Film Reviews

REVIEW: Stand by for Tape Back-up / Copycat

Hot Docs 2015

UK, 63 min.
Directed by Ross Sutherland
World Premiere

British filmmaker, poet, and writer Ross Sutherland’s entry at Hot Docs is one of the festival’s most unusual and potentially mind-altering selections. Derived from a stage presentation, Stand by for Tape Back-up obsesses on a VHS videocassette Sutherland and his grandfather packed with sit-coms, movies, and other material they recorded back in the 1980s.

They had no idea how to start a new recording after the previous one ended, so the tape is a hodge-podge of The Wizard of Oz, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Jaws, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and so on, mixed with stuttering black and white video noise and other abstractions.

Watching Sutherland’s film is like watching a personal tape just after it has been plunked into a VCR. As scattered and degraded images play on the screen, Sutherland in voice-over speaks a nonstop monologue that is urgent, querulous, and at times exhilaratingly rhythmic. We hear the voice of a man trying to excavate meaning from mystery and find salvation from illness, confusion, and loss– especially of his beloved grandfather. He talks prose and poetry. He raps in synch to the images we are watching. The voice is close, as if he were on stage while he shows us the tape. Joyce meets Burroughs meets Spalding Gray.

In the film, Sutherland says that the tape, which he has watched over 300 times, is his “way to commune with the unknown,” and it’s the only artefact of his past. He needs to put “the little bits together” to see his entire life story.

How is that possible?

Off the top of the film, Sutherland tells us that the brain, in its sorting of information, creates patterns and possible synchronicities. “The brain is fundamentally designed to see patterns even when no pattern exists.”

So this explorer into the unknown envisions his childhood, and the rest of his life, in a Ghostbusters scene that terrified him in 1984 when his grandfather took him to the movie five times in one week. In the scene, a green glob of a ghost floats toward Bill Murray, a moment that embeds a moment of death anxiety into the film, one echoed by footage from Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Jaws. At one point, Sutherland monologues over a close-up of Bill Murray held so long, you wonder if this is it; maybe the film won’t generate any more visuals.

One of the film’s most haunting passages synchs Sutherland’s voice-over with the continually looped opening credits of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, a series that his grandpa apparently loved. What if Will Smith actually died, just like grandpa, during his altercation with a street gang on the basketball court? And what if the Bel-Air mansion Will moves into was really life beyond death, just like his grandfather’s? The credits of Fresh Prince synch with Sutherland’s loss, and those innocuous credits take on a melancholic air.

Sutherland evokes common experiences like breaking up with somebody, and all the songs on the radio are about heartache “specifically to torment you.” Is there a meaning in this kind of thing, he asks. Or is it meaningless?

Near the end of the film, he comes up with a line that somehow crystalizes the whole project. Over footage from Jaws, (sharks are “death incarnate,” he says), he tells the story of how Spielberg’s career was almost destroyed because Bruce, the hugely expensive mechanical shark did not function. So the director decided to show water rather than Bruce. And what could be scarier than a shark you can’t see? It could attack you in the supermarket, Sutherland says.

He concludes, “If you really want to believe in something, stop looking at it. Trust yourself that it’s out there.”

Screening with: Copycat
Directed by Charlie Lyne
UK, 8 min.
Canadian Premiere

Sutherland assembled Stand by for Tape Back-up with his editor Charlie Lyne, the two of them painstakingly working in an analogue format. His film’s Hot Docs screenings are preceded by Lyne’s short Copycat, which also montages a flurry of degraded images to explore memory and consciousness. In this case, the protagonist is Rolfe Kanefsky, an obsessed horror movie fan and burgeoning filmmaker who in 1991 released There’s Nothing Out There, a self-aware horror parody loaded with every cliché in the book.

The picture instantly attracted serious interest; for a while there was a possibility that the young filmmaker would get in on the Child’s Play franchise and direct a Chucky movie. Then a perfect storm slammed into the aspirations of the young man who got his first screen shocks from Abbott and Costello horror parodies. A snowstorm, the Super Bowl, and the L.A. riots demolished Kanefsky’s debut. On top of that, horror suddenly went dead at the box-office. (For instance, the Leprechaun films, now hugely popular with certain audiences on DVD, bombed.)

The one glimmer of hope came in the form of the people who created the Wes Craven Scream franchise. Craven’s son was excited by Kanefsky’s film, but he never heard anything more about this interest until he saw the first Scream picture. Observers have called There’s Nothing Out There a virtual blueprint for the self-mocking Scream movies.

Lyne’s film highlights the irony and disappointment of the story. But his rush of images, including horror icons from Murnau’s Nosferatu to the gold-crazed Leprechaun, is joyous. Copycat hurls us into the mind of a fan who created a genre piece out of love and passion, and then got burnt when he tried to go industrial. It’s heavy, the film implies, but it’s not a fate worse than death.

Hot Docs 2015 Screenings
Sun, May 3 6:45 PM
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Maurie Alioff writes about movies for publications off- and on-line, and is a screenwriter currently collaborating on a documentary featuring Bob Marley’s granddaughter while researching other Jamaica-related projects, including a magical-realist crime story drawing on stories he hears on the island. He has written for radio, journals and TV, taught screenwriting and been a contributing editor to various magazines.

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