Critiquing old home movies

Shadows cast by the artwork of Brooklyn-born artist James Grashow. Photo by Kevin Carter
Shadows cast by the artwork of Brooklyn-born artist James Grashow. Photo by Kevin Carter

Shot on a shoe-string budget, a conglomeration of old home movies newly converted to a DVD format and shown on the large-screen television in the upstairs living room of my father-in-law’s home in Wilmington, North Carolina this summer showed promise. The collection of 8 mm film languished for decades in a storage unit before restoration in its new format. We hoped for the discovery of a hidden gem.

We had just finished viewing a stunning documentary about a Chicago nanny and masterful street photographer who left boxes of undeveloped negatives behind. Vivian Maier’s never-before-seen negatives were developed and later shown in museums across the world. Maybe my father-in-law’s raw footage stitched together in a haphazard manner would reveal the mysteries of a lost world and eventually make the rounds at a little known festival of home movies where it could be awarded obscure prizes acknowledging his unheralded mastery of the medium.

I had high hopes, but the collection of movies reveal some technical deficiencies. The sound quality could have been better. That’s the gentlest way I can think to say that these home movies were all shot without sound. People talk throughout the movies. You can see their lips moving. Perhaps music is playing in the background since some scenes contain dancing. But those of us sprawled across the living room could hear nothing.

Is it too much to ask for my father-in-law to have hired a professional sound crew with a large boom mike to record events and later set the whole shebang to a rousing score to highlight the joy of the lives he recorded? A decent Foley artist could have added sound effects at appropriate moments. A sound track of early 70’s hits would have spiced things up. Maybe some Cat Stevens. I’m just saying.

My father-in-law tells great stories of his early life. But I have to say that a compelling narrative structure was lacking in his films. A baby, my wife, is seen crawling in one snippet of film. She scoots back and forth across the carpet as if about to launch herself forward. In another snippet, she is walking. In a third snippet, she is in diapers again and back to scooting. Where’s the continuity? Are we to believe she regressed?

But the genius of my father-in-law as a director is that he is not content to hew to mundane film-making traditions. Interspersed among the predictable compilation of Christmases, raucous house parties and birthday parties are seemingly random shots of my father-in-law playing golf with his old fraternity buddies in their snappy golf hats. Inserted in the middle of all these snippets is a short Keystone Cops movie.

My father-in-law obviously used these otherwise seemingly random images of old slapstick and amateur golf outings to make a statement that life is simply a series of random events. We pretend a sort of nominal control over them like golfers aiming for an elusive hole. But we are often crowded into a car with too many other people feeling ridiculous while caught in a stalled vehicle with a locomotive bearing down on us.

Whatever the artistic merits of the film, it was touching to watch people I’d seen only many decades after their starring roles in the films with decades stripped away from their lives. Some were even restored to life through the magic of film. My wife’s grandmother who I knew late in her life as a vivacious Steel Magnolia from Texas in her twilight years shone as brightly on film as she had in her later years. My wife’s aunt Su Su who was lost to us about five years ago reappeared sprightly and slender looking on film, resembling the 60’s supermodel Twiggy. I got an introduction to my mother-in-law’s father, who I never met in life, as a short happy man fishing in a river.

In the end, we are all just shadows on the wall. Our hour comes and goes. We are preserved in photos and video long past our own expiration dates. Our smiles outlast our selves. It’s nice to look back and see the bright ghosts alive again for the camera. And glimpse our younger selves unwrapping Christmas paper, blowing out birthday candles and mugging like stars in a Hollywood production as we dance to music only we can hear.

All in all, I give the film two thumbs up!

 

 

Critiquing old home movies

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