Wednesday, August 30, 2006

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

(See parts one & two -- unless you’ve read those already -- before reading on...)

Judith Kushner, along with Paula and Malissa & Bruce, had been active all morning thus far with the help of John [Tariot], Bruce [Posner] and the crew tending to her own box of treasures: a bounty of 8mm home movies dating from the 1950s and ‘60s. Some of the news Bruce had for Judith was unhappy: reels smelling of vinegar, indicating advanced chemical decomposition that was, essentially, contagious: “You’ll have to dispose of this immediately,” Bruce said, taking precautionary measures in his own handling of the unopened reel, “and do you know if it has been near any of the other reels? Let’s check those.”

Thus, a sensory organ other than our eyes -- Bruce’s nose -- came front and center. Though there was an undeniable (and commented upon) absurdity to Bruce’s sniffing of various unopened cans and reels, the search was in earnest: any reels smelling even slightly of vinegar were toxic, to be isolated immediately from the rest of Judith’s home movies and disposed of properly.

Another enemy of aging film, mold, plagued other reels in Judith’s collection. “You have every possible scenario happening to you here,” Bruce says. The inspection of her film intensified as the initial discovery of mold on two reels prompted discussion of her options: those reels not too badly ravaged by mold might be salvagable if cleaned, a process the workshop wasn’t prepared to offer, though Bruce very carefully explains the necessary tools and cleaning procedures and Judith’s options. Though the tainted reels weren’t as “contagious” as the vinegared reels, the moldy reels would still have to be identified, kept apart from the untainted reels so as not to spread spores to vulnerable uncontaminated reels, and dealt with -- soon. “There one other smell you might smell -- a camphor smell -- and that’s OK,” Bruce adds.

Judith asks why old film does this, and Bruce explains what all in their team (and most cineastes) know: that film is an organic medium. It is not only metaphoric that film is “alive”; despite its apparent plasticity (which most folks associate with literal plastic: a non-living substance boasting illusory permanence, inherently stable and impervious), film is in fact composed of “animal parts melted onto gel,” and thus susceptable to age, decay and damage, including the chemical decompositions and ravages of mold devouring some of Judith’s precious footage.

With all this bad news, there was thankfully some good news: a number of Judith’s family treasures looked fine, and once checked on the editing stations were cued up on the 8mm projectors on the foremost projection table and ready to screen. As Judith soon explained, these were compilation reels someone (most likely her father) had spliced together onto single reels (not edited but spliced, reel-head to reel-toe, simply to consolidate multiple individual reels onto larger reels). The two reels John, John & Bruce screened for Judith and the gathered were incredibly full, barely containing the abundance of 8mm material threatening to spill over the reel ridges. Though this required some caution in handling the reels en route to the projector, it presented no problems otherwise to the Home Movie Day team, vet projectionists all.

The first of these silent color 8mm beauties splashed upon the screen, offering a fascinating contrast to Paula’s first 16mm record of her family’s Belgian bon voyage: Judith’s family ocean voyage was aboard a military transport ship bound from Japan to the US in the early 1950s. Her father had served in the U.S. Army, and the footage offered candid views of the family during a four-to-five day trip across the Pacific from Japan to Los Angeles. The images were crisp and vivid, the color lending patinas of blue, green and splashes of color (faces, flesh, eyes, hair, clothes) amid the slate-gray metal geometries of the ship’s deck and walkways as Judith, her brother, sister, father, and obviously not-feeling-well mother savored (or endured) the oceanic jaunt. Judith’s Grandmother and Step-Grandfather also made onscreen appearances, as the footage abruptly lept to a new destination:

Richland, Washington -- “The Atomic City” -- was the next 8mm stop, still in nice color and sharp focus, evidence of Judith’s family’s life in that peculiar and strangely iconic 1950s slice of Americana. “In some ways, it was not fun for us to live in ‘The Atomic City’,” Judith commented without sarcasm as we drank in the disorienting spectacle of the family’s domestic life -- primarily backyard vistas, shots of Judith’s brother and sister playing in the spray of a yard sprinkler -- giving way to imposing shots of active artillary fire on a nearby Army firing range. The only ones actively demonstrating any sense of antic fun throughout this footage were Judith’s brother (a self-evident camera-hambone from his first appearance aboard the transport ship) and the family dog, spicing the shots of the military housing development in Richmond as summer/fall views gave way to winter snowfall and the dog prancing on the snow-laced lawn.

Another abrupt cut, reel-toe to reel head, and we’re transported to the first titled home movie footage of the day: “Dance Court with Waltz,” a carefully-lettered title card proclaims, held aloft for the camera in the same Richland back yard. So begins a reel of preteen girls (Judith and her older sister) in costume dancing ballet in the suburban housing backyard. The costumes aren’t 1950s store-bought confections, but clearly labors of love. “Mother made the costumes,” Judith noted as the first round of dancing concluded and two boys appeared holding a new title card: “River Seine.”

One sister dances in the foreground, intent upon her choreography. But something is moving in the background: little brother creeps into the distance, poised until his uncanny grasp of the image area fixes upon what is in his mind (and is in fact) center screen, and begins his own clownish dance. The Home Movie Day gathering erupts with laughter at the lad’s half-century-past anarchy, a blessed agent of chaos who must be checked. Judith’s irate mother, painfully conscious she is being filmed and determined this frenetic sibling won’t forever blemish this precious record of her daughters dancing, labors to pull the little madman out of camera range -- but he will not be deterred, eliciting more helpless laughter. This spark of antic life infesting the manicured military housing lawns, slinking across the shaded distance only to explode into manic spasms to disrupt the carefully-planned domestic pageantry of the lovingly-sewn costumes and clearly rehearsed dance, steals our hearts in seconds. Dance! Dance, dance Atomic City to its radioactive foundations! Judith’s here-and-now, still-embarrassed sisterly acknowledgement “uh, that’s my brother again” intensifies our instantaneous bond with this unrehearsed mischief subverting of mother’s best-made plans. Home Movie Day has its first breakthrough star.

Alas, a cut, a brief further dance, and another leap in time between joined reels:

Detroit, “years later,” Judith tells us, and far, far from Atomic City, as shots of her mother’s Volkswagon give way to pastoral views. “We were visiting Auntie Ruby in Crystal Falls,” she explains as we drink in the exquisite vistas of foggy pastures on a summer morning. A dog (“That’s Skipper!”) wanders amid woodlands; pastures, cattle, flowers follow, leading to shots of Crystal Falls itself, gleaming in the sunlight. Judith’s sparse commentary becomes unnecessarily apologetic in tenor, as if the ongoing shots of a remote rural house (“it was for sale at the time”) and its grounds, the views of birds eagerly savoring a variety of bird feeders, “our backyard in Detroit” were a hindrance, a tedium; this is the essence of much home movie footage, and it carries its own poetry. No apologies necessary, Judith, especially to his group.

As if to rescue 21st Century Judith, a title card breaks the procession of birds and bird feeders. It’s 20th Century Judith coming to the rescue of her future self. 21st Century Judith sighs with evident relief.

“How Two Went Out Into the Wide World” the title reads, promising narrative drive (however ethereal), thrusting us into the 1960s and providing us instantly with two protagonists: two girls, young Judith and her then-best-friend Alicia. Astride their bicycles, Judith & Alicia wander the fringes of downtown Detroit circa 1964 (judging from the glimpse of a newspaper headline sporting Lee Harvey Oswald). They bicycle through a business district, past barbershops and cutting across various street scenes, making their way to the waterfront. Views of the docks and the Detroit River succumb to industrial complexes, active and abandoned. “We’re near a steel plant here,” Judith tells us, “we weren’t supposed to be in this part of the city, I don’t think.” Their crimes of trespass, preserved for the ages on 8mm. Curious shots of the girls, apparently role playing: Judith acting the derelict, leaning against a blighted fence (“That’s me, thinking I was playing a drunk”). “I think this was all in Ohio, here,” Judith comments as their ramshackle narrative alights in and around an ominous abandoned brick factory. An unexpected atmosphere of dread asserts itself amid the debris of industrial gothic, complete with cathedral-like domed kiln cielings and crumbling stone walls and protrusions. Alicia climbs into one of these kiln superstructures, looking up and into the shadowy recessed of the domed roofing -- and the reel ends.

It’s now a little after 12 noon, and time for a break. John T announces a lunchbreak, promising to resume shortly with the next of Paula’s 16mm reels. Despite the flurry of activity -- lunches delivered, bathroom breaks, the rustling of sandwich wrap and potato chip bags, the splinters of conversation -- nobody leaves.

I hear the snap of -- what? An old 8mm plastic reel popped open? I catch a whiff of vinegar from behind me.

Another soured film reel?

No, it's potato chips -- vinegar and onion --

The belly-god must be fed, but there’s much left to see.

[To be continued...]