The Horror, Piglet, The Horror
Found Footage, Mash-Ups, AMVs, the avant-garde, and the Strange Case of Apocalypse Pooh
Scott MacKenzie (Cineaction 72 2007)
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a sea change was underway in avant-garde and experimental cinema. While many ‘old-guard’ critics lamented the death of the avant-garde as a meaningful force (Fred Camper’s essay “The End of Avant-Garde Film” in the twentieth anniversary issue of the Millennium Film Journal comes to mind as a salient example)2, a new generation of experimental and avant-garde filmmakers were re-imagining what the avant-garde could and should become. The arrival of feminist, queer and ideological critiques in regards to both avant-garde theory and practice, along with a newfound concern with popular culture and politics, lead to a radical re-imagining of the avant-garde. Perhaps most (in)famously, this at times Oedipal battle played itself out at the “Experimental Film Congress” held in Toronto in 1989, where the new and old guards vied for control over the direction of experimental and avant-garde film.3 One of the key reasons that the avant-garde was seen by ‘old boys’ (or, less generously, ‘almost-dead white men’) as being embalmed and buried had quite a bit to do with these newfound political and popular concerns, and a concurrent move away from high-Modernist preoccupations with film’s formal elements to the exclusion of all else. One of the key ways this shift was articulated was in the rise and relative popularity of found footage films.4 William C. Wees offers an insightful and succinct definition of avant-garde found footage filmmaking:
While found footage films can be traced back through the history of the cinema—with works such as Esther Schub’s The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927) and Charles Ridley’s Swinging the Lambeth Walk (1941) —their emergence as one of the dominant forms of avant-garde filmmaking in the late 1980s and early 1990s points to the fact that the texts and images that inspired this new generation of experimental filmmakers were strikingly divergent from those of their predecessors. Indeed, part of the disdain evinced by commentators like Camper speaks to the move away from the avant-garde auteur as a solitary visionary and a move towards the filmmaker as a cultural worker and critic who is deeply influenced by and engages with popular and mainstream culture. And indeed, this feeling of disdain between the old and the new was mutual. Abigail Child, one of the new generation of avant-garde filmmakers, and who has made found footage films, writes of her first experiences with ‘old school’ avant-garde filmmaking while in college:
While Child eventually came to admire Brakhage’s work, her early experience speaks to the break between past and present taking place in the avant-garde film world. Indeed, one of the many liberating aspects of found footage film was that the means of production were fairly easily to obtain, especially with the advent of video. And with this newfound accessibility, the Situationist process of détournement came to the forefront of found footage aesthetics. As case in point: filmmaker Todd Graham made Apocalypse Pooh (1987) as an OCAD (Ontario College of Art and Design) student in the 1980s. One of the true ‘underground’ films (it has never had any sort of official release), Graham re-edited cartoons from Walt Disney’s Winnie the Pooh series of featurettes, released between 1966 and 1977, drawing his détourned images mostly from the first film in the series, Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree (Wolfgang Reitherman, 1966) and the Academy Award winning second short, Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day (Reitherman, 1968). He also drew on the live-action framing sequence from the film that was made for the compilation film bringing together the three featurettes: The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (Reitherman and John Lounsbery, 1977). Graham then dialectically juxtaposed these images with the soundtrack—along with a few live-action images—from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). At key moments, Graham reversed these détourned juxtapositions, deploying images from Coppola’s film, and sounds from Reitherman’s animated featurettes.
The Strange Tale of Apocalypse Pooh
As an ‘underground’ film, Apocalypse Pooh had two, unrelated audiences in the pre-Internet era, before its envelopment by the digital world: on the one hand, Graham’s film played in some ‘underground’ and contemporary art forums such as Toronto’s Pleasure Dome collective and the Whitney Museum in New York; on the other hand, Apocalypse Pooh also had a sizeable fan following derived from screenings at comic book conventions.8 In the days before the Internet, Apocalypse Pooh was widely bootlegged, passed around and traded on VHS (other films, such as Todd Haynes’ Superstar: The Life of Karen Carpenter  or John Greyson’s The Making of ‘Monsters’ , had similar modes of distribution, but in the first instance were screened at festivals, and only later went ‘underground’ as legal issues ensued). One could see Graham’s film as an instantiation of comic geek, Situationist samizdat.
Yet the film also spoke to a very different audience. Apocalypse Pooh was made at a time where the potential convergence of various imaging technologies was seen as opening radical new possibilities for critical representational strategies in the purported age of postmodernism. As Dot Tuer and Michael Balser wrote in their program notes for the Pleasure Dome ‘High Tech/Low Tech: Bodies in Space, An Open Forum on Film and Video Aesthetics’ program, at which Apocalypse Pooh was screened in 1992:
Here, one can again see the schism between the old guard and vanguard avant-gardes in detail. While much of the ‘visionary film’ school of experimental cinema was profoundly concerned with purity of form, new avant-garde films and filmmakers examined with a critical glee the interstitial nature of moving image technologies. Barriers between media were seen to be disintegrating and therefore the epistemological issues surrounding images shifted from philosophical questions as to the nature of the ‘real’ (be it material, psychological or spiritual) to larger questions about the nature of moving images themselves and their intertextuality and interconnectedness.
Piglet doesn’t get the last word, however. Graham returns to live action and cut to images of Marlon Brando as Captain Kurtz, rubbing his bald skull, but from his mouth emerges the depressive bleating of Eeyore, the donkey, saying, “Thanks for nothing” (to be fair, Eeyore makes far more sense than Kurtz in Coppola’s film). Further usurping Brando’s dialogue is the replacement of Kurtz/Brando’s infamous line “The horror, the horror” with Pooh’s “Oh, bother; oh, bother”, repeated as Graham cuts to an image of Willard’s head emerging camouflaged in the river. Then, he cuts to a final live-action image of a stuffed Pooh bear (taken from the conclusion of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh), superimposed with the title “The End.”
Détournement and the Nature of ‘Stars’
One of the things that Apocalypse Pooh draws into relief is the iconic status of A.A. Milne’s characters. While much of the humour generated by Apocalypse Pooh comes from the détournement of Coppola’s film, this Situationist process also foregrounds the fact that the Pooh characters have a star status similar to iconic figures such as Marilyn Monroe or John Wayne (or, for that matter, Marlon Brando and Dennis Hopper). It does not matter that viewers may not know or recall the narrative of Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day; instead the film foregrounds the way in which Pooh, Piglet, Christopher Robin, Tigger and the other Milne characters are understood as larger than the roles played in the films themselves. As Richard Dyer notes:
Animated characters who, in essence, only exist as screen stars and not as real individuals) raise salient questions about what spectators believe stars to embody, and what they project into them, in an often unreflective popular culture. Certainly, despite the fact that Pooh and his cohorts are lines on paper, they have an existence outside of the animated world. As director Chuck Jones notes about the animated ‘star’ Daffy Duck in relation to his classic deconstruction of the character in his film Duck Amuck (1953): “[ . . . ] Daffy can live and struggle on an empty screen, without setting and without sound, just as well as with a lot of arbitrary props. He remains Daffy Duck.”12 Animated characters exist in the imagination of viewers and in these imaginings have personalities and ideological positions that extend beyond the diegesis of the text. Indeed, the plethora of marketing campaigns that employ animated ‘stars’ points to their existence as ‘personalities’ outside of the narratives of their film appearances. Indeed, it is this very excess that makes Apocalypse Pooh a humorous film. One is not simply listening to, say, Martin Sheen’s voice-over as if spoken by Winnie the Pooh; one is also watching the incongruity of Pooh thinking, “Shit, I’m still in Saigon.” Furthermore, while one needs to be familiar with the narrative of Apocalypse Now for the film to make sense, one does not have to be a cinéphile on the scale of Godard for the film to work. Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day may not be ‘quoted’ in Histoire(s) du cinéma (1987-97); this isn’t necessary for the viewer to understand the détournement that is taking place. One only needs to be familiar with the ‘stars’ that populate the Hundred Acre Forest; indeed, Graham’s film foregrounds the fact that our knowledge of the characters is greater than our knowledge of the films from which they come. It’s this knowledge that allows for us to understand the détournement of both Apocalypse Now and Winnie the Pooh; it’s Graham’s ability to make the familiar unfamiliar through humorous dialectical juxtapositions, or as Wees put it, to “reveal more about their [the images] origins and uses than their original makers consciously intended” that uncovers the underlying truths of both films and the way they function in culture in their ‘naturalized’ forms.
Mash-ups, AMVs and the avant-garde
What is also of interest about Apocalypse Pooh is the way in which it blurs the boundaries between the analog and the digital. Which raises the question: To what degree can Apocalypse Pooh be seen as the Ur-text or progenitor of today’s ubiquitous mash-ups (such as trailer mash-ups, where a film is re-cut into a new trailer, which typically dramatically changes the genre of the film) and AMVs (Anime Music Videos, where animated footage, most often from Japanese Anime films, is re-cut to a new soundtrack)? While mash-ups and AMVs are now ubiquitous on-line, and made all the easier with the advent of iMovie, Moviemaker, Final Cut Pro and Avid, Apocalypse Pooh has taken on the status as the genus of these forms. Indeed, Apocalypse Pooh has gained a second life on-line, looked upon as both the progenitor and primitive form of mashups and AMVs. In the digital realm, the ‘breakthrough’ success of trailer mash-ups as viral videos (videos that spread wide and rapidly through the Internet) can be traced to the 2005 mash-up of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). Here, video jockey Robert Ryang recuts the Kubrick film into a trailer for a feelgood, family film, where Jack Nicholson is softened and finds a kind of happiness through meeting a young boy, as Peter Gabriel’s ‘Salisbury Hill’ plays in the background. The détournement of the Kubrick film foregrounds the re-narrativization that most often takes place in trailers, and in so doing, also calls into question the ways in which moving images signify and the tenuous relationship between images and the way they are anchored by the soundtrack. Trailer re-mixes and mash-ups also bring to light the fact that film trailers have always been, to a certain extent, found footage films. On sites such as ifilm, there are now a plethora of such trailer mash-ups and re-mixes, such as: 2007’s When Harry Stalked Sally (When Harry Met Sally re-cut as Fatal Attraction); Joe Sabia’s 2007 mash-up Good Will Hunted (Good Will Hunting re-cut as a thriller); Chris Rule’s 2006 film Scary Mary Poppins (Mary Poppins as a horror film); Dennis Lyall-Wison’s 2006 trailer mash-up Scary in Seattle (Sleepless in Seattle as, yet again, Fatal Attraction); and Chocolate Cake City’s 2006 Brokeback to the Future (the Back to the Future series re-mixed as a queer romance). AMVs have taken the found footage ethos into a DIY, competitive form, with practices such as ‘AMV Iron Chef’ competitions, where two video jockeys are given the same source material to re-edit or détourne in a fixed amount of time. The transmogrification of avant-garde found footage films into popular forms, such as mash-ups, trailer re-mixes and AMVs is in no way a new development; an interstitial relationship between the avant-garde and the mainstream has existed since the cinema’s inception (Chaplin’s appropriation by the avant-garde is a key example; Apocalypse Pooh itself is another). Much the way the works of Brakhage, Kenneth Anger, Bruce Conner and Bruce Baillie can be seen as key stylistic forbearers to the aesthetic of the music video and MTV, Graham’s work, and that of found footage filmmakers such as Keith Sanborn, Craig Baldwin, Peggy Awesh and Matthias Müller—amongst many others—can be seen as the avant-garde precursors to the DIY emergence of found footage mash-ups and AMVs on-line (indeed, in tracing these various Ur-histories, one could also argue that the concluding twenty minutes of Coppola’s The Godfather, Part III (1990) is a mash-up of the first two Godfather films and Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana).13 And, like many found footage films produced by the avant-garde, mash-ups and video jockeys are developing a self-reflexive, participatory, critical and political edge. In a recent article in The Guardian on mash-ups and video jockeying Danny Bradbury notes:
Instead of arguing that the avant-garde is being appropriated, tamed, denaturalized or otherwise corrupted by its incorporation into the mainstream, perhaps one should instead celebrate the fact that, like the appropriations made by found footage filmmakers of popular culture, the avant-garde practices undertaken by DIY video jockeys, mash-up artists and AMV producers speak not to a dilution of radical art and aesthetics, but its termite-like function as a means of critique within the quasi-mainstream. If something as honey-sweet as Winnie the Pooh can be détourned and then celebrated by the avant-garde, comic geeks and on-line artists, then perhaps there are still points of resistance against the ideological conformity triumphed as ‘realist’ in most mainstream image-making. Furthermore, the process of unpacking a text, or re-working it and showing its ideological underbelly becomes the goal of radical cultural production, instead of simply accepting the images rampant in culture, and consuming them like so much honey. And of course, the ever-ubiquitous Pooh has been used to explore these kinds of issues before; Benjamin Hoff writes in his book The Tao of Pooh:
Or, one could add, the journey of Willard. Indeed, the above reading of Pooh encapsulates the narrative of both Apocalypse Now and Apocalypse Pooh, the philosophical issues raised by both films, the critique of dominant culture sallied forth by the avant-garde in its myriad of analog and digital forms.
1 Kim Newman, “The Tigger Movie,” Sight & Sound, June 2000. (return)
2 Fred Camper, “The End of Avant-Garde Film,” Millennium Film Journal 17/18/19 (1986-87): 99-125. (return)
3 For a survey of the debates surrounding the Toronto Experimental Film Congress and the manifesto written as a riposte to it, see William C. Wees, “‘Let’s Set the Record Straight’: The International Experimental Film Congress, Toronto 1989,” Canadian Journal of Film Studies 9.1 (2000): 101-116. For an overview of the goals of the Congress, see International Experimental Film Congress (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1989). (return)
4 While the literature on found footage films keeps growing in its own rhyzomatic way, some key texts on the subject are: Jay Leyda, Films Beget Films: A Study of the Compilation Film (New York: Hill & Wang, 1964); Sharon Sandusky, “The Archeology of Redemption: Towards Archival Films,” Millennium Film Journal 26 (1993): 3-25; William C. Wees, Recycled Images: The Art and Politics of Found Footage Films (New York: Anthology Film Archives, 1993); Scott MacKenzie, “Flowers in the Dustbin: Termite Culture and Detritus Cinema,” CinéAction 47 (1998): 24-29; Michael Zryd, “Found Footage Film as Metahistory: Craig Baldwin’s Tribulation 99,” The Moving Image 3.2 (2003): 40-61 and Adrian Danks, “The Global Art of Found Footage Cinema” in Linda Badley, R. Barton Palmer and Steven Jay, eds. Traditions in World Cinema (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006): 241-253. (return)
5 William C. Wees, “From Compilation to Collage: The Found Footage Films of Arthur Lipsett,” Canadian Journal of Film Studies 16.2 (2007). (return)
6 Abigail Child, “Notes on Sincerity and Irony,” in David E. James, Stan Brakhage: Filmmaker (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005): 196. (return)
7 Peter Rainer, “Vietnam Hot Damn” in Rainer, ed. Love and Hisses (San Francisco: Mercury House, 1992): 470. (return)
8 Daniel Clowes, a leading alternative comix artist, documents this popularity in the letter column of his comic Eightball (the basis of the Terry Zwigoff film Ghost World), published by Fantagraphics. (return)
9 Dot Tuer and Michael Balser, Program Notes for “High Tech/Low Tech: Bodies in Space, An Open Forum on Film and Video Aesthetics” Pleasure Dome, Toronto, Ontario, July 17, 1992. (return)
10 For a more ‘traditional’ encapsulation of the plots of these films, see Christopher Finch, Disney’s Winnie the Pooh (New York: Disney Books, 2002). (return)
11 Richard Dyer, Stars (London: BFI, 1979): 22. (return)
12 Cited in Leonard Maltin, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons. rev. ed. (New York: NAL, 1987): 263. (return)
13 For more on the interweaving of these two narratives, see Scott MacKenzie, “Closing Arias: Operatic Montage in the Closing Sequences of the Trilogies of Coppola and Leone,” p.o.v.: A Danish Journal of Film Studies 16 (1998): 109-124. (return)
14 Danny Bradbury, “Jockeying for Attention” The Guardian 20 April 2006. (return)
15 Benjamin Hoff, The Tao of Pooh (London: Penguin, 1982): 111-112 (return)