Monday, December 15, 2008
Scandinavian Santa versus the Ice Cream Bunny. Santa the Ambassador, teaching African children about the great United States.
That’s the stuff of “Holy Yule: Santa in a Strange Land,” a film of mashed-up arcane video that’s touring the Midwest, with a stop at the Jackpot on December 18.
The 65-minute film may the most mind-blowing, and painful, Christmas special ever made, featuring bootlegged stuff like the never-rebroadcast, universally panned 1978 “Star Wars Holiday Special” and garage sale treasures like “Miss Velma’s Christmas,” a low-budget special filmed on a stage with puppets and Indian costumes.
It started, like most great things, with a man from Utah whom some people would regard as a nut.
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A segment of Blair Sterrett’s collection fills his apartment in Provo, Utah. The rest is scattered between a vacant apartment his parents own, a storage unit, and the apartment of his friend who produces the film mash-ups.
Sterrett, a 32-year-old animation student at Brigham Young University with a master’s degree from The Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont, started his collection in about 9th grade. Initially interested in music, he developed a taste for the obscure that took him far beyond the conventional weirdness of American indie bands. He’d collect foreign albums that used a non-Western musical scale, for instance, and “industrial musicals” never meant to be sold.
“When corporations would have conventions to get their employees and buyers hyped up, they’d put on musicals, release a record of it, and give this record to an attendant as a souvenir,” he explains. “There are musicals out there about Xerox machines and bathrooms and silicone and Vaseline.”
He began hosting an esoteric radio show in Ogden, Utah, on the Weber State University college station. And he started hunting for unusual video as well. “I became really obsessed with ephemeral culture, things that came and went and disappeared. I somehow felt a strange mission in life to collect this stuff,” he says. “It is history, but it’s the kind people don’t think about preserving or remembering. I have a Wendy’s training video about how to fry hamburgers, set to rap music.”
He traveled to Taiwan on his Mormon mission trip and was paired with Tyrone Davies. As they went around together spreading the word of God, they began talking about strange music and movies and found a lot in common.
After moving to Salt Lake City for college, Davies began collaborating with Sterrett and adding to his collection. Eventually he came up with a way to showcase it. He would cut out the most interesting segments of several videos, which are often painful to watch in their entirety, and splice them into a single program that would run about the length of a feature film. He set up free monthly “Out/Ex” screenings in Salt Lake City, alternating between programs cut together from outsider films—those made by people outside of the film industry—and experimental films.
“We try to cut it to the point where people will say, ‘I can’t believe how bad this is,’ but they’re laughing the whole way through,” Davies says. “If we were to show the whole Christmas special, it would probably just become torture for them.”
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In attendance at one of the Out/Ex screenings was Tawnya Mosier, a film archivist at the University of Utah (she has since taken a position as a digital preservationist).
Sterrett had been looking for someone to house and preserve part of the Lost Media Archive, as he has come to call his continuously expanding collection, and Mosier liked the idea of adding it to the university’s archives, especially the films recorded on odd or short-lived formats like SelectaVision and View-Master.
“It’s important precisely because it’s not the best stuff,” Mosier says. “Part of an archivist’s job is to collect everything and let people in the future decide what’s important.”
Another aficionado of strange film who attended one of the Out/Ex screenings, Dorothy Delgado, was so inspired that she volunteered to help Sterrett, developing the Lost Media Archive MySpace and Blogspot pages, promoting the monthly programs and helping him come up with new ideas for the archive—she recently helped him put together a Christmas compilation album, for instance. Sterrett calls her “Secretary Dottie.”
“When he showed me the archive, I was like a kid in a candy store,” Delgado says, “just seeing how much junk culture exists, how many people record their own movies, music, people doing it for fun, people who are hoping to make it.”
The final step in bring a sampling of the collection to Lawrence occurred when documentary filmmaker Ryan Wylie heard about the archive from Davies, whom he had met in the film lab when they were students at University of Missouri. Wylie liked the stuff so much that he started a tour. Calling it the Free Form Film Festival, he goes from city to city showing the compilation programs, rounding out the events with a band that plays after each screening (in Lawrence it’ll be Brooklyn-based musician Felili).
“Right now the film festival is a labor of love still,” Wylie says. “We’ve been doing it in a very indie way. It’ll sustain itself at some point.”
Davies, who lives in San Francisco now, wants to open a gallery dedicated to the collection. Wylie has a notion of turning it into an internet TV station. Sterrett is in the process of getting material ready to hand over to the University of Utah library.