Analog Video and Derisive Laughter

November 12, 2010
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Recently, The A.V. Club began hosting a series of short web videos by the curators of the Found Footage Festival, a “one-of-a-kind event that showcases footage from videos that were found at garage sales and thrift stores and in warehouses and dumpsters across the country.” These videos have become regular viewing for me, complementing my occasional perusal of the website Everything is Terrible! (which “take[s] forgotten VHS tapes of all kinds and edit[s] them down into easily digestible viral videos”). By purveying the best/worst in bargain-basement VHS excess, these websites trade in the simultaneous ridicule of absurd performance and obsolete media technology. The rubric for inclusion into the Found Footage Festival gets to the heart of the matter: “1) Footage must be found on physical format. No YouTube. 2) It has to be unintentionally funny. Whatever it’s trying to do, it has to fail miserably at that.” I often laugh at these videos, but why?

On a basic level, much of the material is damn funny. The pleasures that await include dating service videos; Kathie Lee Gifford rapping; and Club Mario, a particularly egregious offender in the wasteland of canned 1990s “extreme” youth culture. The cult fascination of these texts carries affinities with paracinematic appreciation, and it also follows familiar lines of camp, kitsch, and/or irony. But there is also an element of earnest nostalgic pleasure. As Lucas Hilderbrand writes about workout videos, revisiting these tapes might bring about “a double-edge affect of shame and affection.” And just like the workout tapes, many of these found videos carry the battle-scars of worn-out videotape and overuse. For the Found Footage Festival and Everything is Terrible!, the various signifiers of “imperfect” older technology figure as another part of the joke.

Makin’ Tracks to Branson! from Everything Is Terrible! on Vimeo.

On the other hand, my laughter tends to catch when I consider its dimensions of mockery. This is made explicit, of course, in the Found Footage Festival’s description of its exhibits as miserable failures. Moreover, the Found Footage Festival is hosted by two droll hipsters and, well, the title of Everything is Terrible! says it all. But like any good student of cultural studies, I worry when the Found Footage Festival and Everything is Terrible! focus their mockery on people, genres, and practices existent at the bottom of any number of cultural hierarchies. Moreover, the ridicule of videotape as a technological form suggests a masculinist, Western logic that privileges advanced technology and the mastery of that technology in the production of knowledge.

It follows that these videos become purportedly funnier as our contemporary media technology gets “better.” From there, it’s not hard to extend the idea of “clarity” beyond aesthetic and technological descriptions of high-definition visual media into a metaphorical judgment of contemporary cultural practices counterposed against those of the embarrassing 80s and 90s. We can see more clearly now; just look at the sharper images on our screens as proof! Charles Acland has recently raised some provocative questions about the increased academic focus on new media forms, suggesting that an intensified attention to new media technologies follows the capitalist logic of consumer electronics industries. I wonder if the deployment of analog technologies for comic purposes carries a similar logic. Tellingly, I watch these videos through my laptop screen, which provides safe historical, technological, and ontological distance from the “bad” object.

Ultimately, the Found Footage Festival and Everything is Terrible! afford me an opportunity to interrogate both my own responses to “unintentional” humor and the logic that newer technologies equate to a necessarily “better” engagement with visual media. Of course, this negotiation may also just be a way for me to have my cake and eat it too. I can take issue with the presumption that analog technology and its various users are deserving of scorn, but that does not mean that I am going to stop laughing at Danny Bonaduce’s Mortal Kombat.


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4 Responses to “ Analog Video and Derisive Laughter ”

  1. Alyx Vesey on November 12, 2010 at 11:45 AM

    Great post, Evan. Some of the issues you raise here remind me of Cord Jefferson’s recent piece on embedded racism and classism in the reception of certain Internet memes like the ones made of Antoine Dodson’s news interview. Obviously, I’m not charging these claims against you, but I think his piece dovetails nicely with yours about issues of derisive laughter and distanced Web spectatorship.

  2. Derek Kompare on November 12, 2010 at 12:45 PM

    It seems we’re stuck in a perpetual nostalgia/retro/irony/derision loop, whereby the recent past (nearly always determined by the childhoods of the beholders) becomes intense fodder for the enlightened present. Oh, how silly we were then! Ha ha ha! Etc. The retro variation (the past as cool) is just a corollary of this.

    This treatment of the past inspired my dissertation (and many, many discussions with my Vilas Hall cohorts) back in the 90s, when Gen X was geeking out to its 1970s childhood and intoxicated (literally) by 1950s-60s cocktail culture. However, if you jump back another 20 years, to the 1970s, exactly the same thing was going on, only with the Fifties in the crosshairs (i.e., the childhood of the baby boom).

    The major differences today are that access to the recent past is more readily available (assuming that critical analog-to-digital shift is made) yet more diffuse. We all know that sometime soon the 2000s will be the subject of similar treatment, but with a diminishing number of broad targets, given audience fragmentation and the fact that culture is already saturated with the nostalgia of previous generations. I also think that, despite the massive volume of video constantly put online, the typical categories of “found footage” are unlikely to remain “lost” for long in an all digital environment.

    That said, the hipsters of 2020 will no doubt get a kick out of those cutting-edge 320×240 video clips of the early 00s, the ridiculous panic around Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” and the like, while they party in their Dora and Boots t-shirts and sip juice boxes, cause it’s “ironic.”

  3. Lindsay H. Garrison on November 13, 2010 at 1:59 PM

    Great piece, Evan! I find the Found Footage Festival especially interesting in that it’s turning old VHS content into a live event at a theater which is then repackaged to DVDs. Lots of interesting questions there in terms of form and function of humor – it seems like it’d function best as some sort of viral video content (it’s short, it’s funny, it’s retro, etc.) but I love that it’s worked so well in other places. Is it funnier (or a different kind of funny) if we go to the event and watch/laugh with friends than it is if we watch the clip online alone, or even if we watch the clip online together in our office while taking a break from grading?

  4. Evan Elkins on November 14, 2010 at 1:01 PM

    Thanks, everyone, for these great comments.

    Alyx–Thanks for the link. Yes, racism, classism, etc. seem often to be embedded in the broader logics of virality and spreadability, even without the technological dimensions that I wrote about. The Antoine Dodson case is an instructive one, particularly considering the prevalence of blackface Dodson Halloween costumes this year. And not to get too far afield, here, but I’m glad that Jefferson brings up People of Wal-Mart. That site and Stuff White People Like make up two sides of the “celebrating white privilege through memes” coin, and I’m often disturbed when I see people linking to these sites without fully considering the dimensions of what they are laughing at. But I digress…

    Derek–Great points about audience fragmentation and the fact that nostalgic culture is already so ubiquitous. It reminds me of VH1’s “I Love the…” series, which encroached more and more on the present day, eventually turning into Best Week Ever, Best Year Ever, etc. The shelf-life of cultural productions before they can be remobilized as nostalgia seems to be shrinking. And since so much contemporary culture seems to involve recombination and bricolage, it is perhaps more difficult to locate a common set of images from which the ironic nostalgists of tomorrow will draw. Maybe this isn’t such a bad thing.

    Lindsay–Thanks for bringing up the live show. There’s definitely something to the old-school theatrical dimension that seems to reframe the reception of this stuff. I think you can read it a couple of different ways. Is it a gathering where a bunch of people aim their mockery at familiar targets, or is it a community of fans who have found a resource for the particular media that they enjoy–media that find few outlets in “mainstream” aesthetic cultures (to the extent that such a concept exists anymore)? As is always the case, the answer is probably both and everything in between. Indeed, I perhaps undersold in my post the element of earnest appreciation and love of these texts (which I think is there much more in the Found Footage Fest than Everything is Terrible). Heck, I’ll admit that I tend to get much more pleasure out of these old videos than I do from just about anything that currently airs on television.