‘Stand By for Tape Back-Up’: Fantastic Fest Review

Ross Sutherland uses a decaying videotape as the trigger for emotional reflections.

A remarkable cine-essay in which personal grief is mediated by a seemingly indiscriminate sampling of prerecorded artifacts, poet/performer Ross Sutherland‘s Stand By for Tape Back-Up hits especially close to home for the VHS-fetishizing, middle-aged men who constitute Fantastic Fest’s core demographic. The distinction between artifice and authentic memoir becomes close to irrelevant here, as our guide speaks sometimes haltingly and sometimes with fluid insistence over videotaped broadcasts from his youth, compiling scenes and observations into both a self-portrait and an elegy for his grandfather. After attracting attention as a live performance event at venues like the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, this standalone film should slowly build a cult of admirers at fests.

The conceit (which is difficult to believe but may in fact be true) is that the scenes played onscreen are all material contained on a single VHS tape — one Sutherland’s grandfather bought when he first got a recorder in the ‘80s, used haphazardly for years, and left behind after his death a few years ago. Addressing us in an offscreen voiceover as he will throughout, Sutherland explains that the first thing the family taped was Ghostbusters, and that when they recorded subsequent programs over that, nobody bothered to rewind all the way to the beginning or to start new recordings where the previous one ended.

The Bottom Line

A singular and strangely moving essay film.

The first taste of the author’s technique comes when he focuses the next thing on the tape, the credits sequence for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. At first, he seems to be musing freely on his experience of his grandfather’s death, on how he unwittingly reacted to the news as he had seen countless actors do it on TV over the years. But then he rewinds the credits, plays them again several times, and the imagery in his recollections syncs up neatly with the action onscreen while his delivery becomes rap-like. In composing a monologue that resonates with a totally unrelated bit of pop culture, he intentionally replicates that famous piece of this-can’t-be-accidental synchronicity, the Wizard of Oz / Dark Side of the Moon mashup.

Sutherland proceeds through a handful of other taped fragments, from an old British game show to the opening minutes of Jaws, talking and rewinding/fastforwarding throughout. The most personally revealing chunk turns a chipper ad for the National Westminster Bank into an account of alcohol abuse and workaday despair during “the worst four years of my life.”

For one stretch, after discussing how a hard drive crash wiped treasured photos and music from his life forever, Sutherland speaks for some time over the blank blue screen of a VCR whose playback has been stopped. Intentional or fortuitous, it’s an echo of Derek Jarman‘s meditation on his own impending death in Blue. Jarman’s film referred to the partial blindness he suffered as AIDS slowly killed him, and Sutherland’s subject eventually proves to be similar kinds of loss — his grandfather’s dementia, his own deleted memories, the “invisible shark” that proved to be more terrifying than the faulty prop that nearly ruined Jaws. Though he’s coping with things far less terrifying than Jarman was, and allowing himself considerably more sentiment (self-pity, even), the result is oddly moving and unlike any film in recent memory.

Director-Screenwriter: Ross Sutherland

Producers-Editors: Ross Sutherland, Charlie Lyne

No rating, 64 minutes