Nudity, Profanity, and Xylophones
Continuing its tradition of presenting unusual cinematic events, the Grand Illusion Cinema recently screened the VHS Variety Special, an edit-fest of bizarre and unusual content grabbed from the archives of Scarecrow Video, another Seattle institution dedicated to film in the community.
The Special is the collaborative brain-child of Scarecrow Video employees Spenser Hoyt and Brian Alter, both of whom are involved with the Grand Illusion. I asked Brian Alter to answer a few questions about the evolution of the Variety Special and its future, as well as the relationship between Scarecrow and the Grand Illusion.
Ann Linden: Scarecrow Video and the Grand Illusion are both Seattle institutions, but it’s unusual to see a video rental store collaborating with a movie theater. How did that come about?
Brian Alter: We have a long history with Scarecrow Video that goes beyond the VHS programs. Over the years, many Scarecrow employees have been Grand Illusion volunteers. When the cinema was purchased from the Northwest Film Forum and converted into its own non-profit, two of the investors were Scarecrow employees. For a while it seemed like at least half of the GI volunteer staff worked at Scarecrow, and Scarecrow was a frequent sponsor of films at the Grand Illusion. So there is that connection, plus the fact that we are in the same neighborhood and both in the business of fostering a love of cinema and, most of all, friends!
AL: What’s the origin story on the VHS Variety Specials? (In other words, who can I blame for the visions of robot strippers dancing in my head?)
BA: Scarecrow did a show called “Viva VHS” in 2009 which gathered clips from tons of VHS-only sources. That show was sort of a tribute to VHS, coordinated around the final year VHS tapes were manufactured. So that’s part of the inspiration. The other part is that I originally wanted to do a series of VHS nights, screening films left behind on VHS after home video jumped to DVD. That idea stemmed from cinema’s current transition from 35mm film to digital exhibition. So it was sort of an attempt to bring light to the fact that with every format change, whether it’s home video or cinematic exhibition, films get lost. I floated the idea to Spenser Hoyt who is a current Grand Illusion board member, former programmer/manager and longtime Scarecrow employee and he ran with it, and suggested it be more of an extension of the “Viva VHS” show. That, in turn, became the first collaboration between the Grand Illusion and Scarecrow for the VHS XMAS show. The Variety Show in particular was just a way to take the kick-ass idea of showing weird, VHS-only footage and give it a manageable theme.
…with every format change, whether it’s home video or cinematic exhibition, films get lost.
AL: What’s the selection process for the content? Do you start with a theme, or do themes emerge?
BA: We start with a theme and Spenser looks through Scarecrow’s inventory for stuff that might work. Then he compiles a list of clips for me to transfer from VHS and gives a rough outline for the show. When I transfer the clips I usually stumble across a few more to use. By the time that is done I have 2.5-3 hours of footage! I sequence the clips according to his suggestions, and again, I stumble across different transitions and make more weird associations.
AL: Before seeing The Movie Orgy, I thought the VHS Specials might be something of a YouTube generation exclusive, but it seems maybe there’s always been a propensity to remix narratives and jar one’s consciousness by association. Was The Movie Orgy an inspiration for the Variety Specials?
BA: I heard about Joe Dante’s Movie Orgy a long time ago, maybe as a teenager, and the idea of it stuck with me somehow. But I had no idea – until we showed it in March – just how much of a stream-of-consciousness feel it had while still keeping a narrative going throughout. I stole Dante’s “super-digest” idea where he showed the beginning of the film and immediately cut to the end card for the Variety Show. Thanks to this I was able to turn an Andrew Dice Clay performance into a smoke break. The Variety Show definitely took more inspiration from The Movie Orgy (because we’d finally seen it!), but even in the Christmas show we were trying for a little bit of that remix or juxtaposition of clips, sort of like The Movie Orgy’s channel surfing vibe. But there are definitely others doing this type of thing. The Found Footage Film Fest does a great job of digging deep to find the weirdest, funniest stuff imaginable. And locally, Collide-O-Scope do frequent shows that are similar to our VHS nights.
AL: This is a really different way for a theater to pull in viewers — you’ve got some cultural touchstones (nudity, profanity, xylophones) that are hard to resist, and a promise of a viewing experience that can’t really be paralleled. Does the Grand Illusion have a conscious initiative to create events that can’t be replicated by sitting at home in front of a computer or tv? Anything similar in the works?
BA: I think the act of simply coming to the Grand Illusion is something you can’t replicate at home. But I’m clearly old fashioned and at odds with the world!
We hadn’t done many shows produced specifically for the cinema in a while. Years ago there was an occasional late night show called “We Found It In The Basement” that assembled all sorts of 16mm & 35mm clips the cinema acquired over the years. But we could only do that a couple times since we don’t have a huge film archive.
It’s obvious that folks like cinematic events that can’t be replicated at home. But the Grand Illusion is vehemently opposed to presenting sing-alongs and quote-alongs or other participatory film events. It’s nothing personal against those who like that sort of thing, it just doesn’t work for us. So thanks to this idea of plundering the home video revolution, we can produce events that are not only much more fun with a crowd, but are exclusive to the Grand Illusion and showcase Scarecrow’s vast collection. So for now there is an initiative to continue doing these shows. We’ve already brainstormed a few more: VHS Sports & Leisure in time for the Olympics this July, an election/politics show for the Presidential race, a horror show, definitely a volume 2 Christmas show, and maybe Seattle-specific and Valentine’s Day shows.
Viewing the Variety Special is akin to falling down a time vortex straight into late night channel skipping and video bargain-bin purchases. Gradually the Special takes on the shape and feel of its historical predecessor, the live variety show so popular on western television in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Stand-up comedy routines taped live in clubs and ill-advised musical performances are interspersed with foreign talent shows and sketch acts, VHS production logos and credits. With illicit, raunchy, wholly unacceptable humor, questionable dance performances, and bright blue eyeshadow everywhere you look, Hoyt and Alter have created a best of the worst that you can’t look away from. With all the hints and flickers of vaudeville and the circus, I’m left reflecting on our odd biological predilection for performance: if we can spin a plate on a pole, someone will watch. If someone will watch, we’ll do it again, and we’ll do it on television in front of millions. Viewing these clips through the lens of Hoyt and Alter’s editing process has a recursive, telescopic feel, the past beamed from TV to silver screen. Alter is correct, the Grand Illusion itself is a vital ingredient of the experience.
While it lacks the charm of the Grand Illusion venue, the full weirdness of the Variety Specials to date may be viewed online.
- The Movie Orgy is weird, wonderful fun. by Ann Linden
- TIM AND ERIC’$ BILLION DOLLAR MOVIE by Ann Linden
- Classic Sci-Fi on the Big Screen at Grand Illusion Cinema by Ann Linden