For a film that spends nearly half of its runtime focusing on a clip from Ghostbusters and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air‘s opening credits, Ross Sutherland’s Stand by for Tape Back-Up isn’t exactly a light-hearted comedy. It’s amusing at times, but the underlying emotion is one of self-delusion as coping mechanism, a bittersweet and melancholy walk through Sutherland’s wrestling with grief and depression as relayed through a creative reading of seemingly unrelated texts.
The film is an adaptation of Sutherland’s touring theatre performance of the same name, which was a hybrid of poetry and cinema; as he played for his audience a VHS tape he was bequeathed after the death of his grandfather, he reads out rhythmic spoken word poetry seemingly connected with the images on-screen but which also deals with his own state of mind. The best example of this is the Fresh Prince sequence, where Sutherland describes his process of coping with the death of his grandfather, only to then play the Fresh Prince opening credits whilst repeating his poem, with the descriptive language he uses matching movement or image on-screen, not just once but multiple times over. As his monologue content changes relative to the looped credits, Sutherland reinforces the power of creative readings and the depth of even the most seemingly superficial imagery.
Because of the shift to film the project becomes an unusual experimentation in form, Sutherland appears only as a disembodied voiceover, whereas on stage he stood next to the screen, able to command attention with both voice and movement. With his physical absence here, the visual focus is instead on the tactile presence of VHS grain and distortion. Everything we see is artificially stitched together as one VHS tape, with a blue default background used when rewinding the tape and looped static at the edges of the screen.
Whilst this focus on tape form is amusing and engaging, the film does feel like a little like a more emotionally engaged video essay, and the long stretches of narration over a static image, when setting up a sequence, for example, does feel like it didn’t neatly make the shift from theatre to film. The sense of something missing – the physical presence of Sutherland himself – is palpable. That’s not to say that he is not a stirring or imposing presence, Sutherland is still able to craft a moving narrative, and perhaps that’s an even more impressive talent, painting a portrait of depression and pain with voice alone, yet in the arena of cinema it feels somehow removed.
His focus of narrative isn’t entirely based around grief, and Sutherland’s freedom regarding structure keeps the audience on their toes. He very near dives headfirst into the content of the video tape whilst ignoring the process of acquiring it, only to finally circle back to it with a tangential section about an asthma attack, which on its own called to mind Mike Birbiglia’s Sleepwalk With Me (the one-man show, not the film). Another wonderful tangential aside sees him take out his frustration at having worked at a bank over a looping ad for a major English bank. In this section he finds a perfect blend of frustration and humour, we can feel his regret and anger at working this dead-end job whilst seeing his inventiveness with language and image; no matter how furious he is at this circumstance, re-configured through this clip, he always manages to have a dig at an extra who is seen talking to the lead female in the ad.
It’s unlikely Stand By will find its way outside of the festival circuit, and that is something of a shame. Whilst it was never going to be a theatrical smash, there’s great value in the creative jumping point in Sutherland’s film, which should lead audience members to question the potential alternate meanings in every piece of media surrounding them.