Monday, August 28, 2006

Screening the Past: Notes on Home Movie Daze, August 12th, 2006: Part the Second

(See part one -- last post -- before reading on...)

The first of Paula Kent’s movies screened was 18 minutes in length, beginning with her family’s 1955 “Belgian Holiday” (Paula’s verbal title via her impromptu shared narration, not an onscreen title -- there were no titles on Paula’s footage). The most immediately striking thing, as noted, was the incredibly striking color and the quality of both the print and the photography: the 51-year-old reel was in perfect condition, and Paula’s father had been quite the photographer. “Belgian Holiday” was an ideal first act for the day’s proceedings.

For American viewers like myself, there was the delicious exoticism of location and time to savor: the departure from England, the voyage, the destination, the people and fashions and body language. For Paula, though, it was a window to her past, enchantingly vivid. “Oh, that’s my mother,” she cooed as the matriarch’s warm face graced the screen, tentatively making eye contact with the lens/viewer. Paula in her youth wearing a lime green shirt, sitting on a boat, riding on a bus, walking alongside her mother.

Though the content was (for one who had lived it) conventional -- the family boarding the ship (the Prince Charles), various views of the activity on the dock from the ship and on-deck activities, the family in deck chairs, a brief vista of the White Cliffs of Dover, bus jaunts in Belgium, pastoral pans of their travels, the dislocating leap/relocation to Oostende (Belgium's largest passenger and ferry port) in the final minutes -- everything was in sharp focus, the camera moves consistently smooth and controlled, the antithesis of the common misconception of amateur cinematography. At one point, Bruce (Posner, not the Bruce I refer to with Malissa, below) commented, “these are living postcards,” which emphasized the relative dirth of images of people, either Paula’s family or bystanders: indeed, though Paula and mother (and, at one point, her father, evidencing that her mother was as capable a cameraman as he) appeared from time to time, the bulk of the 18 minutes was spent drinking in the scenic elements of their travel. This further distinguished Paula’s shared family footage from most of what followed, punctuated as it typically was by awkwardly smiling, waving, performing family members in various tonalities, times, climes and poses.

Still, I don’t want to give the false impression that Paula’s films were somehow lacking in human touch, intimacy or warmth: these were, after all, home movies, however professional her father’s eye or steady his hand. “Ah, that’s my father,” Paula quietly whispered, her poise and dignity amplified by the mic picking up her comment, lending unexpected grace to the image of the portly, well-dressed man smiling on the screen, walking on an Oostende sidewalk toward us. Thus, we all felt privileged: that was the essence of the day, in all its facets. We handful of viewers & participants were privileged.

From Merry Ol’ England to New England: Meanwhile, John Karol had wrapped up prep on Bruce & Malissa’s 8mm reels, and quietly set up the first of their reels on the 8mm projector mounted on the central table. Mere moments after Paula’s first 16mm reel ran its course, John began the day’s first 8mm screening. The projected image was of course a bit smaller, the grain and texture of the color film naturally not as fine or lush as the 16mm -- nature of the beast -- though this footage, too, was in surprisingly good condition. The older vintage (1941-42) of this footage also marked everything about the imagery, from the clothes and scenery to its intrinsic flavor. Malissa was also equipped with a mic at this point, though her attention was divided between the film onscreen and the 8mm reel she was still working with on the editing station; still, she was a conscientious narrator.

The initial footage, Malissa told us, was apparently “shot by my Great Uncle Leonard Crabtree” in and about their Bridgeport, CT family stomping grounds and various other New England locales (though there was still a British connection: Malissa’s great-grandfather had been born in the UK, she mentioned at one point). This was more familiar amateur movie turf, nonetheless. Foliage, deer, a cottage (“the Anne Hathaway cottage,” Malissa said), a garden, ocean shots, family members standing, walking, waving; Bridgeport landmarks, including the statue of P.T. Barnum (“my great-grandfather had worked with Barnum,” Malissa recalled). Seasonal shifts assert: the fall foliage becomes more colorful, a stout well-dressed man stands on a porch entryway alongside two huge turkeys, strung up by their feet, their dead wings spread apart by gravity.

This memorable harvest tableau magically opens another portal into more intimate family portraits, and the dead inverted gobblers are instantly offset by a closeup of a very-much-alive large green parrot. He won’t be steaming on a table anytime soon.

A woman in the doorway: “That’s my mom,” Malissa exclaims, noting the doorway belongs to the house she grew up in. She no sooner says this than we are collectively whisked into sharing Christmas 65 years ago: winter shots, snow on the suburban ground, gives way to interior shots of the living room and dining room, family members sitting in chairs, chatting stiffly in conscious response to the camera being on. Christmas rituals take center stage -- the decorating of the tree, various household scenes tied to the season’s preparations -- as daily rituals are also acknowledged (the winding of a glorious old standing grandfather clock by an elder man; Malissa’s quiet “I wonder what happened to him?” prompts the materialistic retort from someone in the room, “Heck, what happened to that wonderful clock?”).

Domesticity abruptly gives way to City. Shots of downtown Manhattan, neon signs by night, the General Electric Building, Loew’s Majestic Theater, and what appears to be a then-high-tech fair (the World’s Fair?) just as suddenly cuts back to interiors of a chess game being played and then -- a stream in the woods. These mercurial changes aren’t the result of editing per se, but of the camera being put down, forgotten, and picked up again later to be used; the final shift from city to chessboard to babbling brook most likely a “let’s use up this reel and get it developed” whim, but it still strikes uncanny, inconsequential sparks: the disposable alchemy of amateur filmmaking. End of reel.

At 11:20 AM, the second of Malissa & Bruce’s reels unspools, and we are again back in 1941-42: a senior prom, a young couple in shaky focus, a snapshot of their vibrancy/awkwardness/nervousness/excitement come and gone in seconds. “I don’t know any of these people,” Malissa meekly admits, and now there’s more strangers dressed to the nines stiffly sitting in front of a fireplace, drinking, self-conscious (with each other? the camera?), and then we’re en route to an unknown destination. Ah, no, here we are, at a train station -- “the Bridgeport station,” someone sitting in the darkness asserts, noting key landmarks still recognizable, over half-a-century later -- and we drink in the various views of the station, the train approaching, and then we’re collectively jaunting from locale to locale, apparently still in-and-around Bridgeport, until the final shot rests on “Briarwood Farms,” a broad, flat building symetrically tagged with two outsized ice cream cones on either end, giant ‘V’ shapes positioned like eyes but looking like inverted discolored candy corns framing/dwarfing the tiny doorway at dead center.

End of reel.

[Intermission. To be continued...]

For some reason, posting on the blog over the weekend was impossible, due to our internet access. Apologies for the delay of Part 2’s posting.

Tomorrow is our new-semester-prep faculty meeting at the Center for Cartoon Studies, which I’m eager to engage with (the meeting and the new semester, natch). I’ll be spending tomorrow night screening flicks with the students who have arrived, along with those I’ve kept working with and seen of-and-on over the summer; as Rick Veitch says to me now and again when September approaches, “I can taste the change in the air” as we approach the fall which, for Rick and I, meant our first year at The Kubert School and the major life change (for the better) that marked. I’m already feeling it, now wed to my here-and-now life with CCS: how intoxicating it is!

Speaking of the work done with CCS creators over the summer, Alex Afterman of Heretic Films surprised me last week with a mailing of advance copies of The Last Broadcast and Head Trauma DVDs: the real McCoys, not screeners. Both films look and sound incredible on the home theater, and I’m happy to report that Alex and Heretic have done right by the movies, the filmmakers, and all the Jersey Devil mini-comic CCSers -- Elizabeth Chasalow, Alexis Frederick-Frost, Jacob Jarvela, Sean Morgan (congrats on the impending marriage, Sean!), Lauren O’Connell, Caitlin Plovnick, Adam Staffaroni, Josie Whitmore, and guest-stars Rich Tommaso, Sarah Stewart Taylor and Peter Money. Most of the CCSers -- or, as we dubbed ourselves while working on the mini, JD’s JDs -- and a couple of their classmates who weren’t part of that early-summer effort are even as I write this hard at work on a new DVD mini-comic that’s still top-secret, but I’ll post news and images here ASAP once the veil of secrecy and high-tech security is lifted.

Excited as I am about our CCS Jersey Devil mini-comic in The Last Broadcast package (and my full-color painting, presented as the inside-cover print sans text), it’s Head Trauma and the work I did with son Daniel on the comic that figures so strongly in the movie itself. I immediately called Dan when the package arrived, and we got together over the weekend. I’ll note here for y’all that Dan and I pop up on the extras on the Head Trauma disc, talking about our work on the faux-Christian-comics-tract that figures prominently in the flick, and it means the world to me that filmmaker and amigoLance Weiler so conscientiously included Dan in this with me. (What a difference from the usual treatment afforded cartoonists in connection with films their work appears in -- much kinder and more rewarding by far than my own past experiences (on “bigger” films), too. So, kudos to Lance, on all fronts.)

I’ll be posting mucho material -- written and visual -- on both films and my part in the comics relevent to both later in September, closer to the street date of both DVDs. Keep an eye out here!

Finally, I should mention my latest review posted over at accompanying
  • the release of Rick Veitch’s seminal first (and never before collected) graphic novel Abrasax & The Earthman from Rick’s own King Hell Press, exclusively available with a full-color signed bookplate from PaneltoPanel that was inked by the legendary Al Williamson,
  • so what are you waiting for? Rick showed me the cover proofs and some interior page proofs a couple of weeks ago over lunch at my favorite Wilmington VT diner Dot’s, and the book looks stunning. Don’t miss this one!

    And speaking of previously uncollected and complete seminal graphic novels I dearly love, check out (and pre-order)
  • Rob Walton’s incredible Ragmop complete edition (with intro by yours truly and, via Paneltopanel, an exclusive signed full-color bookplate)
  • and be quick about it. Ragmop is a balm for our troubled times, sure to push your buttons, get you laughing, and further balancing the lunacy Fox News should be jailed for spouting.

    If you’re allergic to anything vaguely political, though, how about
  • the Gene Colan delineated crossovers twixt Dracula & Dr. Strange in one kick-ass volume with an exclusive Gene Colan signature plate,
  • which is a necessary companion to the complete Tomb of Dracula reprint volumes. These Dr. Strange crossovers were the Jim Shooter-era Marvel stake-through-the-heart and kiss-off to all vampires (I kid you not), and absolutely essential reading if you’re at all interested in horror comics of the ‘70s and ‘80s. I wonder if they’ll include a reprint of the official “Death Certificate” that appeared with the final chapter of the crossover, in which Shooter swore this was the end of all vampirism in the entire Marvel universe? Too bad he forgot to include Ron Perlman and then-current Marvel management on that, eh? Well, times have changed, and now this slice of Marvel history is immortalized forever. BTW, John adds, “Did you realize Gene just announced his retirement from comics? “ No, I hadn’t. More on this later...

    But finally, I also have to note
  • the new Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles first collected volume with exclusive signed bookplate, an all-new piece of art by TMNT co-creator Peter Laird hisself
  • and -- oh, hell, a lot more. Check it out, shop with, and tell John I sent ya!

    OK, I’m outta here...


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