Review: VHYes – Fantastic Fest 2019

Jack Henry Robbins’ VHYes begins straightforward enough. On Christmas morning, 1987, young Ralph (Mason McNulty)—he can’t be older than 13—is gifted a VHS camcorder by his parents (Christian Drerup and Jake Head). With this gift, the film buzzes to life, as Ralph finishes scrambling to find a tape on which to record—his father asks if the tape is blank, and the footage promptly cuts to the answer: Ralph is recording over his parents’ wedding footage.

Ralph learns that he can use his new toy to directly record programs off of the television set, prompting him and his friend Josh (Rahm Braslaw) to spend holiday season late nights banking these various programs. As we are housed explicitly within the world of this tape, this television footage becomes an increasingly manic intrusive force on the diegetic narrative. In short order and with a frantic rapidity, we cut back and forth between varied pastiches of 1980s-1990s style programming: crime procedurals, a Bob Ross-style instructional show, a QVC-style shopping platform, an antique’s roadshow clone that abandons the antiquing part, heavily-edited-for-TV-porn parodies. The list goes on.

The narrative gets complicated in ways I cannot fully explain in a spoiler-free review, but suffice it to say that the impressive accuracy of these numerous format pastiches merely scratch the surface of the myriad concerns VHYes is exploring. In a runtime just north of 70 minutes, VHYes succeeds in parodying a number of television formats, making a cogent commentary on our current age of media consumption, and weaving a dual-layered narrative about a boy’s discovery of creative expression coinciding with his potential disillusionment over the ideals of the American Dream vis a vis marriage and family structure.

Plus, in the plainest of terms: it kicks so much ass.

The segmentation of the film yields comic sketches that are discretely funny, and they are strung together into a deliriously-paced superstructure that moves at the speed of media. By quickly and almost off-handedly introducing snippets of contemporary political talking points in an aesthetically-dated format, VHYes crafts a satire of the contemporary media landscape that is perhaps the most unique to date.

And, quite simply, it is hilarious whether you accept this subtextual reading or not. I found myself literally slapping my knee (normal humans don’t do that). Take, for example, the sultry edited-for-TV porno “Hot Winter,” in which scientists make pithy comments on the nature of climate change as a means of setting up a sex scene—“It’s winter…but it’s hot,” “But it usually isn’t hot in winter.”

There are creative parallels here to Adult Swim content: forms of cringe humor and hyper-active bit saturation brought into contemporary cult popularity by the Tim & Eric brand and further honed by other creatives working for the network. Some comedians who have appeared on this late-night programming block even appear in the film, including On Cinema at the Cinema recurring player Mark Proksch.

Whether you view this creative similarity as a positive or a negative, VHYes takes the Adult Swim structure—most programming on this block runs 10-12 minutes in length—and succeeds (arguably) in the improbable task of elongating it to feature length.

The surreal ending to the film is also reminiscent of a number of genre/format contemporaries: Too Many Cooks (another Adult Swim property), the V/H/S films, All Hallow’s Eve, Great Choice, Anomalisa, etc. While some might not go along with such a sharp turn in the narrative, one in which the very nature of narration as it exists in this diegetic world falls apart at the seams, I find it to be a perfect culmination of the film’s themes and its dominant character arc.

It is a post-postmodern (?) trope of texts bleeding together to a point of near incoherence (a practice that also complicates notions of intertextuality and metatextuality, but I cannot begin to reckon with all of the ramifications of that in this forum). The superstructure of the frame narrative becomes part of the substructure, or perhaps the opposite is the case.

It is a fascinating narrative experiment, but it is one that is often used (in the few instances where it is attempted at all) superficially or merely as a gimmick. In VHYes, it is integral to the over-arching topics that the film broaches, including its main narrative arc. One could perhaps complain that it is too lost in the shuffle of the parodies to be taken seriously, but it is nevertheless resolved in a satisfying way as a direct result of this experimentation.

Long story short: VHYes is a hilarious, delirious ride through a 1980s broadcast hellscape littered with incongruities and tonally pitch perfect comic delivery. It also has a lot on its mind. While not all of those thoughts get enough attention in the cluttered fury of a 71-minute showcase of what amounts to over a dozen discrete sketches and a complete frame narrative, there is enough worth dissecting, so much so that it begs for a second watch (and perhaps a third) to fully extract all of the humor that buzzes through the found footage like a humming battery.

 

VHYes: B+

 

As always, thanks for reading!

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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)

 

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