Home Movie Day

Taped memories: sharing a family Christmas past

Taped memories: sharing a family Christmas past Photo: Jim Wallace


In the dimmed lamplight of the Rare Book Room, on a rainy day last August, a man narrated for an audience of strangers the silent scenes of his boyhood as they flickered across a screen. "It was pheasant season. I think it was December. We had a tremendous population of Korean Ringnecks. That's me, the short kid. I was twelve."

The occasion was the second-annual Home Movie Day, sponsored by the Association of Moving Image Archivists, a worldwide screening--forty cities, six countries--of birthdays and Christmases and vacations to the beach recorded on celluloid and accessible only through the mechanical magic of an obsolete device.

"Until recently, nobody recognized the historical significance of small-gauge film" (anything less than 35mm), says Karen Glynn, a longtime AMIA member and, since 2001, Perkins Library's visual materials archivist. "We were worried that it would all disappear when people transferred their footage to DVD. Projectors are scarce these days." Indeed, for many visitors, their pasts locked away in a relic of the Sixties, the Rare Book Room's rare projectors--the Brownie 500, the Eiki "slot mouth," the Eumig--held the promise of long-awaited revelation.

"I've never seen this before," said the man as he watched himself nearly fifty years ago practicing a cornet on a sun-dappled lawn in Holland, Michigan. "Ah, the vegetable garden," he said, as the scene shifted to the backyard. "I was the lucky picker of produce."

"What's your name?" asked a woman from the back of the room. The man turned. "I'm Paul," he said. A ring of silver hair crowned his head. He had a bushy mustache and a round paunch and sad blue eyes. "But the film is for my father, Peter. That's why I call it Requiem for Peter." Peter is eighty-three, Paul explained, and not doing so well. "My sister found the film. She said she was going to edit it. So I got it from her before she could do any damage."

New scenes. Tulip Time in Holland. A parade filled the frame: folk dancers in klompen and bonnets; a marching band. And the camera searched for a cornet player. Moments later, a new scene: the green blur of farmland from a car window. "I'm not sure where we are now," said Paul, inviting guesses. The audience chimed in:

"It looks like Amish country."

"It looks like Northern Indiana."

"I think that's tobacco."

"Did the Amish grow tobacco?"

"It could be lettuce."

"Oh, yes," Paul said. "We were taking a trip to Gettysburg. My father was manager of a furniture store. He had a week off to travel, and he always took it on the Fourth of July."

After the film, Paul rubbed his eyes. "So much water has flowed under the bridge," he said. "You start to lose your mental picture after a while. My mother wanted to use the camera as sparingly as possible. She would never let me get my hands on it. I should have asked to borrow it. It would have been a fight. But at least I could have asked."

Glynn asked for the next presenter. "We've got one," said a woman with her husband and two small children. "Let's see what you've got," said Glynn. She took their reels of Super 8 film and loaded them into the Eiki on a table in the center of the room. There was a clattering of parts. Lights flashed. Wheels spun. And then a black and white Ireland, a pasture by the sea, appeared on the screen. "It's our honeymoon," the woman told the room. "We went to the west coast."

"Daddy, why is it so empty?" asked one of the children.

"Because all the people left and went to America," he said. "Look, a musk oxen. Isn't that a nice shot," he said, laughing and pointing to a black speck in a sea of gray. His wife sighed. "You've seen too many Stan Brakhage movies," she said, referring to the avant-garde filmmaker.

Projectors and projectionists were stationed in smaller rooms to the side, and throughout the day a cinematic hush prevailed, punctured every so often by coos or the sudden exclamatory recollection. "I'm not sure what happens when people come to show these films," said Glynn, "but the ambience is very special."

Glynn says she finds in film an authenticity that the more advanced technologies can't match. "I saw footage of Cuba that a man had brought in one time, and there was water on the lens, and it was because he was right next to the sea wall. You could see the ocean." Glynn added that the 8mm rolls are just over fifty feet long. "That's three and a half minutes. So you know whatever the filmmaker focused on had to be significant. He had to make a choice. It's part of the whole aesthetic."

Later in the afternoon, a woman named Arlene showed films her father had taken in the Fifties. "He was a Methodist missionary in Argentina. When we came back for visits, he liked to photograph things in the U.S. that people had never seen in Argentina and show them there." A trip to Gulf Shores, Alabama, documented the objects of a roadside America, the fire hydrants and mailboxes and water sprinklers, all astonishing, no doubt, to Argentine eyes.

Arlene narrated. "Wait till you see the Crab Jubilee," she said. She seemed anxious. "It's coming up. Just wait. There were so many of them." A sign read "Gulf Shores," and then a car drove on to the beach and unloaded the towels and chairs and umbrellas. "We always liked the water," said her husband. He tapped his wife on the shoulder. "You know, honey, we still have those chairs." A line of beachfront cottages came into view. "Do you know how much those cost back then?" he said. "A thousand dollars. I remember, I said to myself, if I had $2,000, I'd buy one. Gosh, can you imagine what that's worth now?"

"Here come the crabs," said Arlene. "You can't believe how many there were."

The camera panned the beach. There were large plastic tubs to hold the crabs. "We filled those to the top," said her husband. But there were no crabs. Just people smiling for the camera, waving, unknowingly, to Argentines and, now, a crowd in Durham. "That's strange," said Arlene. "Don't you think, honey?" She apologized for the letdown. "Well, I'm sorry. I remember it so clearly. It doesn't show it, but there were thousands. Just thousands of them."

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