I've always been fascinated with home movies and not just my own. They seem to be so telling of a particular time and place. I also believe there is subtext in many of those home movies. I suppose sometimes scenery footage of vacations are often just clips of scenery, but if you happened to catch Morgan Dews' documentary film Must Read After My Death, (caught it earlier this year at Quad Cinema) you know what I'm talking about. There are often more to stories below their surface. Mr. Dews constructed an entire engrossing and frightening feature length film about mental illness and the dissolution of a family with home movies, audio tape recording and photographs. Home movies are more than a piece of nostalgia. A person just has to look a little deeper to experience something more than the holiday meals and waving family members so often recorded by amateur filmmakers. (photo to the above right, a still image from Our Day)
This year's line up at To Save and Project: The Seventh MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation appeared to be promising. A Woman Under the Influence (1974), Le Amiche (1955), The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), Nanook of the North (1922) are a few of the newly restored films that looked pretty good to me. I ended up making a different choice this year though, and sat in on the screenings of Mama, Don't Take My Kodachrome Away! A Celebration of Home Movies, an unusual compilation of home movies from the famous to the every day and each one did indeed tells its own story.
video (above): clip from my grandfather's 8mm home movie collection.
The MoMA home movie screening showcased 8 films, all vastly different in significance, period and artistic approach. The first was a man's story of his son. The 35mm restoration Think of Me First as a Person was put together by Dwight L. Core Sr. (1921-1995) during the 1960's and 70's. Mr. Core was an Air Force veteran of World War II. A loving exploration of a boy with down syndrome told through home movies at various stages of his son's childhood with emotional voice over narrative by his father. The film was restored and completed from its original 16mm print by Mr. Core's grandson, George Ingmire.
The second film was a silent 16mm recorded in 2002 and 2003 by Helen Hill, an author and activist that resided in New Orleans. The footage was a combination of a gay pride parade that took place before Hurricane Katrina and then some footage of the aftermath of the storm. The footage has visible water damage, but is still an important document of the city.
An incredibly goofy 1956 film, entitled Disneyland Dream was the third screening. Disneyland Dream was preserved by the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". The film was made by Robbins and Meg Barstow. The Barstow family won a trip to Disneyland by entering a Scotch Tape contest. The film documents their trip complete with silly scripted content (also narration was added in 1995), but is nevertheless sweet in it's 1956 innocence and contains terrific footage of Disneyland, Knotts Berry Farm and Hollywood neighborhoods of yesteryear.
Cineric Laboratory and the National Film Preservation Foundation through the Country Music Hall of Fame saved some Kodachrome, Super 8 1971 footage of the Mockingbird Hill Music Park concert in Anderson, Indiana. The film is unfortunately silent and it's too bad MoMA didn't provide some sort of accompanying soundtrack with music that would have most likely been performed there, but it was a great show of small country concerts that probably don't exist in the same form anymore. Performers include Bill Anderson, Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner.
Next was an amazing personal look at Joan Crawford through 16mm color silent home movies, primarily shot by Charles McCabe and Joan Crawford herself. The film was donated to the George Eastman House where it was then restored. The screening at MoMA was a compilation of the highlights, which included Joan Crawford enjoying the great outdoors in upstate New York, her sunbathing and playing with her dog as well as shots of her with her son and quite a bit of footage with her daughter, Christina. What struck me most was seeing how beautiful Joan Crawford was. I had never seen her in color. Her skin was freckled and flawless, her eyes, big and gorgeous and her hair was a lovely auburn. I can see why she was such a star. She also appeared playful and happy, which felt in contrast to how she has been portrayed publicly.
Our Day is a 35mm silent film made by Wallace Kelly. Mr. Kelly created films from 1929 to 1950. The title Our Day speaks well of this film's content. It is a scripted day in the life of the Wallace family. It is dry in that the family members are doing very ordinary, daily tasks, but it does have a few interesting aspects. One is that it's interesting to see what someone's day-to-day life was like for a family of that class, during that period in time. Just to make note of their home interior, appliances, their dress and how they spent their evenings (gatherings in the family room with books, knitting, radio and piano playing) gave me thought as to how we live now. Quite a contrast. The other aspect that struck me was how professionally Mr. Kelly put his movies together. We were told as the film started, that he actually didn't do any editing (as in an editing bed or splicing equipment of the day). The editing was, I guess, when he turned the camera on and off to create cuts and he did so with the eye of a filmmaker. You wouldn't necessarily guess this was created by an absolute amateur home movie enthusiast.
When Alfred Hitchcock and his wife and collaborator, Alma Hitchcock had their child, Patricia Hitchcock, they purchased a home movie camera, which eventually landed in the hands of the Academy Film Archive and was preserved by Film Technology, the only lab with capabilities to restore Lenticular film. One of the first color films during the time these movies were shot, which was 1929-1930. The clips included only two shots of Hitchcock himself, both of which Hitchcock hams up for both the camera and his daughter. Most of the footage stars Patricia and her mother, Alma. At the beach in their 20's/30's style bathing suits, at their country cabin in England and on a cruise ship headed to Italy.
The last screening in the collection was entitled Multiple SIDosis, a 1971 35mm sound film recorded by and featured Sid Laverents. The movie showcases all kinds of wacky split screen effects of Mr. Laverents playing various instruments. In 2000, Multiple SIDosis was selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". All the split screen editing and separately recorded musical performances were put together manually. It's not like he digitized this on Final Cut Pro and clicked on "add video track" or "add audio track" and hit "export". This was obviously a labor of love. What I found most delightful about this film is the graphics work he did, complete with production company title, credits and logo. They were very clever and no doubt very labor intensive. He had a passion.
I think why I found these films so fascinating, and probably some other audience members attended for the same reason, was because I've been transferring my grandfather's collection of 8mm film home movies over to a digital format in the last couple of years. It's a big project, but it means a lot. I read into their smiles and learn about their lives outside of my own memories of them. I've seen relatives moving around, changing expressions, eliciting behavior that differs from what I've been told and some that play into what I've heard about them. They are an important part of my own personal history as well as an important part of Midwestern Americana that is rapidly vanishing and a lot of it already gone. Similar to what professional documentary film often represents, home movies are the voice and tales of the unheard, the every day folk that make up the majority of our planet's population. Those stories are significant.
That's why I feel passionate about preservation, whether it's amateur home movies or Hollywood narratives, they are reflections of who we are. And not to sound too home movie preachy, but they are an incredibly relevant documentation of our society throughout modern history, but even more importantly, it makes me smile to see my Grandpa Al dance the polka with my big brother standing on his feet in 1964, before I was born. How else would I have experienced that moment?
Noteworthy reference: If you are interested in a Home Movie Day, there is an organization that caters to assisting interested parties in hosting a home movie event. Check them out at homemovieday.com