.’s Peter Buck for an on-stage interview. (Tuesday, Cinema 21)
- Over the Top  (Kiggins)
- Santa’s Slay  (Hollywood)
- Niagara  (Hollywood)
- Peeping Tom  (Hollywood)
- The Princess Bride  (Kiggins)
- School of Magical Animals: Part 2  (Clinton St.)
- Carol  (Hollywood)
- The Magic Crystal  (Hollywood)
- RRR  (Hollywood)