Thursday, August 24, 2006

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

After exchanging emails with the organizers a month or so earlier, taking unnecessary precautions to ensure my seat was secure, I made the 75 minute drive up to Hanover, NH Saturday morning and found my way to the Howe Library, arriving a bit early. No matter -- after killing some time downtown (browsing and buying some used DVDs, natch), I arrived about the time the Howe Library doors were opened to the public, and lo and behold, the festivities were already underway, though I hadn't missed a thing.

The Home Movie Day moguls -- John Tariot of Film Video Digital and Bruce Posner of Unseen Cinema fame -- were hard at work, finishing the set-up of the room and equipment. They were working in synch with a devoted crew: Sukdith Punjasthitkul, John Karol, Ellen Lynch and someone I recognized from a recent visit to Rutland VT's Edgewood Studios, Nate Weinstein. Everyone was busy with various tasks, from ensuring the doorway wasn't leaking too much light into the room (ah, black plastic bags have so many uses) to checking the sound system to making sure the procession of projectors (8mm, Super 8 and 16mm) were in place, stationed for optimum screening and all working properly. There were already a couple of folks in the room, too, participants in the process. Each had carried in cardboard boxes brimming with home movie reels of various gages and sizes, and John, Bruce, John and Sukdith were attending to the first fruits of the day's harvest, setting up reels on the various bench editing stations at the back of the room to see if the films were in good enough shape to risk projection: the ultimate goal, for both those bringing their movies into the workshop and those organizing and working the floor.

Everyone -- myself included! -- was really there to see movies. Movies that had most likely not been screened for decades; movies never seen by most of us in the room.

It was magic.

I had seen Bruce in action once before, hosting a special Dartmouth College evening of selections from Bruce's marvelous DVD compilation Unseen Cinema, which I've written about here months ago (but will write more about this weekend). He's one of those fellows radiating a quiet but contagious enthusiasm and energy, and his love for cinema -- from its seductive onscreen alchemy to the organic stuff of it, evident in his every interaction with each visitor and their family treasures at Home Movie Day -- was absolutely infectious. Not that I needed to catch the bug: as an addict of all things cinematic, I felt an immediate affinity for Bruce throughout the entire Unseen Cinema sampler evening. No surprise, then, that he was the first to greet me as I quietly stepped into the Howe Library basement screening room.

Having nothing in hand, I was a bit of an aberration at first, but not to Bruce: he understood the appetite, the hunger, the need to see that had propelled me the 160-mile-round trip for the day's great unknown.

What would we see? What could we see? The when and where of every film was part of the draw, the mystery, the feast, but it was the images -- the lovely, moving images -- that comprised the entirity of the banquet.

Having made my own 8mm and Super 8 films -- working with my friends in junior high and high school (Bill Hunter, Alan Finn, Jay 'Snake' Harvey and others), editing my own efforts with the old Kodak editing kits and splicing tape, and supervised 16mm film showings and student film societies throughout junior high, high school and college -- I found the sights, sounds, smells and bustle of the work station and projection tables were a high in and of themselves. Delicious!

It had been almost 30 years since I'd savored this: my last projection (of an 8mm film, to my classmates at the Joe Kubert School) was back in 1977 or '78, after which I left both my film collection and projector with the school (sadly, only to find all gone a year or two later when I visited the old grounds; hope some Kubie somewhere has 'em or made good use of them, it was quite a collection of rare Blackhawk films, from a complete set of Georges Melies shorts to silent era features like Nosferatu, She and much more). It all rushed back as I glanced in the door, and by the time I picked my way to an open seat in the far corner (with sterling visibility of the work stations and the screen), I was nigh on intoxicated by the rush.

I was immediately asked if I'd brought anything; alas, I hadn't. I was there to watch.

My student films are long gone -- left with my friend Bill Hunter after high school graduation, and when Bill was found dead a mere two years later, I lost track of all that. It was part of all I left behind when I aggressively pursued my path as a cartoonist, spurred as much by Bill's demise as my obsessive need to draw and tell stories of my own. My -- our -- films were part of the baggage I abandoned in the heat of the trailblazing. Bill's mother Mary wrote me out of the blue in the mid-1990s, asking how I was and if I'd like Bill's old projector and our films. I meant to write immediately, but her letter arrived amid my marriage collapsing and Tyrant launching and Maia & Danny and I living in cramped quarters in a tiny Wilmington apartment, and I misplaced/lost the letter before the week was out. It's never turned up since, and I fear that opportunity is forever past.

So, no movies in hand -- just my appetite to see whatever unknowable and unseen amateur and home films might be shared that day. I should have expected the sensations that greeted me before anything kissed the screen, the familiarity of those sensory stimuli, but I hadn't even thought of it -- the 'contact high' of the sound, sight, smell, touch, taste of celluloid, film, and its gleaming entourage of machines and equipment.

This is something alien and unknown to many (most) of you, obliterated by the post-1978 beta/vhs/laserdisc/DVD generation, and thus hard to communicate: there was a tactile excitement in hearing tiny plastic 8mm film reels being popped out of their characteristic blue sheaths, the soft swish of the film moving reel-to-reel, a gravity and grace to the handling of metal 16mm film cans and reels and the more assertive sounds of the wider gauge film going through its paces. I itched to touch and handle it all, but that wasn't my place; I resisted all but the urge to occasionally stand behind the editing stations as Sukdith, John, John and Bruce helped the home movie owners screen their treasures on the tiny screens. It was otherwise enough to see and hear the film reels being tenderly lifted from their shells, spy upon the loving initial inspection by eye and hand, the holding of a strip of film up to the light, the officious snaps and clicks of reels and takeup reels being popped into place for a run through the editing machines, culminating in all but a few sad cases (films turning to vinegar, moldy, or too shrunken to project) in the rousing bustle around the appropriate projector to share the harvest with one and all in attendance.

"You are so accomodating," the older woman of the two who seemed to have the largest caches of old films said to Nate and John K as they worked with her. Her name was Paula Kent, I later found out; a librarian by profession, living in Newbury VT but originally from England (and retaining enough of her accent to notice), attending this event in hopes of screening an abundance of 16mm home movies her parents had shot in the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s and into the '50s.

She -- and we -- were amply rewarded.

There was also a couple from Norwich, Bruce and Malissa (I hope I'm spelling her name correctly), who also had reels of 8mm home movies from the 1940s, shot in and about Cape Cod. Sukdith was working closely with Malissa, quickly assessing at a glance the preservation issues -- thankfully, no torn sprocket holes, no tears, and no evident shrinkage, he said -- before skillfully adding lengths of fresh leader to the beginning of each reel before he helped Malissa set it up for editing-screen viewing. At one point Malissa sighed, "lots of foliage," with evident impatience.

"Every 8 or Super 8 collection has at least one reel with fall foliage," Suki said. John T added, "Foliage has its place... having shot some home movies myself, I'm guilty of the same thing -- shooting things instead of people."

No such reservations were being expressed at the 16mm editing station. Paula was tickled to hear John K tell here, "This looks like it's in splendid shape," which was all Bruce needed to hear.

In short order Bruce had the first reel of Paula's 16mm reels threaded onto the 16mm projector at the back of the room, as John checked the next reel -- it all seemed to be in perfect condition, and Paula was clearly enchanted by what she was seeing unspool on the editing workstation John help her manage. "Oh, there's my mother..."

At 10:41 AM -- a mere 40 minutes after the morning's activities had begun in earnest -- the first reel of film was screened. Bruce set it up and dashed to a center seat, sitting back with evident satisfaction. Nate was helping Paula clip a small neck microphone to her shirt collar as the screen was suddenly splashed with color -- rich, saturated color, circa 1955, the year I was born, looking as splendid as it had the day it was filmed...

[To be continued...]

Breaking news update:

This just in, from UVM:
"As many of you know, there was a serious shooting incident at Essex Elementary school this afternoon. UVM students were present at the school at the time. All our students have been accounted for and are physically unharmed. We are engaged in extensive inter agency cooperation to provide counseling and support to our students and faculty and to the other people affected by this tragic event." This comes from A. John Bramley, Acting UVM President; more on this tomorrow, once I know more myself...
Some Links...

Posting later today, but a warmup:

Betty Boop, Koko the Clown, Popeye the Sailor Man, Gulliver's Travels, Mr. Bug Goes to Town and oh so much more. Into animation and the Fleischer Brothers legacy? Hey, jump to it -- click on over to
  • the amazing G. Michael Dobbs site dedicated to The Fleischer Brothers animation, ”Made of Pen & Ink”

  • If you're into more personal media, check out one of my fave Canadian cartoonists via
  • the amply illustrated cartooning blog of Max Douglas aka Salgood Sam.

  • And this from my old Kubert School compatriot Chris Kalnick:

    Follow the instructions below to see just how accurate Google is.
    Do it soon before Google finds this and changes it.

    Subject: ............... Was this a mistake on Google's part?

    1- Go to
    2- Type in the word: Failure
    3- Look at it the first listing
    4- Tell other people before the people at Google fix it

    OK, more later -- Home Movie Day, Part One!