As a film critic I write and think about films that are important to my life. I haunt MOMA, Film Forum, purveyors of bargain DVDs and tape hours of programming from Turner Classic Movies (yes I still have a VCR). While this is all well and good I began to wonder about the movies about my life as opposed to my stock and trade which is essentially other people’s comedies, tragedies and documentaries. So recently I began to look at home videos shot over the past 20 years. Epics that I’m sure would be of little interest to anyone but relatives and maybe a few dedicated, or inebriated, friends.
Home video, in contrast to the silent 8mm and 16mm home movies that many used to shoot, doesn’t cost much, plus it has sound. Home movies (film) generally lasted three minutes per roll, had to be developed and required separate payments for the film itself and the developing, causing one to shoot judiciously. The freedom of home video, in comparison, can be a blessing or a curse. One can shoot way too much footage but because of this a person’s essence, how they moved, talked, maybe even thought, can be captured.
On one recent afternoon I fired up my late father’s 8mm camcorder, considered small in its day but huge by today’s standards. My mother and I watched, transfixed, for 11 hours, tape after tape: my now 19 year old niece as a baby, family vacations in Maine, Uncle Albert making corn bread (hilarious, truly), my brother’s wedding and many other events.
What fascinated me, aside from the obvious nostalgia, was how routine things from 15 to 20 years ago suddenly take on historical significance: styles of glasses (much bigger), clothes, who was alive, who had hair, toasts that were made at an engagement party, the number of times the same people gathered to sing “Happy Birthday.” I was impressed with how my two older brothers took on things I have yet to try, such as marriage and children, when they were much younger than I am now. I heard my father (a lawyer) speak on special occasions in what I know he would describe as a “loud stentorian” voice. I realized I was actually kind of good looking and slender (didn’t think so at the time). In one tape my brother is seen with my nephew in Riverside Park, a smoky downtown Manhattan in the background and mentions that the day is September 11.
If I were to review my own videos I would rate them anywhere from “not to be missed” to “what was I thinking.” My intention in writing this is to convey something universal about these forgotten, or seldom looked at, personal histories that many readers may have sitting on a shelf or stored away somewhere. In fact one of my brothers, after bemoaning the fact that he could not find his home videos, found a few 8mm video cassettes under some debris in his bedroom closet and, amazingly, the tapes played just fine. What we saw was equal to, or dare I say it, maybe even better than, a night at the movies…at least for us.