For a class I taught recently on moving image archives administration, I bought some miscellaneous home movies on eBay. Students explored each reel from all angles: as material object, cultural property, archival asset; as a document with context, content and provenance to be (re-)discovered; as a potential donation or deposit. One reel generated particularly interesting outcomes for this project. It features graphic shots of a heifer giving birth in a field (schloooop! out comes a baby cow!) and an extended sequence of Manheim, Pennsylvania's bicentennial parade in 1962. The latter enabled the students to identify and virtually repatriate the material, which was digitized and uploaded to the Internet Archive to be shared with the citizens of Manheim during their 250th anniversary celebrations in 2012.
If you watch many home movies, you will see many parades. The technological determinist (or faithful reader of old "Movie Makers" magazines) will point out that this is because parades are ideal home movie subjects, combining bright sunlight with colorful subjects easily captured in dynamic motion from a fixed shooting location. The social historian might list parades foremost among the rituals and public spectacles that film- and video-makers have simultaneously captured and consumed through their cameras for over a century. Some esteemed home movie-loving colleagues would add that they are also incredibly boring; I cannot agree.
Confronted at a Home Movie Day event or in the collections backlog with a jumble of films about which the owner knows nothing, I will ALWAYS plump for the box marked "Parade." The contents are virtually guaranteed to please the eye and deliver a historical-political payload, too. As Dwight Swanson has said elsewhere of Christmas morning home movies, "They're all exactly the same, and they're all completely different." For example, compare that Pennsylvania town square (likely shot by area resident Carl Felsburg or his second wife, Edith) with this footage shot halfway around the world at nearly the same time: A reel of 16mm Kodachrome shot by California gastroenterologist Harold Lincoln Thompson in Durban, where elaborately costumed Zulu rickshaw-pullers promenade amongst throngs of tourists and South African locals. Each is data-rich in completely different ways, representing their time and place provocatively and poignantly. Manheim hosts another parade this month, but Durban's rickshaws were already disappearing in the 1960s; only a dozen or two remain.
The Exceptional Amongst the Quotidian
One particularly intriguing and potentially knotty point this post raises is the issue of ascribing value to home movies. How do we determine the exceptional amongst the vast number of home movies that were shot? And by doing so do we risk canonizing the form suggesting that some have a greater worth than others? Further, if there is a benefit in selecting the exceptional home movies how do we find the metonymic type specimens that can stand in for such a massively heterogeneous practice? For example, why did the calf birth reel stand out from the rest? Was it the spectacle of a cow being born? Was it the inclusion of markers that would allow for a determination of the time and place the film was shot, thereby opening up the possibility of repatriation? There is no doubt that when you watch a large number of home movies some, or parts of some, really stand out as being special for a variety of reasons. How do we highlight these outstanding reels while still promoting the larger whole?
See next post...
Great questions, Andy. And for some of my answer, I'm going to refer you to Caitlin's post on Cyrus Pinkham's amazing, and exceptional, World's Fair film. Caitlin's someone who, in my opinion, exemplifies the emerging generation of amateur film scholars, and her post--brief as it must be in this venue--shows why. She's looked at, like, a bazillion World's Fair films, both commercial and amateur (and combinations of the two, as lots of people intercut commercial segments into their personal footage, with varying degrees of editorial sophistication), and that gives her a solid data set from which to theorize about what truly is exceptional, and why. She's insightful and audacious in her thinking, but also cautious and meticulous enough not to overextend that insight and start talking about ALL the films of ALL the World's Fairs, or films of equally major and well-documented spectacles like Disneyland or Dollywood (OK, maybe Dollywood's not quite equally major. But still). In my home movie studies, by contrast, I've gone broad, not deep, as Caitlin has. So what emerges as exceptional for me from that mass has a lot to do with their cumulative value--which is not fatiguing, as you might expect, but exhilarating. For me, the home movie is the last refuge of true cinematic tension. I probably see about 100 feature films a year, sometimes more, and I can guess exactly when someone's car is going to "unexpectedly" blow up about 95% of the time. I did NOT see that baby cow coming, though. Neither did anyone I was watching the film with. And the dude helping the mama cow? He's in kinda nice, just-got-cleaned-up-after-mowing-the-lawn clothes, and he's got a cigarette going in his mouth the whole time. This isn't National Geographic; this is Extremely Local, and Extremely Graphic. The further merit of that reel, however, WAS its identifiability. This is material that we could, more or less conclusively, link to a particular place and people--at which point we could initiate a virtual repatriation and let others be the judge of whether (and how) this material was exceptional, meaningful, or quotidian. That gatekeeping, or canonizing, or valorizing, or selecting role is one that archivists and scholars have often assumed in the absence of parties more intimately connected with a home movie, and I would really love to see that change in the future.
It's great to hear about the use of physical reels of home movies in the classroom. As mentioned in other posts from this theme week, there is so much valuable information that can be drawn from these materials, and I can only hope that more and more classes (across disciplines) utilize amateur footage for instruction. I think it's both an intriguing and unique form of material for students to engage with. Related to this and Andy's comments above, I have similar concerns over canonizing home movies. If we are using home movies much more widely in classes, do we risk canonizing these movies as much as certain feature films that can be found on syllabi across countless film analysis courses? It seems that using home movies for pedagogical purposes is such a great tool for teaching preservation, history, and a number of other subjects, yet we inevitably highlight certain films over others. How may we create an inclusive approach? I like the idea of using films from miscellaneous purchases on eBay for a class exercise, and I think unidentifiable films could be equally as useful or valuable as those that are identifiable.
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