One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Hobby
By Jack Daniel Betz
Photo by Camilo Gonzalez
Found footage appreciation is a sub-cultural phenomenon that developed long before the internet made weird clips something we all take for granted. In 2023, with nothing more than a few keystrokes (or touch screen taps) we can find years worth of freaky film on Youtube, archive.org or any number of other easily-accessible movie repositories. However, before Youtube, enthusiasts had to meet up and trade copied VHS tapes of their favorite oddball films to satisfy their cravings. Some of the more popular tapes travelled across the world via duplication and won large, international fan bases.
One example of this is chronicled the award-winning, 2023 documentary “Winnebago Man,” directed by and starring UT grad Ben Steinbauer. The found footage in question consists of outtakes from a decades-old Winnebago commercial, which depicted the smooth-talking narrator breaking character and having angry, profanity-filled outbursts over mistakes made in the midst of shooting. The beginning of “Winnebago Man” shows a series of interviews with all the different people who were captivated by the film. The latter half is a search for the man himself and their interactions with him. This documentary was my first encounter with the concept of found footage, and I discovered it in a rather pedestrian place, given the esoteric subject matter: Blockbuster.
To reiterate though, found footage is the dorky home movie collecting grime in the garage. Found footage is public access VHS forgotten by time. It defies classification. It is any piece of footage deemed outside the boundaries of norms for regular consumables (i.e. mainstream movies, TV, documentaries etc.). Found footage is everywhere, but few dust it off and appreciate its singular, madcap beauty. Luckily for curious Houstonians, and with many thanks to the Aurora Picture Show, our city was on the tour route for a travelling cinematographic sideshow called “Found Fiesta!”
On the evening of Jan. 10, the kind folks of St. Arnold’s Brewery opened their doors to “Found Fiesta!”, which is a celebration of the oddest and most interesting found artifacts that the participants can gather. The exhibition took place in the form of a competition, with randomly-chosen judges in the audience voting after each of the three rounds for the participants with the most fascinating finds.
The presenters broke down into three teams. First was Found Footage Festival (comprised of Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett), then North Carolina-based AV Geeks (Skip Elsheimer) and lastly, NPR contributor and co-creator of Found Magazine, Davy Rothbard. The first two teams dealt with found film, but Davy’s finds were in the form of text. These included love letters, hand-written lists and pop quizzes, just to name a few.
Found Footage Festival’s focus was a broad one, as the name might suggest. Highlights of their presentation included a montage of violent work safety videos, a seemingly-aroused crafting lady and a public access show about a man dancing in a speedo for a cluster of bewildered senior citizens. These were all extremely entertaining, but the final two rounds between AV Geeks and Found Magazine were easily the most memorable parts of the night.
The final round saw Davy present a strikingly poignant piece of found writing that seemed to take the audience by surprise, who (if they were like me) were probably expecting more ribaldry and silliness. This particular find was a letter written by a young man named Collin addressed to his mother. The words were bursting with emotion and were anything but funny. The letter included an abbreviated life story of the author who, according to his words, had a very difficult childhood, but had finally found love. Collin told his mother that he was finally happy-that he was no longer suicidal, and it was all because of this amazing woman who had miraculously walked into his life. Now, the contents of the letter alone would have been a drastic enough change to turn heads, given the light-hearted tenor of Davy’s presentation so far, however, the story of its discovery was even more interesting. Davy told the audience that it had been sent to him by a woman who found the letter in a tree, attached to a balloon. The tree stood in a cemetery. Once the audience put two and two together, there was definitely a tender moment to be had during this evening that had so far been dominated by laughter. It was a reminder that while many found artifacts are humorous, they do in fact offer insight into the lives of real, flesh and blood people with real struggles, feelings and experiences.
The final presenter in the very last round of the night was Skip, who would not be outdone by Davy’s heartwarming letter. He pulled out the big guns. Going for an emotional 180-degree turn, Skip played his last offering. Keeping with his focus on old educational films, Elsheimer presented us with one about teaching blind children the particulars of sexual anatomy. It was the film equivalent of being redirected to lemonparty.com (a not-so-nice website for those of you lucky enough not to fall prey to this prank). A palpable awkwardness filled the dimly-lit beer hall, but naturally it was so overpowering that we all burst into laughter.
Offensive? Yes. Well-timed? Also a yes. The hilarious juxtaposition of these last two pieces definitely captured the spirit of the night and maybe even the spirit of found footage appreciation in general. For a Monday night, it was quite the outing.