Fantastic Fest Review: Stand By For Tape Back-up – A Visual Essay On Life, Death, Memories As Found On A VHS Tape



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Be kind and rewind, but expect tracking lines

Stand by for Tape Back-up is the type of film that should only be viewed in a theater setting and preferably with a live performance by its creator, Ross Sutherland. I was fortunate enough to do the former but sadly not the latter. Now I wonder how much of a difference Sutherland’s performance would have enhanced the experience.

Tape Back-up is an experimental visual essay where Sutherland asks philosophical questions about coincidence and patterns, life and death. With an overly strong attachment to the 1984 comedy Ghostbusters (it was his first movie), Sutherland questions this experience and having watched it with his grandfather for five consecutive days at a matinee when he was only four years old. At that age he couldn’t understand comedy let alone Slimmer, the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man or “What a Bill Murray was,” as he puts it. Can’t say I disagree. My own experiences of watching mechanical spiders shoot acid and a villainous Gene Simmons in Michael Crichton’s Runaway, it scared the bejesus out of me when I was five years old.

The images we see on television and in movies make quite an impression but the impression they leave can change as the memories of said images fade or, in the case of tape playback, become riddled with tracking lines.

Opening on a blue screen, familiar to anyone who has ever owned a VCR, the first scene is the famous experiment of playing The Wizard of Oz and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, and creating “The Dark Side of Oz.” But the combination of Pink Floyd’s lyrics and Victor Fleming’s film can’t just be a coincidence, especially the synchronicity that exists in the scene where the Scarecrow sings “If I Only Had a Brain” and have Floyd’s “Brain Damage” play in its place.

This starting point allows Sutherland to segue into autobiographical musings involving a VHS tape owned by his grandfather. Now this is the only VHS tape his grandfather owned, and the tape was used and re-used to tape programs from television. As Sutherland explains, the recordings would overlap due to constant use and never cueing to the beginning of the tape or at the end of a previous program. When Sutherland’s grandfather passes he inherited the tape and it got shelved away for years. But rediscovering the VHS tape allows Sutherland to reflect back and make a tangible connection on how the scattershot images with tracking lines throughout relates to his own life.

Over the course of one hour, Sutherland shuttles forward, rewinds, slow-mos and pauses the tape. The results are all over the place. The first word that springs to mind is frustrating. There’s one sequence where Bill Murray’s shocked expression at locating Slimmer in the hotel hallway is up on screen for at least five minutes.

Confused? Don’t worry. Some will be mesmerized (as I was) or become bored and find it meaningless. Those who stick with it will get to see the opening credits to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air close to a dozen times and listen to Sutherland’s espousals about how it’s not just about Will Smith making the trip from Philadelphia to Bel-Air to live with relatives. The intro may very well be about moving to a celestial plane of existence.
Also on the tape is a portion from a game show called The Crystal Maze, a commercial advertisement for a banking establishment, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video, and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Ross Sutherland’s poetry background is of great benefit as he espouses about different thoughts and ideas and have them contextualize with the images that pass by again and again and again.

Stand by for Tape Back-up is sometimes funny, sometimes sad, but always reflective. Ross Sutherland has created a visual experiment that is unlikely to matched foreseeably. Unless someone just happened to be kind, rewind and record a Taylor Swift music video.

Director: Ross Sutherland
Writer(s): Ross Sutherland

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