The Private and Public Viewings of Home Movies

Curator's Note

Who were the intended audiences for home movies prior to online platforms? Were these visual records of everyday life in the twentieth century meant for private or public eyes? One common assumption, since challenged, was that these quotidian documents were created only for family and friends. This view led to a devaluation of home moviemaking as not being able to address larger social concerns or interest someone unrelated to the people onscreen.

While there are thousands of home movies that might fit this stereotype, thanks to a growing number of scholars, archivists, and individuals saving their family heritage we have a better sense of the amazingly heterogeneous wealth of personal and public experiences these films include. Seemingly cliched home movies can contain information on the wider times in which they were shot. And while their exhibition might have been limited to close-knit circles of family members or networks of amateur film enthusiasts, many of these films imagined a much wider audience.

Take, for example, "The Last Reel" (1986), made by Arthur H. Smith with his wife Blanche and excerpted here. The film documents their life as retirees in a California mobile home community as they navigate the difficulties of living in a smaller space and providing financial help to their grown-up children. In the voiceover Smith addresses his imagined viewer as "you" with the same mix of amorphousness and specificity of a television announcer. While perhaps a simple act of appropriating TV talk, it reveals how the oppositional binary of public and private is actually a constantly negotiated state, a point made by the anthropologist Susan Gal. The public is always found in the private and vice versa. This private film addresses us decades later through public modes of address.

I raise these points as a way to open this discussion of what it means to take these private movies and present them to new public audiences. What new meanings accrue to these films when we become the "you" addressed by Smith? Are they still "home" movies when they're screened in a theater or viewed online?


A very nice post that poses the questions I constantly think about in terms of home movies. Smith's film also brings up issues around the tenuous divide between amateur and professional work - here is an amateur who nonetheless takes his craft to heart and gives it cinematic flair in a way that many other home movies don't, especially those movies that function more as moving snapshots rather than "movies." The latter films seem to be made for an audience of "us" rather than "you," whereas this film envisions a life outside the living room - and that's partly reflected in its formal technique and, as you note, mode of address. The status of "home movie" is certainly shifting wildly once online viewing comes into consideration.


Thanks for raising the point about Smith being on the divide between the amateur and the professional. He made a living making industrial films and made these more amateur works as a rather productive hobby. I picked him for the way that his films, like many other filmmakers around the same time, explode the distinctions between Hollywood and the home movie.

You nicely point out that in picking him as an emblem of home movie making, it does obscure the films that we think of as the more traditional home movies of birthday parties, Christmas mornings, weddings and vacations that are more of the point-and-shot variety than this highly edited film by the Smiths. However, I wanted to show it for the way that it offers viewers an invitation into the Smiths' domestic space via the opening sequence of driving up to their home and following Mrs. Smith inside.

Are there less explicit invitations in the movies you note are more like moving snapshots that bring the public, and now us, into their private worlds? I would suggest that there is a range of openings including the genre of the everyday experience that many of them documented. Though the actual viewership of such a film might have been limited to the family it documented, every family that made a home movie on Christmas morning on, say, December 5, 1962 was participating in a simultaneous act with all of the other families shooting home movies that day. A kind of public was constructed, more disconnected than that of a TV broadcast, but the filming of these events solidified the individual's participation in the social event. True, every one of these is different and that is part of the appeal of these films, specifically the way that they merge the common and the unique.

Finally, you mention the transformation that putting these films up online creates, which does raise a number of ethical issues in terms of privacy rights. One way we might address this is to consider the divide between public and private and I present this film to that conversation to suggest that even seemingly very private films have an element of the public to them.

Thought-provoking post, Andy, and a great start to what I'm sure will be a fun theme week! Your final question offers a nice long thread for us to tug on--just what part of home movies is (or has to be, or has been) at home? My own viewings suggest that a minority of home movies actually depict the filmmaker's home (from the twentieth century, at least--the advent of webcams having done more than any other technology to anchor amateur production in intimate and domestic space). That seems to be the case whether we define "home" as a locus structurally--by exterior or interior shots of their dwelling place--or geographically--by the street, neighborhood, town, or the landscape filmmakers encounter as they go to and from their residences. People traveled with their cameras and made a lot of home movies when they were away from home, just as they do now. When you consider this fact, most home movies are really only "home" movies in a much larger sense--having been made in the world that was home to their makers, rather than the houses that they called home. I have a hard time generalizing about home movies as being exclusively private documents--and as Jen points out, the difference between amateur and professional is as difficult to delineate as the distinction between public and private. Maybe taking (or viewing) a home movie away from its home is more like importing a bottle of wine than it is like publishing a diary? We might talk about these films as having terroir in the same way that wines do, reflecting the precise place and time in which they were made, as well as the people and technologies which produced them. An exquisitely sensitive intellectual palate might find more to savor in a home movie of a certain vintage--but there's little to stop someone from chugging the Chateauneuf-de-Pape from the YouTube bottle and just getting their buzz on...

Thanks for raising some interesting questions about the contexts of screening home movies. I think exhibition is one of those points of contention in trying to define the idea of "home movies," and intended audience is, perhaps, a major part of where lines may be drawn. I think Jennifer and Snowden raise salient points about intentions and place. Although home movies may be filmed outside of the home, are they intended only for viewing amongst a group of people of close social relation? This seems not to be the case with "The Last Reel," since the creators seem to have an eye (and narration) for a more public audience. If they are intending for a public audience, has this movie ever been a "home movie?" Or, must a home movie be intended only for a more private audience? I do not think there is necessarily a clear distinction in many of the films and videos we may consider to be home movies, but intended audience may be one of many factors in defining the boundaries between home movies and other amateur films. I'd be curious to see more of the Smiths' work and how they frame their audience in other movies.

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