I Love a Parade

Curator's Note

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.


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?

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.

Let me just add an aside here about selectivity and the power of metonymic selection in this context: The baby cow isn't the only great thing about that reel. I think it's great, of course, but I think there's other great stuff on there, too, some of which I or you or everyone else might only realize is great a long time from now. It's for exactly that reason that I chose the rickshaw parade footage--which also has a couple of great, equally brief moments in it--because that selection represents ONE ENTIRE HUNDRED-FOOT REEL of 16mm film. The Felsburg footage, by contrast, exists as a compiled reel of a few hundred feet of regular 8mm film. I'd much rather present one full reel, and link to/discuss a longer one that's also entire, than extract the baby cow and the parade and have that stand in for the whole. For one thing, this way I sort of get to present two clips, and perhaps better make my point re: parades in general via that comparison. For another, I don't worry about the baby-cow clip hogging all the attention--or getting turned into "AMAZING CALF BIRTH FOOTAGE W@W!!!" on YouTube, perhaps--and the rest of the reel being rendered, by default, less worthy of perusal because it was not extracted, condensed, and made bite-sized for this venue. Now, you could say I did the Thompson collection at USC a disservice by selecting his one reel of the Durban rickshaws to stand in for the several hundred others he shot, but I would argue there's a big difference when it comes to home movies between approaching (or presenting) them at the item level, the collection level, or the shot level. Those distinctions were very much in my mind as I made my selection, and I think they should be made evident whenever possible.

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.

Having used found/eBay'd home movie footage for classroom instruction in a couple of different settings now, I can enthusiastically recommend it to others. In my experience, it's been a remarkable catalyst for discussion--students (and people in general) tend to have strong and fully-formed opinions about ownership, privacy, commodification of personal records, what represents "quality" or "value" in a piece of filmmaking, and many other concepts that ANY random reel of home movies will tend to challenge in some way. More than once, someone who starts the class meeting convinced that selling home movies on eBay is a bad thing has, by the end of the evening, talked themselves around to the conclusion that it's the only truly democratic way to ensure their survival as cultural artifacts. The use of found, abandoned, or otherwise decontextualized material is a terrific equalizer, as well. Far from canonizing the content, it forces a confrontation with the non-canonical as well as a nuanced interrogation of the canonical: Why is the Zapruder film on the National Film Registry, when films of so many other parades are not? It also greatly reduces (or at least clarifies) the imbalance between instructor/expert and student/naif--how can I possibly know more about the content if we're all watching it for the first time? And it's easier for me to express what expert knowledge I do have in terms of eye training and visual analysis as an object lesson: How do I know this is Kodachrome? What clues am I relying on to refine a date range for the film's creation? Why am I careful not to assign roles like "father" or "mother" to the adult men or women onscreen? Finally, I'd like to say how useful a tool such films can be for teaching the tolerance of ambiguity and rigorous epistemological reflection that is necessary when working with archival material in any medium. When it comes to material that so palpably captures a real person's or family's experience of their time and place, yet may be so opaque as to the specifics of exactly who, when, and where they were, it's a powerful thing to be able to say "your guess is as good as mine," and have your students realize that's the case for most of what we think of as the historical record.

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