Bret Berg is a Los Angeles-based film, music and video creative director and curator with a finger on the pulse of the weird, the compelling and the esoteric.
Bret rises above others in the underground cultural conversation because he’s not presenting mere freakshow ‘n tell. Although shock and “naw!” are definitely part of what he does, Bret somehow leaves one feeling that the blown mind was not in vain. After sitting through one of Bret’s programs it’s customary to feel educated as well as inebriated.
I originally met Bret way back when he played with the computer-y funk trio Anavan. He followed that up with the intriguing Post-Punk 2.0 outfit Rib Bib, which toyed with trans sexual and musical identities, and the all-star Goblin cover band, Nilbog. As if Bret’s rock credentials weren’t already absolute, he de-bassed the depths of space in the “gay Hawkind cover band” Cockwind (for which I sang and played synth).
But most know Bret for the years of bafflingly bizarre film presentations and multi-media collaborations at the Silent Movie Theater (like that time we hosted Extreme Animals) and at Voyager Institute (Mrs. Smith landed an Ibanez endorsement after her guest appearance on Bret’s stage and her career skyrocketed).
All of these endeavors bubble with social frission—the enthusiasm of many nerds coming together and realizing that they are not adrift alone on the sea of Post Modernism. Thanks, Captain.
So it’s been exciting to see Bret Berg’s latest project—just in time for COVID-19 self-captivity and social distancing—the Museum of Home Video, a 7:30pm Tuesday weekly broadcast on Twitch.
Bret describes Museum of Home Video as “Ninety minutes of pure discovery for archivists, drinkers, stoners and seekers… a refreshing swim through our ocean of found media… With a squad of hard drives and a Scrooge McDuck-level of access to torrent sites, the Museum has for 20 years gathered MTV airchecks, never-seen movies, crazy-ass talk shows, revelatory news moments, must-see live music and other forgotten footage by the terabyte.”
You see, Bret is a proud avatar of “Download Culture” which, in film/video terms, means “shadowy dark web wormholes… the hidden 21st-century wellsprings of our showbiz past… crowdsourced trader archives of rare audio, video, and print, vast in scope to the point that it’d straight-up blow your mind and/or haunt you.”
Along with producer Jenny Nixon, Bret Berg fosters an inclusive weekly broadcast where the comments section just pops off continuously with obscure facts and hilarity. Each show is completely different, even from minute to minute. And no, you can’t watch it later—this is a proudly live event.
I sat down with Bret over the weekend and he told me all about downloads, his video obsessions (which include the H.R. Giger megamix he’s screening tomorrow, Tuesday August 11, 2020) and what the deal really was with your favorite video store clerks. I’ll let Bret take it from here…
How would you describe Museum of Home Video—what’s the elevator pitch?
I’ve been collecting video bits for about twenty years and I realized that a running theme throughout most of my obsessions was the history of showbiz. And so my particular angle on found footage is examining 20th century showbiz and its aftershocks, through the lens of obsessive tape collecting which, in the modern age, is transferred over to torrenting and downloading and hard drives and such.
This grew out of working at a physical video store back in the golden age of VHS and DVDs?
Yeah, my first several jobs were for video stores. But the main one was from 1999 to 2011 when I was a manager at Cinefile, which was and is an especially great video store next to the Nuart movie theater.
We had a really extensive library of what must have been 30 or 40,000 titles, and a lot of bootlegs. A lot of rare stuff, imports. And we just got to trading with people not only in Los Angeles, but just across the world. I had some tape trading / penpal relationships with some UK people. And during that time, I made sure to make disc copies of a lot of things I wanted to keep.
I still have all my discs from back then but they’re now ripped onto my hard drive. Plus the amount of stuff that I torrent is excessive—but never without a purpose. It’s always either I want to watch this or somebody I know would probably want to watch this or I can do something with this.
What inspired you to start torrenting? Did that come from your involvement in the music scene?
Napster was the first thing I used back in 2000 and that was for music-only because twenty years ago, if you tried to download a movie, the movie file would suck and the amount of time it would take would suck.
My torrenting started probably a little bit more than ten years ago because a co-worker of mine at Cinefile was an avid torrenter of VHS and music. And sometimes he would torrent movies to put on a disk to rent at the store. I was like, wow! I became fascinated with it. But I was a little bit too mystified by torrenting until a certain period of time when I figured out how to do it on my own and then I didn’t stop afterwards.
And I became an even shittier video store clerk than I already was, because customers, you know, they were interrupting my torrenting time!
Trying to download more stuff on the internet. So it didn’t even matter what they were renting. I didn’t give a shit. They were interrupting me—that was the problem! And subsequently, I’ve learned that this is bad retail behavior for behind the counter like, you know if I really wanted to be a great video store clerk, I wouldn’t have spent so much time ignoring the customers.
The truth about video store clerks…
At that time, I was pretty bratty. And I thought I had given so many recommendations to people and watched them not take my advice, like, “Oh you’re looking for comedy tonight? Well try this and this or this…” Or “If you’re looking for a horror movie, try this” and I would hand people ten cover boxes, and then they would come back with with one that I hadn’t recommended. So I was like, why do they even ask? But the real talented video store clerk, the one who actually would care about the customer experience, would have gone down the rabbit hole to empathetically figure out, “Okay, what do you like rather than me?” instead of just spouting off things that I thought would be good. I realize that now.
In a way, Museum of Home Video is therapy for me. I’m trying to reel back the amount of snarky recommendations, and connect people with the things I’m genuinely excited about in a way that I hope viewers will understand. Because back then, I was pushing movies on people. I don’t think they understood why I was even recommending them when they just wanted to come in and get, like, Ghostbusters.
I’ve noticed something about your torrenting. When I mention some show to you, like say Cheaters, you grab every single episode in one binge…
You’re correct. It’s just easier that way. Take reality cop shows—I’m pretty sure I have a torrent of twenty years of Cops. Recently I downloaded the complete Looney Tunes. That’s a lot. That’s over 1,000 cartoons!
What’s up with that, doc? How did you collect end up downloading 40 terabytes of stuff?
If I get something in my head, I want it—and I want it right now.
So where do you get all this amazing video?
I have about seven to ten different sources to go to, to grab stuff and each source is good for different kinds of things. There are the torrent sites that are private communities like Karagarga, Cinemageddon and Myspleen are the three private trackers that I primarily use. Karagarga is great for arthouse things. Cinemageddon is great for like barf bag crazy movies and only-on-VHS things or shot on VHS, that kind of stuff. Myspleen is great for television rarities like MTV airchecks or the 1,000 Looney Tunes collection.
Then there are the public sites—The Pirate Bay is the most obvious one. The Pirate Bay is great for some things. It’s just random. Soulseek is still great for music. It’s rare that you can stump it. RARBG. That’s good too. There’s a lot of misinformation that you have to wade through in order to get your prize sometimes.
And then there is a website called Rarelust, which is not a torrent site but a blog, which has download links to maybe 15,000 pirated movies. Now when I say pirated movies, keep in mind these are really specialized sites, it’s not Star Wars rips or something. It’s not Nicolas Cage movies. It’s all incredibly out of print stuff, now only-on-VHS or DVD or never released on any format, at least in the U.S.
Archive.org is fantastic for a certain level of things. For example, some obsessive taper in the Berkeley area over the course of the ’80s and the ’90s was recording anytime something came on network television that was drug related. And he has this thing called the The Dope Tapes and there are a few hundred volumes which in VHS terms would be 400 six-hour tapes where he just crammed stuff in.
The Dope Tapes is cool because maybe there was an entire two hour TV movie where there’s one scene that’s in a drug lab and the taper just lifted that part out. Or here’s a cop show where they go after drug dealers or something. And also on the same tape will be Ice Cube on Yo! MTV Raps for like five minutes talking about weed and then a 48 Hours segment with Dan Rather roasting drug pushers. It’s so good, just a whole bunch of random shit.
And there’s hundreds of volumes of this and I have downloaded all 400 fuckin’ Dope Tapes from Archive.org because I know that either me or someone else one day will have a use for it.
That’s your objective—to channel the good stuff to the people who can use it?
Yes, usually my objective is to seek things out like a laser that I, or someone I know, would have an archival, academic or entertainment use for.
I usually keep about fifteen to twenty personalities in my Herman’s Head of Chaki or Dimitri from Everything is Terrible or KJ, my ex-housemate or you. All of you people are in my head! And I know what you like.
When I tune into Twitch for Museum of Home Video, people are really going nuts in the comments section. And that’s impressive—I’m kind of shocked, actually, because a lot of them have very esoteric interests, and somehow you’re showing them things they’ve never seen before…
I feel like I have done my 10,000 hours of audience testing. You know, first on college radio at KXLU, then in person at the video store where I was the recommendation engine, and in both you get real time feedback from people about what they liked what they disliked about it.
Then I went into film programming and producing events, and there programmers are like a mad scientist—put a thing in front of a group of people and see what happens!
Also the way I watch movies professionally for my day job at American Genre Film Archive (AGFA) and the way that I watch found footage now for Museum of Home Video… I wish I could turn it off but there’s no turning it off at this point.
When I watch things I register them beat by beat. I’ve seen crowds of people check their watch, or do the body language thing where they’re waiting for something to be over. I always try to minimize those moments. And I feel like I’ve gotten the rhythm down.
Something that I’m showing for the Museum of Home Video this week was originally 45 minutes and I cut that down to thirty because I know that 45 minutes is really stretching people’s limits after sitting in front of their screens all day every day. And there’s a limit to how many hours you can sit in front of those things. I want to make sure that my show is well presented. I’m presenting things that are exciting.
I don’t think I would have had that ability had I not done college radio for so long and also played music in a band because you just have to know when to listen to people. You can just listen to people’s frustration with a boring movie.
What’s the formula for a perfect Museum of Home Video episode? Like, is it 70% Chez-Zam (see above) plus 30% Droid—how would you break that down?
There’s no real formula. It’s just all about the dynamic peaks and valleys of emotion during the 90 minutes. You have to think about it musically.
In the end, I’m going to emotionally bring you here and two movements down there in thirty minutes as we’re wrapping up, I want you to feel terrible. I want you to kind of be shocked and hit a low and then immediately pivot and then give you like a sweet reprise of a previous gem, which will leave you smiling, and then you leave the show thinking, That was fun.
Because it’s not just this 90 minute flatline of, like, goofball even though I love goofball, and some of my favorite people are non-stop goofballs. That’s great. I appreciate that. But I don’t think that that’s what makes a great show that I would present.
What can we expect from future installments of the Museum?
Well, I guess we could talk about the buckets that things will fall into in future shows because they illuminate my obsessions.
So first off is great performance clips, whether it’s stand up or a band, or a soloist or someone who is giving like a great five to ten minutes of WOW, that was fuckin’ amazing and also well shot. I think that great music video is a combination of the direction and the choreography of the camera matching the music, whatever the music is.
Another obsession is late night talk shows. I’ve always been obsessed with Letterman and Conan and Carson and all the weirdos in between. There’s a segment that we did starting on the first show called “Church of Letterman.” And it’s just diving into the archives of late night TV shows past—showbiz history again, right? It’s about showing this.
Another segment we will be exploring is “Fasterpiece Theater” where I take movies and cut them down. It’s like the Reader’s Digest condensed version
I really love anything that has regional flavor—where you see authentic people. Like game shows of a certain vintage. I love the moments in which you saw the most characteristically normal people on television. Local commercials are great for this.
Um, like William H. Macy in that Taco Bell spot you showed last week?
Haha—not quite. But sure.
I plan to keep celebrating the history of found footage via other found footage artists, like TV Carnage or Everything is Terrible. Or in a few weeks, I’m working on 30 minutes of the evolution of a certain kind of found footage piece, going back to Reagan’s Just Say Yes to Drugs clip.
That was a fixture on Night Flights—the first time I saw it I flipped out.
I watched that clip the other week and I was like, that’s still so fucking hot.
Another is Negativland’s “Christianity is Stupid” and then there’s Emergency Broadcast Network‘s “We Will Rock You”—just an early ’90s thing—and then a couple examples of what’s been called YouTube Poop which is in the same style.
>And we’ll probably talk about the evolution of Plunderphonics in relation to video editing, you know, as it all fits in, it just all fits under the classic style.
What else can viewers expect?
I’m going to be showing a compilation of footage from the first day of the Weather Channel. I love cable television ephemera.
Speaking of cable TV ephemera—HBO in Space. Any viewer of HBO in the ’80s remembers the HBO in space logo with a grand symphonic theme. That’s the real HBO. I don’t know if you remember, but every once in a great while, if they had 10-15 minutes to kill in between movies, HBO, Cinemax, Showtime… they would show interstitial shorts.. And one of those shorts that they used to show was The Making of the HBO in Space. So I’m going to show that because the it’s fascinating. And it goes right to the heart of the cable TV ephemera nostalgia thing. Awesome.
I’m glad you didn’t do a podcast—this is so much better because we can actually watch this crazy source material. And become part of television history.
Well, thank you. Is this television?
Yes. What you are doing is TV. I have to tune in at a certain time each week and that is classic television.
I guess it is. It’s appointment viewing, which is very important, and I suppose that’s the reason why it can fit under the TV umbrella.
It feels like TV.
Yeah, that’s good. I never thought I would ever say that. Like, appointment viewing is good or is back. But here we are.
It’s TV with a chat bubble.
I think the chat interactivity is a secret weapon. For Museum of Home Video, it really is kind of like a party. I’m not saying that just because I want to hype it. But I am tracking the obsessive interests of those 80 something people that are in the room. So it’s a party more than a show.