One of the most unusual documentaries ever to grace Fantastic Fest was the highly experimental Stand by for Tape Backup. This extremely unconventional, yet incredibly deep comment on the visual media in society is also this year’s winner of the festival’s Audience Award for its description of profound life effects on one man.
Stand by for Tape Backup begins with the opening credits of The Wizard of Oz played against Pink Floyd as writer/director Ross Sutherland repeats the idea of how the band’s “Dark Side of the Moon” album synchronizes perfectly with the classic film as every action on screen echoes the music and lyrics. Sutherland then proceeds to describe how he has applied the practice using theories and poetry to a collection of popular films, TV shows, and commercials. Beyond this though, the writer/director has used this method as a way of reaching back and dealing with some of the more heavy events of his past.
The hour long documentary seemed to have something of a cartoonish vibe at its start, almost like the idea was originated by a bored college stoner on a late Saturday night. It wasn’t that long until the innovative qualities of Sutherland’s experiment took shape however, and soon after, it became clear that the director had managed to take film & TV analysis to a whole new level.
The various readings Sutherland gives to the classic 1990s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is particularly impressive with regard to the many theories he conjures up solely by watching and replaying the theme song. The most fascinating of all of these was the idea that the show’s lead, Will Smith, hit the ground and was killed by the thugs in one of the early shots and how the rest of the theme song was actually his after-life, with Philadelphia now taking the place of Bel-Air.
Sutherland takes a much darker turn when he relates his bouts with alcoholism and depression as well as the development of asthma to his time working for a large bank in London. Described as a time when everyone started looking dead to him, the documentarian uses one of the bank’s old recruiting commercials to relay the monotonous, rather soul-sucking existence he lived during his time of employment. The huge disconnect between the optimistic images featuring a young bank employee describing how joyous his work is and the sheer manic and despair-filled reality Sutherland describes with a silent hostility alone is worth viewing the film for.
According to Sutherland, the connection between all these images is a VHS tape left to him by his deceased grandfather who suffered from dementia before passing away in 2007. Its only fitting then, if you think about it, that one of the final items on the tape is the iconic Michael Jackson music video “Thriller,” which the director uses as a sad melancholic tribute to his grandfather. While the analysis here seems a bit far fetched, Sutherland turns this part of the documentary into a fascinating Poe-like meditation on the afterlife, his own mortality and how the videotape has become his literal lifeline, as well as the last remaining connection to his grandfather.
Stand by for Tape Backup certainly speaks a lot to the way an entire generation raised on video and TV relates to such human aspects of the real world such as life and death. I found it impressive to no end that Sutherland was able to create this insightful piece of art out of a seemingly random collection of such well-known shows and movies his grandfather recorded on a tape and then left to him. For me, I had to wonder if the reason they are such popular milestones in the first place is perhaps because so many of us are able to subconsciously relate the kinds of images and worlds which are larger than life to ourselves.