They scene begins as our main character, Sam, turns on the video camera and looks right into the lens.
“Hi!” he says. “Heh. I’m Sam.
And, uh, basically I’m here because… I want to be your friend!” He’s all earnest there in the frame, in this sort of Irish-knit sweater over a blue oxford, his hair in a fine sweep across the parabolas of his eyebrows.
“What’s your name?” he asks the camera, pausing to listen, flashing a grin.
“Yeah,” he says thoughtfully, nodding his head. “You know, I… I see that. I really… that is you, isn’t it.”
He shifts gears. “Do you mind if I take a look around your place a little bit?” he asks you. “Well thanks. Great!” And he leans into the frame, filling the screen with his face as he peers into your side of the fourth wall.
“Whoa-ho-ho-ho… boy,” he says, nodding appreciatively. Sam is impressed.
It’s his eyes that sell it: He’s serious about this, serious about making a commercial home video for lonely VCR owners, serious about spending some quality time with whomever deigns to buy it. And he’s serious about the friend thing. He wants to be your friend.
And he doesn’t mean that in a Facebook kind of way, either. This video, called “Rent- A-Friend,” was made back in 1986, when a VCR was still a modern and fairly pricy piece of technology and the rental-friend industry was still in its infancy — a Google search of “rent a friend” today yields 141,000 hits.
“People were trying all sorts of concepts on VHS back then, board games, self-hypnosis. It was a new technology,” says Nick Prueher, a veteran of “Late Night with David Letterman” and “The Colbert Report” who is now cofounder and co-host of the Found Footage Festival, which lands in Greensboro on Saturday night at the Idiot Box, in conjunction with a 25 th anniversary screening of the classic guerilla doc “Heavy Metal Parking Lot” (see sidebar).
The festival is a traveling roadshow of serendipitous film and video finds culled from thrift stores, garage sales and trash heaps.
“Most of it is stuff like exercise videos, training videos, promotional tapes, instructions about how to use a product,” he says. “That’s what we gravitate towards, these commercial videos that weren’t intended to be shown in public, which, I guess, is why they’re so much fun to show in public.”
With fellow curator and co-host Joe Pickett, himself a veteran of the Onion, he’s gathered hundreds of hours of footage on the website, much of it from the golden age of the VHS tape: an instructional video on flirting, “A Woman’s Guide to Firearms,” a big-haired exercise goddess who breathes like she’s giving birth. “How to Seduce Women Through Hypnosis,” a travel tape featuring a young Arnold Schwarzenegger partying at Carnival in Rio that has got to be seen to be believed.
“For us it’s got to be intentionally funny,”
Prueher says. “It has to not be trying to be funny. And whatever it’s trying to do — teach you something, an exercise routine — it has to fail at whatever it’s trying to do in an entertaining way. That’s kinda what we’re looking for.”
They trace the fetish back to their high school days, when Prueher worked at a McDonald’s in Stoughton, Wis.
“I was in the break room one day, bored, kinda just sitting there,” he remembers. “There was this big ashtray on a table, and a TV-VCR combo unit and like 30 training videos. I had watched one when I started [the job] but what about these other ones?
He selected one called “Inside and Outside Custodial Duty” and popped it in.
“It turned out to be a training manual for McDonald’s janitors,” he says. “My McDonald’s didn’t even have a janitor — it was obsolete. And I could not believe how insultingly dumb [the video] was. It was remarkably stupid. They tried to have a plot to it: the janitor’s first day on the job. If he tried really hard he’d end up seeing this thing, McC, which means ‘McDonald’s clean.’ And he has this internal dialogue like, ‘Clean this pipe, see McC.’” He smuggled the tape home to show Pickett, who immediately fell in love.
“And that’s what we’d do,” Prueher says, “sit around on weekends, have friends over and watch this video. We got so obsessed we’d make our own videos based on it. Once we got sick of watching that video, we thought there has to be more out there. That began the quest to look for more out-of-the-way material to help fuel this little hobby of ours.”
The copy of “Rent-A-Friend,” he says, they found in Chicago, still in the shrink wrap. They label it on their website as “60 batsh*t minutes.”
On the tape, your new friend Sam pulls out his high school yearbook and shows you a black-and-white photo of a sultry brunette, a sweep of hair obscuring half of her face. Nancy.
“I was infatuated with this one for like five, six years… and never had a single date,” he says, snorting a sad, little laugh.
Freeze on the frame and you can see her yearbook inscription, written in a maturing cursive. She said she would never forget him, or the friendship they shared in the 10 th grade, a friendship she writes, that “affected her.” And then she makes allusions to what “could have been.”
It’s all too much for your new buddy, even all these years later.
“Hey thanks a lot for telling me now Nancy,” he says. “I’ll never see you again.”
He considers this a moment, realizing that perhaps Nancy, in a pique of nostalgia, may have bought this tape, may in fact be watching it right now, her heart laced with the same regret, drowning in common sorrow.
“If this is you, Nancy,” he says, “how ya doin’?” “It’s hard to believe this is a real video,” Prueher says. “A lonely person with a VCR, the guy would be their virtual friend for about an hour. It’s kind of pathetic when you think about it,” he says. “And then it gets weirder. He starts talking about himself on the tape, telling you about his unrequited childhood crushes, his sister trying to pit him against his father. He reveals way too much. He was trying to work out these demons on this tape. You can’t imagine anyone wanting to be friends with this guy.”
In the course of their research, Prueher and Pickett actually tracked the guy down and met him while on tour. There’s a photo of it on their blog.
“He was really earnest about it,” Prueher says. “He really thought it would help lonely people.”
These days, of course, “friends” of every stripe, from all over the world can be had with the click of a mouse, making “Rent-A-Friend” — and a lot of the other videos in the collection —both ahead of its time and a relic of a bygone era.
And while the internet abounds with free, ridiculous video content, Prueher and Pickett eschew the low-hanging fruit.
“We’re purists,” Prueher says. “We don’t take anything off YouTube or the internet. It has to be something, a piece of physical media. The internet feels like cheating, and then you don’t have a really good story about how you found it. There’s not as much charm.”
They’ll be looking when they come to town: thrift stores, rummage sales, pawn shops, anywhere that forgotten VHS tapes go to die.
“If anybody in Greensboro has got anything, please bring it to the show,” he says.
“We’ll give it a good home, and we’d love to have the city represented the next time we come through.”
Saturday, the Idiot Box; 348 S. Elm St., Greensboro; 336.274.2699; 9:45 p.m.; $10 www.foundfootagefest.com