Collecting the Trash: The Cult of the Ephemeral Clip from VHS to YouTube
Iain Robert Smith / Roehampton University

Jack Rebney, The Winnebago Man

Jack Rebney, The Winnebago Man

In 1989, salesman Jack Rebney shot a promotional video for the motor-home manufacturer Winnebago industries. What he didn’t know at the time, however, was that his angry tirades in the outtakes from that shoot would later end up as a viral sensation. Known as ‘The Angriest Man in the World’, or more simply as ‘Winnebago Man’, the clip was initially assembled by the crew in an attempt to get Rebney fired, but was later copied and traded among collectors of VHS ephemera. Years later, in 2006, this cult shifted online when the clip was uploaded to YouTube and subsequently picked up nearly 3 million views. (( 2,996,730 views as of 9th September, 2011 ))

As Lucas Hilderbrand has observed, YouTube has contributed to a culture of the clip that allows viewers to select the specific moments that they wish to watch (and rewatch) in a “new temporality of immediate gratification for audiences.” (( Lucas Hilderbrand, “Youtube: Where Cultural Memory and Copyright Converge” Film Quarterly 61:1 (2007) p49 )) What the ‘Winnebago Man’ points to, however, is the ways in which this culture of the clip forms part of a longer history of collecting and re-presenting ephemeral media that is often ignored or forgotten. In this column, therefore, I would like to consider the ways in which contemporary clip culture relates to earlier attempts to collect and archive the ephemeral clip.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zSWUWPx2VeQ[/youtube]

The Winnebago Man clip

Key to this history is the role of bootleggers and video traders who would swap and trade rare and elusive tapes through fanzines, conventions and mail-order catalogues. These collectors would invest (sub-)cultural capital in texts which existed outside legitimate distribution with a particular emphasis on the peripheral and throwaway. Reminiscent of the collectors of printed ephemera such as John de Monins Johnson who would collect “everything which would ordinarily go into the waste basket after use,” (( “Eavesdropping on the past – the John Johnson Collection: An Archive of Printed Ephemera” (2010) )) these video traders would build up amateur archives of screen detritus from home movies through to corporate training videos. This is the paracinematic audience whom Jeffrey Sconce once famously described as being “more inclined to watch a bootlegged McDonald’s training film than Man with a Movie Camera.” (( Jeffrey Sconce, “‘Trashing’ the Academy: Taste, Excess, and an Emerging Politics of Cinematic Style” Screen 36:4 (1995) p372 ))

Furthermore, this audience were not simply collecting the clips but also producing video mixtapes which would feature a collection of clips from a variety of sources edited together onto a single tape. There is not the space here to go into a detailed history of the video mixtape, or to properly explain how it draws on earlier filmic traditions such as the mondo film, but some of the more significant examples include Cathode Fuck (1986), compiled by Film Threat editor Chris Gore; Amok Assault Video (1989), compiled by underground publisher Amok Press; and Lost & Found Video Night, a ten-volume collection compiled by video distributor 5 Minutes to Live. As David Carter has observed, the status of such compilers suggests that mixtapes “have their origins in the underground film ‘zine culture and, more specifically, in the bootlegging gray market such publications either facilitated or encouraged.” (( David Carter, “The Television Screen is the Retina of the Mind’s Eye: A Look at Video Mixtapes” Not Coming to a Theatre Near You (2010) ))

Lost & Found Video Night

Lost & Found Video Night

Given that the emphasis within the genre is on novelty, it is difficult to identify ‘representative’ clips from this period although some of the more famous examples would include Crispin Glover’s notorious 1987 appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, the Siskel and Ebert outtakes tape, and footage of The Cramps playing at the California State Mental Hospital in Napa. Collecting together these ephemeral moments and assembling them into a (loose) structure, these mixtapes functioned to lend order and coherence to various disparate found footage clips. They also provided a platform where texts that were once fleeting and forgotten could become more accessible.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ALapHYNSmoA[/youtube]

Crispin Glover on Letterman

The main shift, however, happened with the launch of YouTube in 2005 when many of these clips were made widely available online. Functioning as a repository of otherwise unavailable moments of popular culture, YouTube swiftly became the principle site for finding obscure video clips. Yet, as Will Straw has observed in relation to new media more generally, “the gathering up and convergence of cultural artifacts in places of storage and annotation produces particular clusters of cultural authority and weight.” (( Will Straw, “Embedded Memories” in Charles R. Acland (ed.) Residual Media (University of Minnesota Press, 2007) p12 )) As this suggests, the collecting of clips within these amateur archives has much to tell us about the Internet’s relationship to this ephemeral media history.

Indeed, a fetishism has developed around what Lucas Hilderbrand terms “bootleg video aesthetics” (( Lucas Hilderbrand, Inherent Vice: Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright (Duke University Press, 2009) p65 )) where VHS artifacts such as white noise and rainbows of discoloration indexically signal authenticity and are often seen to enrich the text. Various sites such as ‘Everything is Terrible’ or ‘Found Footage Festival’ have appeared which collate and archive ephemeral clips with a specific emphasis on the VHS format. Indeed, Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett who curate the Found Footage Festival have declared that only two rules govern Found Footage Festival:
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.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KUaAqD_0XXU[/youtube]

Found Footage Festival

Note the emphasis here on the materiality of the source format. The tapes are generally salvaged from garage sales and thrift stores with a recent blog entry explaining that they had “Just received a sweet box of tapes from the Birmingham Public Library today. Turns out, libraries are getting rid of their VHS too. We scored Squirrel Time, Beanies For Fun And Profit, Raging Hormones and, best of all, Babies Of The Wild Ones 2. We had no idea there was a sequel!” (( Joe Pickett, “Thank you, Birmingham Public Library!” Found Footage Festival )) Collecting and archiving tapes which would otherwise be discarded, such sites invest value in ‘trash’ VHS material with a particular emphasis on the naïve and ridiculous. Of course, as Pierre Bourdieu reminds us, there is no better indication of cultural capital than the capacity to confer value on objects that are assumed to have none. (( Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (Harvard University Press, 1986) p5 ))

In this age of streaming media, then, these amateur archivists are placing value on the sheer materiality of the videotape which I would argue forms part of a much broader fetishisation of the retro within contemporary culture — from the revival of vinyl records through to the use of apps which make iPhone photos look like Polaroids. Discussing bootleggers, Lucas Hilderbrand notes that “the true collector collects those objects that have to be found (and copied) rather than simply purchased at Best Buy.” (( Lucas Hilderbrand, Inherent Vice: Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright (Duke University Press, 2009) p62 )) In the case of these curators of ephemeral clips, a similar sense of distinction is constructed between the true collector who collects clips from videotapes and the lesser collector who simply searches for clips online.

VHS Collecting

VHS Collecting

To bring this discussion full circle, I would like to conclude by returning to the Winnebago Man. This ephemeral clip of outtakes from a 1989 promotional video has not only been traded by bootleggers, assembled into mixtapes and streamed from YouTube. More recently, it inspired the feature documentary Winnebago Man (2009) which tracked down Jack Rebney and explored the story behind the ‘angriest man in the world.’ Illustrating the complex intersections of media forms prevalent in the contemporary media landscape, the film points to the residual presence of old media within the current culture of the clip.

While it is important, therefore, that we attempt to grasp the latest developments within new media, this should not be at the expense of addressing the palimpsestuous presence of old media within these texts. Ultimately, the proliferation of short-form media on sites like YouTube, often seen solely in terms of the temporal specificities of internet-based platforms, should also be seen in terms of this subterranean history of the ephemeral clip.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NO05RfHO_4s&feature=player_embedded[/youtube]

Winnebago Man – Trailer

Image Credits:

1. Winnebago Man
2. Lost & Found Video Night
3. Found Footage Festival

Please feel free to comment.




“It’s a Very Curious English Thing”: Failed Pilots for American Remakes of British Television
Iain Robert Smith / Roehampton University

The IT Crowd U.S.

The IT Crowd U.S.

In my previous column, I explored the private BitTorrent filesharing communities which share rare and unreleased media online. For my follow-up, I would like to turn my attention to a specific type of bootleg that is often shared by television fans — namely unaired pilots. Related to the interest in ‘what-if’ projects such as Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ill-fated adaptation of Dune, these unaired pilots provide a glimpse into an alternate reality in which Joel McHale plays Roy in The IT Crowd or Craig Bierko takes on the role of Lister in Red Dwarf. As these examples would suggest, it is these failed pilots for American remakes of British television that I find particularly fascinating.

With much of the discussion of cross-cultural format adaptation focused upon the relative success stories such as The Office or Yo Soy Betty, La Fea, I would therefore like to consider what we learn from the failed pilots for American adaptations of British shows such as Spaced, Red Dwarf and The IT Crowd.

Red Dwarf U.S.

Red Dwarf U.S.

There has already been some useful academic work written on U.S.-U.K. adaptations such as Albert Moran’s TV Formats Worldwide (2009), Carlen Lavigne and Heather Marcovitch’s edited collection, American Remakes of British Television: Transformations and Mistranslations (2011), and the various articles and chapters that have appeared on the U.S. adaptation of The Office. Indeed, Alexandra Beeden and Joost de Bruin’s article on the success of that adaptation is emblematic in that they consider “how television format adaptations work through articulations of national identity, and suggest that the success of an adaptation may be linked to its ability to reflect and interpret its new context.” (( Alexandra Beeden and Joost de Bruin, “The Office: Articulations of National Identity in Television Format Adaptation” Television & New Media 11:1 (2010) p1 )) This methodological approach to adaptation as a form of translation considers the role that national identity plays in the success of a cross-cultural adaptation, with The Office often held up as an example of a British series which was successfully adapted for the American context.

Conversely, given that I am interested in shows which failed to travel across the Atlantic, the focus would logically shift onto the ways in which the failure of an adaptation can be attributed to its lack of success in adapting to the new national context. I am wary of using a comparative textual approach to establish this, however. There is a danger that I simply end up attributing the failure of these adaptations to some vague notion of Britishness (or, indeed, Americanness) that I identify in the text — an approach that runs the risk of being both reductive and essentialist. Instead, I plan to utilise the methodology used by Tejaswini Ganti in her work on Bollywood remakes (( Tejaswini Ganti was attempting to move away from studies of Bollywood remakes which would simply compare the Hindi film with the Hollywood original by instead studying the ways in which Hindi filmmakers think about and construct their audiences through interviews and field research. )) to consider how this imagined difference is constructed by the cast and crew who worked on the U.K. series. As Ganti (herself drawing upon Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson) argues, such an approach allows us “to turn from a project of juxtaposing pre-existing differences to one of exploring the construction of differences in historical process.” (( Tejaswini Ganti, “And Yet My Heart Is Still Indian: The Bombay Film Industry and the (H)Indianization of Hollywood” in Faye D. Ginsbury et al Media Worlds: Anthropology on New Terrain (New Jersey: University of California Press, 2002) p282 ))

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A1uTqA9jWWE[/youtube]

Red Dwarf U.S. Pilot

Perhaps the most notorious failed pilot was the 1992 attempt to make an American adaptation of the cult British science-fiction series Red Dwarf. Produced and written by Linwood Boomer — who would later go on to great success with Malcolm in the Middle — the pilot had Robert Llewellyn reprising his role as Kryten, along with a new cast consisting of Craig Bierko as Lister, Chris Eigeman as Rimmer, Hinton Battle as Cat, and Jane Leeves (of future Frasier fame) as Holly (( It should be noted that there were actually two U.S. pilots for Red Dwarf produced with the second pilot featuring a pre-DS9 Terry Farrell in the role of a female Cat while Anthony Fuscle takes on the role of Rimmer. )). Response to the pilot was far from positive with even Craig Bierko later arguing that this was “a horrible Americanisation of a truly brilliant British show.” (( Craig Bierko [interview] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jnWxdbW9tXY )) What interests me here is not so much judging whether Bierko is correct in his assessment, but rather considering the reasons that have been put forward for this failure. Craig Charles, whom Craig Bierko replaced in the role of Lister, suggests that the failure came down to issues of national identity, arguing: “It’s a very curious English thing, Red Dwarf. It’s… very rooted in the British class system… Rimmer aspiring to be officer class and Lister is just a greasemonkey, sort of working class, and that doesn’t quite translate to America really.” (( Craig Charles [interview] in Dwarfing U.S.A. (2004) )) Similarly, Chris Barrie, who played Rimmer on the U.K. series, argues that the reason for the failure was that “Lister and Rimmer are very strong English types” (( Chris Barries [interview] in Dwarfing U.S.A. (2004) )), again implying that the central character dynamic is nationally specific and could not successfully translate to an American series. I am not trying to establish whether these were the actual reasons for Red Dwarf’s failure to get picked up, but rather attempting to consider how these discussions construct imagined distinctions between British and American television around national identity.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YDsdBB1LUto[/youtube]

Spaced U.S. Pilot

This emphasis on nationally specific characteristics is further articulated in the response to the American adaptation of Spaced. Produced in 2008, this remake of the cult British comedy was made without the involvement of its creators Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes. Executive produced by McG (leading some commentators to dub this version McSpaced), the pilot cast Josh Lawson and Sara Rue in the lead roles as strangers who pose as a married couple to rent an apartment. The American pilot actually followed the scripts for the first British show fairly closely, but writer Pegg felt that this was ultimately unsuccessful: “I think that the people that made it completely, utterly misread what the original was about.” (( Simon Pegg (as cited in) Pegg: ‘Spaced USA was painful to watch’ http://www.digitalspy.co.uk/tv/news/a211132/pegg-spaced-usa-was-painful-to-watch.html )) Clarifying this, Edgar Wright, who directed the U.K. series, proposed that an American remake was actually impossible for the “same reason that it couldn’t be a film”, arguing that “part of the charm of Spaced is [that] it’s people in north London acting out stuff from American films.” (( Edgar Wright [interview] Spaced on Stage – BFI Spaced Reunion )) In other words, the cultural dynamic would be lost if it was actually Americans acting out scenes from American films.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SVuR4NxdaxI[/youtube]

The IT Crowd U.S. Pilot

Finally, we have the 2007 American remake of The IT Crowd. Like the Red Dwarf pilot, the U.S. producers decided to retain one of the principle cast members — Richard Ayoade as Moss — and keep much of the script of the original series. Indeed, for series creator Graham Linehan the lack of an attempt to ‘translate’ the series for the U.S. context was the reason for its failure. According to Linehan, “The IT Crowd is a very British show in the sense that it comes from a tradition of surreal sitcom that doesn’t really have an equivalent in America. The only point in a mainstream U.S. network taking on a show like this would be to reinvent it from the ground up.” (( Graham Linehan, “Notes on The U.S. IT Crowd” http://whythatsdelightful.wordpress.com/2007/10/18/notes-on-the-us-it-crowd/ ))

What we have in all three cases is the suggestion that there is something intrinsically British in these shows that wouldn’t work in the American context. In other words, the discourse around these failed pilots constructs certain ideas about what is distinctive about British television, such as the British class system, the tradition of the surreal sitcom, or even the cultural dynamic itself between Britain and America. Reflecting Beeden and de Bruin’s assertion that “the success of an adaptation may be linked to its ability to reflect and interpret its new context,” the creative team in each example are suggesting that the failure of these adaptations may be the result of a failure to sufficiently transform the show for its new context.

So, in the interest of opening this up for further discussion, I would like to end with a few questions: What do these failed pilots tell us about the distinctiveness of British television? Are these characteristics related to specific industrial histories? Can we identify these differences textually without simply reproducing essentialist and reductive notions of national identity? I look forward to discussing this further in the comments.

Image Credits:

1. The IT Crowd
2. Red Dwarf

Please feel free to comment.




Bootleg Archives: Notes on BitTorrent Communities and Issues of Access
Iain Robert Smith / Roehampton University

The Pirate Bay
The Pirate Bay

Since the early years of VHS, a limited grey market has developed around films which are not available to buy through legitimate channels — a market that has expanded considerably with the advent of peer-to-peer filesharing on the internet. While much of the scholarly debate around filesharing has focused on the downloading of the latest films and TV shows, I would like to use my first column to argue that it is time we pay attention to the vast range of previously lost and forgotten films which are being circulated through paracinematic BitTorrent communities.

Before I get into the wider implications of this phenomenon, I should acknowledge that these communities have benefited me as a researcher. The topic of my PhD research — global film adaptations of American popular culture such as the 1966 Filipino film James Batman and the 1973 Turkish remake of Star Trek (( For further discussion of this film, see Iain Robert Smith, “Beam me up, Ömer: Transnational media flow and the cultural politics of the Turkish Star Trek remake” Velvet Light Trap 61 (Spring 2008) )) — meant that I was working on a large number of films which have never been given an official release on VHS, let alone DVD. For a long time, the only way to access these films was by trading nth-generation dubs with fellow collectors.

What has changed in recent years is that private BitTorrent communities such as Cinemageddon and Karagarga are allowing these amateur archivists to share their collections online and thereby make them freely available to all who have registered with the tracker. In doing so, these communities have developed informal bootleg archives with tens of thousands of rare and hard-to-find titles available at the click of a mouse.

Turist Ömer Uzay Yolunda

Turist Ömer Uzay Yolunda (1973)

Now, various scholars have debated the ethics of filesharing and I don’t really want to focus on those debates here, although perhaps that may be something for the comments. Instead, what I’d like to consider is that these informal networks of collectors are sharing material that has been otherwise inaccessible, fansubbing material which has been unavailable with subtitles, and, thereby, are potentially reshaping our understanding of underexplored areas of world cinema history.

Given that Anglophone scholarship on national cinemas has been largely focused on films which have gained some form of international distribution and been subtitled in English, one of the strengths of these online communities is that they function to widen access to areas of world cinema that do not tend to leave the domestic market. As Dina Iordanova has recently argued, “we operate with a flawed understanding of the dynamics of world cinema, and… the field of film studies would greatly benefit from the introduction of more acute peripheral vision.” (( Dina Iordanova, “Rise of the Fringe: Global Cinema’s Long Tail” in Dina Iordanova, David Martin-Jones and Belen Vidal (eds.) Cinema at the Periphery (Wayne State University Press, 2010) p23 )) From the most obscure Italian giallos through to even rarer 1970s Turkish action films, private BitTorrent trackers such as Cinemageddon and Karagarga are offering a library of peripheral titles which are otherwise near impossible to track down. According to Karagarga’s manifesto, they are focused on “creating a comprehensive library of Arthouse, Cult, Classic, Experimental and rare movies from all over the world” (( See the full manifesto at http://karagarga.net/manifesto.php )) and with nearly 60,000 titles available they are getting increasingly close to that goal.

Of course, in many ways this is nothing new. For a long time, the bootleg market has offered an alternative to the mainstream channels of film distribution. Ranging from films which have been banned from distribution through to films which have simply never received any form of official release, the trade in bootlegs has played a role in providing access to films which would otherwise be inaccessible. Often relying on a broad interpretation of the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, traders such as the now defunct ‘Superhappyfun’ would provide films to collectors with the proviso that, “If a film should become available domestically, or if another seller should offer a better copy, we immediately stop offering it to our clients.” (( ‘Superhappyfun’ as cited in Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Global Discoveries on DVD: Ambiguous Legalities, Gambles, Lucky Breaks, and Box Sets” Cinemascope 21 Available at http://www.cinema-scope.com/cs21/col_rosenbaum_dvd.htm ))

What has shifted, however, is the sheer scale of material being traded, and the ease of access that is being provided through the P2P networks. As William Uricchio has observed, “P2P networks thrive in a dehierarchized, decentralized and distributed organizational environment and require collectivity and collaboration as conditions of existence.” (( William Uricchio, “Beyond the Great Divide” International Journal of Cultural Studies 7:1 (March 2004) p87 )) Given that a dedicated group of people are working on tracking down rare films, translating the dialogue and creating fan-subtitles for the community, this reflects what Henry Jenkins has described as the “collective intelligence of media fans” (( Henry Jenkins, “Interactive Audiences? The ‘Collective Intelligence’ of Media Fans” in Henry Jenkins, Fans Bloggers and Gamers (NYU Press, 2002) )) whereby fans are using new media technologies to archive, appropriate and recirculate media content.

We should be wary, however, of seeing this simply in terms of a utopian participatory culture. Too often debates around filesharing position pirated films as a form of resistance to global media conglomerates so that the “waking nightmares of Hollywood honchos swiftly become swashbuckling adventure stories.” (( Barbara Klinger, “Contraband Cinema: Piracy, Titanic and Central Asia” Cinema Journal 49:2 (Winter 2010) p107 )) Instead, what we have with these BitTorrent communities is a more ambivalent dynamic in which the trackers are providing access to rare or unavailable material but the creators of the films — who are often as far from Hollywood as can be — are not getting any financial support. There is also the further problem in that the availability of bootlegs can potentially make it uneconomical for distributors to license and restore films for official release.

Rampage

Korkusuz (Rampage, 1986)

I would like to end therefore with the example of Korkusuz (1986), a Turkish reworking of Rambo (1982) which was released on DVD by Dark Maze Studios in 2009 under the title Rampage. Licensed from the filmmakers and provided with a new English language track, the film was uploaded to BitTorrent sites within two weeks of its release. Upset that his DVD was being pirated, Dark Maze head Ed Glaser asked to have the film removed from BitTorrent communities, arguing, “Look, I am not ‘The Man.’ I have a full time, regular day job that supports my ability to make films. People who pirate my movies are not sticking it to anybody. They’re just robbing someone of his dream to make a living doing what he loves.” (( See Ed Glaser’s full statement at http://www.darkmaze.com/post/a-message-from-ed )) The comments were not heeded, however, and the film continued to be shared online for free.

Ultimately, then, with home distribution shifting towards a streaming model that potentially closes out whole swathes of film history, (( As Wheeler Winston Dixon discussed in his FLOW column on June 9th )) these filesharing communities offer a makeshift archive of rare material that provides access to films that might otherwise be forgotten. As the example of Korkusuz indicates, however, while these communities are providing access to rare and obscure material, there are still a number of ethical issues surrounding this model of sharing that are yet to be resolved.

Image Credits:

1.The Pirate Bay
2.Turist Ömer Uzay Yolunda (1973)
3.Korkusuz (Rampage, 1986)

Please feel free to comment.