Back in September of 2006 I launched Next To Heaven with this staccato mission statement, “I download movies from Archive.org. I watch the movies. I write and record new audio. I re-cut the video to the new audio. Every Wednesday there will be a new movie.” And so it was for 52 straight weeks. In January 2011, I started releasing Season 2, another 52 week effort. During both seasons I learned a lot about storytelling, saw scores of amazing public domain films, and garnered a bit of love in the form of awards, film festival appearances, and favorable press.
Please enjoy these films! I loved making them!
“Rob Parrish’s video series first hit the web in 2006, but has remained dormant for years. Now it’s back, more brilliantly bizarre than ever. The idea is straightforward – stock footage from the 50s and 60s is given a new voice-track – but it’s superbly executed. The films are odd in themselves, but here they’re given an extra layer of surreal. In recent uploads we meet a woman who keeps men as pets; some cartoon birds suffering from an existential crisis caused by being trapped in a 2D world, and learn about a frozen condition caused by a Perry Como album.”
New Tee Vee: Karina’s Capsule (Karina Longworth)
If you made it to Pixelodeon a couple of weeks back, you might have seen Rob Parrish’s Tapes of My Father. Composed entirely of found, public domain footage set to voice over, Tapes purports to be a son’s presentation of recently unearthed videos made by his late father, a public access TV producer who secretly recorded his innermost thoughts over stock footage reels. On Parrish’s Blip.TV page, the clip is listed as the 33rd episode of his fascinating and addictive weekly series Next to Heaven, but to me it seems like a more logical entry point for the series as a whole than any of the 32 episodes that precede it. The intro to Tapes is played dead straight. When the son says something like, “Releasing dad’s secret videos in this film is part of the healing process for me,” even though it plays over footage branded “Public Access Producer’s Association” (or, “P.A.P.A”), it’s still possible that this could be a real, non-ironic tribute from a real son to his real dad – there certainly are enough of them on YouTube. But the second we flip over to “dad’s footage”, it’s clear that Parrish isn’t emulating or even spoofing the existing family tribute genre. He’s much more interested in a different genre: the comedy of personal misery. Parrish seems to be using the juxtaposition of old footage and narration both to evoke nostalgia for the era of the totally subjective movie narrator, and to conduct an investigation into the nuances of a certain type of first person storytelling, one that’s simultaneously confessional and not at all reliable. But all of that aside, each episode also works as a kind of convoluted joke. Throughout the series, as in Tapes, you never see the punchline coming right away, because Parrish is so slick about slipping into the tropes of the footage that define each clip. Maybe it’s a trick of the ears and eyes, but Parrish’s modulated voices pair so well with his montages that, sometimes, it’s not until I’m laughing out loud that I remember that I’m watching a manipulation. I’ve watched about ten Next to Heaven episodes, and my favorite so far is probably episode 41, in which an ex-junkie describes replacing his addiction to heroin with an addiction to anti-drug education films – particularly those narrated by Paul Newman.
Rob Parrish assembles many of his short narratives from the largely forgotten commercials and educational films of yesteryear. These 2-3 minute “self contained” episodes could be described in a plethora of ways. If we wanted to give it that ol’ TV comparison, I’d say it’s “The Wonder Years meets The Twilight Zone” or perhaps it’s like comic book artist Charles Burns and documentarian Errol Morris teaming up on a series about the “everyday strangeness of America”. Case in point: a recent episode recalled the story of an invisible boy who’d ride around on his bicycle–naked. Comparisons and geeky analogies aside, Parrish has quite the unique vision (and several dozen voices) of his own, which is what really makes Next to Heaven the true gem that it is.
Boing Boing: Tripping Through Video Vaults (Gareth Branwyn)
My friend, DC-area video artist Rob Parrish, posts a weekly video on his site Next to Heaven. Each week, he goes onto Archive.org, sniffs out new raw material, dreams up an idea for a found art video, edits, audio-records, and then on Wednesday, releases a new piece. Some of the resulting videos feel immediate, small, off-the-cuff, others strike much deeper, more resonant chords, and are truly impressive in their impact, given the production timeline. I’m always impressed with Rob’s clever use of the found footage. And I love his perverse sense of humor. Given the retro source material, there’s a haunting quality to many of these videos, a pervasive sense of loss, faded memories, tragic childhoods, dreams unfulfilled, and dirty secrets unrevealed — all usually leavened with humor and a healthy helping of the absurd. Above is Episode 41, about a junkie who replaces his love of smack with drug education films narrated by Paul Newman. Other favorites of mine include the special episode The Tapes of My Father, about a son who discovers that his late Public Access TV producer dad recorded his innermost thoughts over found video footage from the PATV archives, and Episode 49, which has a man reminiscing about his macho childhood of sports and trouble-making while the video shows a young boy timidly putting on his mother’s make-up.
Hammer to Nail: Death is Hilarious (Michael Tully)
One week ago, I wrote a post expressing my aversion to the concept of webisodes, how I found it too hard to concentrate on them and had yet to see anything that really caught my attention. Not long after, Rob Parrish left a thoughtful comment and concluded it by attaching a link to his own series, Next to Heaven. No offense to Mr. Parrish, but I didn’t even bother clicking on the link for fear of what resided on the other side. But a day or two later, Hammer to Nail’s other driving force alongside Ted Hope, Mr. Corbin Day, called me to say that I should watch Episode 52 because he thought it was pretty wild stuff. At that point, I did. He was right! Since then, I have managed to watch all fifty-two episodes from the show’s first season, and while the content varies from exceptional to interesting, Parrish hits a few genuine grand slams that have made me an official Next to Heaven fan.
The most important factor here is that Parrish seems to understand the format he’s working with and the audience he’s making these episodes for. This isn’t cinema or television. It’s its own thing. And if done creatively and wisely, it can provide its own healthy measures of entertainment and enlightenment. Each episode hovers around the two-minute mark (with the exception of the special “The Tapes of My Dad,” which combines a few previous episodes into one heartier package). Also, another striking distinction that helps Parrish’s case greatly, I think, is that he isn’t trying to establish an ongoing narrative. Each episode is a self-contained unit, and while the combination of them adds up to a greater whole, they need not be watched in sequence to be appreciated or understood. I guess my problem with the concept of webisodes is that I assumed people were going to only use the format to make low-rent, paper thin, one-dimensional soap operas and/or sitcoms. And while many do, Parrish’s vision couldn’t be more different and exciting.
As for the show itself, Next to Heaven reminds me of something like Jack Handey’s Deep Thoughts. Over edited stock footage, Parrish crafts hilarious memories of individuals who are speaking from the grave, or from somewhere close to it. While he uses a variety of distorted voices for his narration, my favorite is the slowed-down male figure that sounds like he’s been huffing Nitrous since the 1970s. On the site, Parrish has a page where he selects twelve of the best episodes, but my personal favorites are: 2, 12, 26, 35, 49, and 52. These particular episodes aren’t just the ones that made me laugh the loudest. They actually work on a deeper level, using wit and humor to mock some of our world’s sillier constructs (the work force, country pride, funerals, etc.). Episode 52 was the first episode that I watched, and it might very well be my favorite, especially when the narrator’s friends call to him from Heaven telling him to leave his loser Earth friends behind and join them for the real party up there. Episode 26, about a man who wakes up as a lion and makes his way to work, is another standout, as well as Episode 35, which contains the following patriotic line: “And you know what winners never do? Winners never lose. Never.” That episode brilliantly captures the buffoonish, defiant attitude of the Bush administration as well as any work of criticism I’ve seen or read. But one doesn’t have to read into these episodes to appreciate them. As quick bursts of entertainment, they work just as well.
I’d like to send a personal thank you to Rob Parrish for helping me to see the light, to show me just a glimpse of what webisodes can do. If any of you out there know of any others that have their heads and hearts and funny bones in the right place, leave a link in the comments section. And if you haven’t watched Next to Heaven yet, do yourself a favor and check it out right now.
Underground Film Journal: Judy’s Smile (Mike Everleth)
Sometimes a happy, smiling face can inspire joy and encouragement. Other times, it can instill a murderous rage. The second option is the case in the episode “Judy’s Smile” from Rob Parrish’s Next to Heaven web series. Parrish re-edits video found on Archive.org and composes new, surreal — and usually very funny if you have a dark sense of humor — voice over. “Judy’s Smile” is one of his darkest efforts yet, taking an innocuous film of a brother and sister and layering a disturbing subtext over it.
Episodes of Next to Heaven are hosted by Blip.tv and his series is very atypical of the mainstream fare hosted on that video sharing site, where one normally finds vlogs, chat shows, comedies, dramas, etc. The site doesn’t even offer ‘experimental,’ ‘avant-garde’ or ‘cult’ categories probably under the correct assumption that those categories would be poorly trafficked. (Parrish lists Next to Heaven under drama and comedy.)
So, it’s good that a series like Next to Heaven is out there, infiltrating the ordinary with its cruel, absurdist humor. Parrish has been working on the series for quite a while now, off and on since 2006, and is really keyed in on putting a debased spin on usually feel-good films and videos — classic advertisements, educational films and the like.
“Judy’s Smile” has a particularly excellent ebb and flow with a good plot that drags the viewer around. Happy times are subverted into a disturbing psychological reckoning. A film that presumably was made to show children how to live a well-adjusted life in ’50s suburbia becomes a confession on how living under such a facade can instill a lifelong, traumatic maladjustment.
You can watch more episodes of Next to Heaven either directly on Blip.tv or on Parrish’s blog where he sometimes reveals a little backstory on the making of the episodes, such as “Judy’s Smile” where he confesses he may have crossed some sort of line of good taste. Well, thank goodness he did.
In the world of web series, few are as garishly bizarre or exquisitely offbeat as Rob Parrish’s NEXT TO HEAVEN.
As a viewing experience, Next to Heaven can only be equated to watching The Twilight Zone as produced by David Lynch and narrated by Mystery Science Theater 3000. Parrish taps into a short film sensibility by “casting” each new episode using movies he downloads from Archive.org, which he then re-cuts and edits with new audio. The results are equally disturbing and utterly hysterical.
Having already surpassed 100 episodes, each of which range from two minutes to ten in length, Parrish’s darkly humorous series has won multiple awards and was even chosen as one of Twitch’s best short film web series of 2011. Season 2 is presumably wrapping up, hopefully with plans for a Season 3, containing highlights that range from sibling rivalry between a monkey and a baby (Season 2 Episode 28) to those “damned dirty goat eyes.”
In an interview with Twitch last year, Parrish explained his process:
“I pick them semi-randomly — I punched some keywords into Archive, look at the thumbnails and pick the ones that look like they might be fun. So I have a library of film to watch. Sometimes the story jumps right out of them. It’s like “well there it is. That’s the thing.” And then other times it’s just an image that you like — “I want to do something with that!” But, you don’t’ know what. And then other times a particular movie will just sit in the back of my mind for weeks, and then I have one of those in-the-shower moments like, “oh I know what to do with that one now!”
The Short Films Blog: The Tapes of My Father (Charlie Wachtel)
“In a way that familiar feeling of disappointment makes your new house a home.” Such are the documented words of a man whose life has been nothing short of miserable. And thus is the tone for this dark, inventive gem of a short film.
Robert Parrish’s The Tapes of My Father is (on paper) a man’s sympathetic tribute to his deceased father. We learn through archival footage that his dad worked as a newscaster for a television station. Later we are introduced to traces of his father’s troubled past through archived tapes. The tapes feature historically ambiguous black and white photos and video narrated by an artificially deepened voice assumed to be his father.
After a tongue-in-cheek, laughably cheesy opening homage to his father, Parrish immediately yanks our hearts from our bodies and corners us into a futile world of bitterness and extreme depression. The compilation of his father’s tapes begins with: “Statues make me depressed because I’ll never do anything good enough to merit my own statue.” After spending a few seconds with his father we aren’t sure whether to cringe, laugh or cry.
But as time continues to pass and his father’s grief remains constant there is no longer any alternative but to submit to your gut, which is inevitably rooting for a belly laugh.
And if you’re not laughing then the joke’s on you. Parrish brilliantly utilizes seemingly random archived footage to construct a story without actually having any true-to-life characters. The dramatic contrast between the intensely melodramatic approach at the beginning of the film and the morbid second half which follows effectively positions the viewer in an emotionally uncomfortable position. And yet the uncompromising nature of the filmmaking makes it easy to acknowledge those who are indeed buying into the legitimacy of this piece.
Tapes of My Father was an official selection for the DC Shorts Film Festival and Rosebud Film & Video Festival. Its success stems from its original, experimental style of storytelling and brilliant execution in manipulating the hearts and minds of its viewers.
An Interview With Rob Parrish, Creator Of The Web Series NEXT TO HEAVEN Rob Parrish is something of an audio/visual archeologist. But to end there is only half, maybe even a quarter, of the story.
The journey begins in the digital dig sites of the public domain. Seen by some as multimedia garbage dumps, for others these are full-on treasure troves of pop culture whats-its and b-movie rejects lost to the loose copyright laws of yesteryear. It is in this world of found footage filmmaking where the website Archive.org stands like an ancient library; a wonder at the pillars of this www.earth. It is here that Parrish excavates the best shots, the most out-there moments — whether it be from a 50s education film or a Saturday Morning commercial, it’s all fair game. And then, with a witty pen in hand and trusty Mac at his side, he takes these pieces and reshapes them into a new 2-3 minute short film. He does this every week. This is Next to Heaven — a web series geared to the art house set as much as to the genre crowd. In short: an unintentional love letter to the readers of ScreenAnarchy the world over.
Though we both live in the Washington D.C. area, Parrish and I decided that a Skype interview might work best schedule-wise. Little did we know that this new-fangled technology would have its way with us. Luckily, our good friend the telephone was there to help when the interwebs failed. What follows is a couple of schmucks gabbing about cinema, which is, uh, nothing new for this site, but as you will see, Rob Parrish is most certainly one of a kind.
[Ben Umstead] I always like to start out and ask about “origins”. Was there a moment for you or a film that you saw where you went “a-ha!” and decided that filmmaking was something you were going to pursue in some fashion.
[Rob Parrish] Back in the late 1990s I’d almost landed a deal to direct a feature film that I also wrote. It was a crime picture with a transgender slant and an alien invasions subplot. Anyway, I had some differences of opinion with one of the producers, and let’s say it got a bit heated. Anyway, the producer died and I was convicted of man slaughter. So, the movie deal fell through and I was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Now, in prison they don’t let you have a movie camera. But I still wanted to create. During my weekly computer time I was able to download public domain films from Archive.org and from that found footage make small personal films about the difficulties and unexpected joys of life on the inside. They were popular with my peers (the ultimate niche audience I suppose), and finally got the attention of the warden. He arranged for a screening and then I was allowed to go on tour with the films. I was surprised at how many prisons and jails have top notch projection equipment. Anyway, I’m pretty sure the film thing was a factor in my early release.
Okay, you just wrote a Next To Heaven episode with that answer . . . right?
Yes, all a lie. Well, except for the truth of it. I had limitations of time, I wanted to tell stories, Archive.org came along, and Next To Heaven was born.
Well, my introduction to Next to Heaven was just a few months back through a piece that Bad Lit: The Journal of Underground Film ran on the episode “Judy’s Smile”, which after watching the whole series, is still my favorite. It just got accepted into a festival, so a lot of people seem to dig it.
Yes, I like that one too. I was actually trying to channel William Burroughs in the voice over. It’s a god awful impersonation of Burroughs, which is good, because I didn’t really want it to be Burroughs. And that’s the thing with the project… because I make one every week I’m forced to try things out and then let them go. So, the quality is going to be uneven, but that’s OK. And then once in awhile you make a really good one. But the really good one stands on the shoulders of the earlier ones that weren’t as good. So you make, and you put it out there and let the chips fall wherever. It’s the age of no privacy; why not put your sketch book online.
A couple weeks back I started watching the television show, The Wonder Years again… So I watched an episode of that and soon after went and watched Next to Heaven and I was like, “wait a minute! What Rob is doing almost feels like this very bizarre and twisted version of the adult Kevin Arnold thinking back and narrating his life!” So there’s that nostalgic quality to NTH, but there’s also that very sardonic, droll nature with the way a joke comes together or a memory resurfaces. One episode that stands out for me is “For Steve”, where a man is recalling a lover he had in the late 60s; a woman who loved her gadgets. They intrigued her and aroused her. To me that was one of those bizarre but believable stories, one that you’d perhaps encounter an older gentleman recalling at a dinner party or a wedding. So, there is a magic to watching the show, being amazed at how this collected footage has come together to tell a new story, present a new joke. I imagine that finding all this and putting it together is very exciting for you…
Oh absolutely, it’s a very fun process. One of the nicest things written about the show was from Karina Longworth. She said, and I’ll paraphrase, that in spite of the artificiality and the clear fakeness of the construct she would forget she was watching a manipulation until the point she started laughing out loud. If I can give a viewer that kind of experience once in awhile I’m doing all right.
So tell me a bit more about your process.
Half of this season I wrote in one fell swoop during some time atthe beach. I brought twenty-five or thirty films from Archive.org. I pick them semi-randomly — I punched some keywords into Archive, look at the thumbnails and pick the ones that look like they might be fun. So I have a library of film to watch. Sometimes the story jumps right out of them. It’s like “well there it is. That’s the thing.” And then other times it’s just an image that you like — “I want to do something with that!” But, you don’t’ know what. And then other times a particular movie will just sit in the back of my mind for weeks, and then I have one of those in-the-shower moments like, “oh I know what to do with that one now!” So it’s in the shower or it’s on a walk, and that’s the nice thing about it — you’ve just got this hunk of material always in your head, and some of them trigger something, and others don’t. Usually the best ones, there’s something immediately in them that you go “yeah.” And “Judy’s Smile” was like that, when I watched that… it was a hygiene film, and the little girl, the actress, was clearly trying to smile continuously, for whatever reason, you know… she wasn’t getting good direction I guess. It just seemed a little absurd, like no matter what she was doing she was smiling. Even the shot where she’s washing her face and you can see she’s getting soap in her mouth, but she’s still smiling, she’s still happy — happy to be clean!
I just thought that was hilarious.
Another thing that jumped out is the color in [the original footage] is really quite lovely, and that’s an element too. Often these old films are just physically beautiful, and it is a thrill to be able to pull them out and re-contextualize them… make at least parts of the films available for people that aren’t weirdos like me that are happy to sit and watch these films for hours on end. I can kind of call out the best images from these lost/discarded films, but then of course I do my own contribution in crafting a new story out of it. So with Judy she’s getting soap in her mouth because she’s smiling, and then it’s a short skip to “how would a little brother react to a sister who is just continually cheery” — You know even a nice feeling when you get hit with it constantly can start to hurt after awhile, so it definitely pushed the wrong button in [the brother’s] head.
And that’s where you get that little twist at the end there, picking up the thread of them as adults.
Yes, endings. They can be hard, especially in a film that runs 2 or 3 minutes. I didn’t know how to finish Judy off at first. Then, I keyed on the shot of the Mother … after the brother bathes, Mommy puts him through an inspection, you know looks at his hands and behind his ears, and all that. So then it definitely conjured up an image of an over clean household and what kind of psychological issues that could entail… if your mother was always kind of checking you for how clean you were. So that twisted-ness of it was kind of ready-made. It often is, it’s right there for the plucking, because some of these films are already weird, mediated versions of reality, where things are stretched out of shape to start with.
One episode that seems ready-made, is the one where a grownup son recalls his mother winning the lottery and how she then changed the kitchen every month with the winnings. That raw footage you pointed me to was just this filmed expo of all these different styles of kitchens from around the world…
That one is called “Winner” and was made from a pretty hilarious bit of corporate propaganda called “Out of this World” from the good folks at Frigidaire (a Division of General Motors). Basically, the bored housewife is fantasizing about all different styles of kitchens she might have in the future. So, I loved it. But then the challenge becomes “what is the story? Why is the woman doing that and who is the narrator?” So those are the kinds of choices you make — how do you take those images and build it. My favorite movie is Fellini’s 8 1/2. Sometimes I fancy that the characters in NTH are extras in Fellini movies of another reality. These are the stories that don’t get told in the main movie, but are situated in the background.
One thing I find really interesting doing the project is no matter how far afield the images happen to be from my own particular concerns… once you start writing the story… the story comes out in things I’m interested in. They kind of tap stuff that’s milling around in the subconscious, so even though in the case with ones with archive footage — I didn’t generate any of the images — they tend to lead me to tell stories that feel particular to my interests and the way I look at the world. The original films are like a Rorschach test. Maybe we should have a contest where everyone makes a NTH episode from one particular archive film. I’m sure we’d see many different stories and approaches.
Indeed. There are themes that I’ve seen emerge in the episodes over time. Whether it’s the relationship between siblings, or the relationship between parents and children, or romantic relationships… that’s a big thing… how people deal with those strange eccentricities; how people deal with perception and of another person. Now in regards to the found footage versus you shooting your own stuff, it seems like recently there have been more episodes that incorporate your own footage. Should we be expecting a lot more of that down the line?
In the last ten or so weeks [of the season] there will probably be at least two that I’ve got going. But, you know that’s limited by the issue that got the whole thing started. It takes a lot more time to get actors together and do a shoot. It’s a much bigger commitment of time and money to make those. As much as I love the [found] footage I started out as a regular filmmaker. I went out and bought myself a new Canon T2i about a year and a half ago, so now I’m able to shoot HD and that’s very exciting. Now, I like to edit more than I like to shoot, but it is exciting to edit your own footage, and make your own imagery. This season is almost over so there will certainly be a hiatus and then I’ve got a couple of shorts already written that I’ll make. So during the interim I’ll probably make those, try to do the festival thing depending on how they turn out. And you know I also have in the back of my mind — I don’t know where I’m going to find the time — I’d like to do something that has a more typical narrative arc. A series of ten or twelve episodes that tells a story, kind of a mini-feature, but that still has the Next to Heaven aesthetic. I should mention that I’m obsessed with Breaking Bad. The look of that show and its approach to plot is so f’ing great. So once Next to Heaven is over I’ll start that process. I think writing a compelling longer arc is harder than working off the found footage, which is almost like an exercise. Of course if I reject everything I come up with that’s not as good as Breaking Bad … well, then there won’t be a new show from me … ever. (Laughs)
Talking about short films and future projects, you did just recently have a short, “A B C”, play at the D.C. shorts festival.
That was the 4th time at D.C. Shorts, so I really love the festival, and having gotten in that many they must like me too. I sound like Sally Field! Anyway, you can see “A B C” online as a NTH episode. I gotta say: if you’ve got a short film it’s a great festival to enter. The filmmakers are treated really, really well. They have really terrific parties. They find housing for out-of-state people. This year was really heavy with people from LA. One guy I met, he said “I just needed a vacation, so I entered this..” and the festival provided him with housing. He stayed with a nice old lady that he really hit it off with, and it was his vacation. It’s a good one, he had a great time!
So if you’re a filmmaker and you need a vacation, D.C. Shorts will provide that, and you’ll also get to screen your short at their festival.
Absolutely, absolutely. And you know you get to go to the museums and go to the parties and meet folks; it’s a lot of fun. Of course, you need to make a good movie too. So, no free lunch, really.
Right, so basically we’ve just turned the interview into an advertisement for the D.C. tourism board or whomever…
That’s right! Come to D.C.!
Come to our grand city.
Help us with our tax base. Come on, filmmakers. Come on to D.C. (We both laugh)