The way Nick Prueher sees it, time is running out on VHS tapes.
The wonky videotapes are ending up by the truckload in local landfills, and he’s on a mission to watch as many of them as he can before they disappear altogether, much like the 8-Track audio tapes of a previous generation.
“It’s an exciting time and a scary time for a VHS collector right now,” said Prueher, who will be in Portland on Friday to host the irreverent Found Footage Festival at Space Gallery. “The last holdouts who had VCRs are finally upgrading to DVDs, and they are getting rid of their tapes. That’s the exciting part. Whatever is out there is out there.
“But the scary part is, we’ve been talking to (thrift store) people all over the country who are telling us they are not even accepting VHS donations anymore because no one is buying them. Our fear is that they will end up in landfills, and a part of our VHS history will be lost to us forever.”
The Found Footage Festival showcases old and hysterical videos that Prueher and his creative partner, Joe Pickett, have collected over the years. This touring production showcases videos they have found at garage sales, thrift stores, warehouses and dumpsters across the country.
Friday’s show will include about 18 or so video segments, with narration and commentary by Prueher and Pickett, grade-school chums from small-town Wisconsin who used to pass the time watching stupid and silly videos with their buddies. They’ve made it into a career, said Jon Courtney, Space’s films director.
“We live in a culture where people are always sending us strangle oddball clips. These guys have elevated it to an art form,” Courtney said. “They are as much a part of the event as the films are. They make it into a performance.
“This is an interesting time for small venues to show films, when you are competing with multiplexes and Video on Demand and Netflix. But when you have actual curators who are also performers, they turn it into a kind of theatrical event.”
Space has hosted the festival five times, and it’s one of the most enjoyable nights of the year for the downtown Portland arts venue, Courtney said.
The feeling is mutual, said Prueher, who lives in New York and has worked as a researcher at the “Late Show with David Letterman” and written for various humor outlets.
“Portland is always one of our favorite shows to do all year. We always look forward to it,” he said. “We get tons of new material when we come to Maine. It must be the eccentric spirit of Mainers.”
Friday’s show will feature one video culled from a previous trip to Portland. It’s a training video about how to care for your ferret, featuring a man and a woman who “if you just saw them walking down the street somewhere you would say, ‘I bet they are ferret owners.’ You can just tell,” Prueher said. “The video is supposed to teach you how to care for your ferret, but it ends up being the most powerful case for never owning a ferret. It talks about how they bite and steal things.”
But perhaps the most memorable video in the current show is one called “Hand Made Love.”
“We saw those three words, and we thought, ‘What could that be?’ We had some idea, but I don’t know if you could have guessed what it actually was.
“There is probably not a good way to put what is on that tape politely for a family newspaper. Let’s just say it’s a training tape for developmentally disabled men. It teaches them how to pleasure themselves. I guess nobody wants to teach anybody that in person. This tape is so much worse than it had to be. The production values are so low. It looks very homemade, which adds to the general unsettledness to it. We’ve been collecting videos for 21 years, and that is something we never could have imaged.
“Just when you think we’ve seen it all, someone hands us a tape named ‘Hand Made Love.”‘
Prueher and Pickett generally arrive in a town midday of their show, and spend the afternoon looking for tapes. They’ve developed a pretty good network of scavengers over the years, who often collect tapes for them. They’ll hit the second-hand stores in Portland, grab some dinner and then do the show.
They usually hang out afterward at a downtown bar, talking to friends and fans.
Their to-be-watched cache currently has about 1,000 tapes. They will collect tapes through the winter, and then sometimes around March, they will hunker down and get through as many of them as they can. Most of what they collect is just plain bad, and that’s usually pretty clear from the outset.
Only the very best make the final cut.
“We’re at the point now where people bring us boxes of tapes. That is our favorite thing in the world. That’s like Christmas for us,” Prueher said.
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: