Film Review: Standby for Tape Back-up

Stand by for tape back-up 2

Originally published on The National Student on 02/07/15. 


Full-time performance-poetry devotee Ross Sutherland debuts his first feature-ish length film project, the story of a single defining video-tape and the power such a thing can possess.

A loosely-penned ‘documentary’ of sorts – but really, a performance in cinematic form – Sutherland uses an ancient VHS tape found buried in his loft to reveal the secrets of his past, namely his relationship with his grandfather, and how the films and TV programs recorded onto it paint a picture of his own life philosophy.

From Ghostbusters to Michael Jackson’s Thriller and even a few dodgy adverts, Sutherland’s visual choices are an eclectic mix of the nostalgic and the peculiar, allowing for a journey which, although remains entirely personal throughout, offers enough chances for the audience themselves to imprint on and relate to the material on show. Even as the poet’s own accompanying commentary takes the focus, there are still always lessons to be learned from the delivery and pacing of his observations, not to mention the very words themselves. This is far from the indulgent ramblings of an auteur gone rogue; personal but rarely un-relatable.

This is not to say that Stand-by is without its flaws however. As much as Sutherland’s dictation and the visual smorgasbord he presents us with is involving, it is clear to see that such a performance does not entirely belong within the cinematic medium. Born as a show within itself, wherein Sutherland himself would deliver the commentary live, navigating through the footage with his own trusty remote, the filmic equivalent of Stand-by feels somewhat empty, lacking in the energy that an in-the-flesh performance would no doubt provide.

Not to mention that there are times when Sutherland’s artistic intentions are not entirely clear. With the poet becoming nothing more than a floating voice, it feels almost as if the screen has been hijacked, the footage played being both frequently paused and rewound, sometimes completely at random. With his accompanying commentary en-tow, Sutherland starts to dismantle the likes of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, seemingly using its visuals as an orchestration of the profound concepts of life and death. To some, such absurdity may strike an artistic chord, but to others it is more likely to simply fall flat.

Because ultimately, such a disablingly poetic and grandiose film as this will likely only connect fully with a very specific and niche audience; an audience who presumably would find even more to love from its live-performance counterpart. Thus, as intriguing as Sutherland’s film may seem, it never feels quite definitive enough to fully invest in.

Stand by for Tape Back-up (2015), directed by Ross Sutherland, originally screened as part of the East End Film Festival 2015. 


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