From Liz Coffey (written by Brittany Gravely) in Boston:
Once again the Greater Boston Area celebrated this international enterprise at the Harvard Film Archive with hostess-archivists Liz Coffey, Amy Sloper & Melissa Dollman attending to the needs of films and their nervous owners. Jason Sanford provided the soundtrack option via records and Amy provided the cookies via Tupperware technology. Kevin McCarthy helped familiarize people with the bureaucratic red tape required in order to assure a smooth run through on one of many fine projectors present. There may or may not have been a few other note-takers present, but you can’t really rely on good transcription these days and these gals were no different. Take me, for instance, I missed HMD last year and had the nerve to show up an hour before showtime to sit and chat it up with the crew as if I were one-sixteenth as dedicated as these archival automatons.
Anyway, I was delighted with the peanut butter cookies and the films of Sid Laverents (shown on video) which overly-engaged the audience while the final films were inspected. Liz had to disconnect the preshow entertainment and steel herself from the boos, hisses, and rotten vegetation tossed as she made her psuedo-cordial opening remarks. Soon, however, the rambunctious audience sobered up when they heard Liz’s eerie warnings of Death By Deterioration and, even more tragic in some ways: The Forgotten Film. I had heard it all before, but it still manages to churn up old emotions in me and I choked back a few sobs. With her audience now in check, she looped up a regular 8 picture from “Betsy”: Kodachrome, 1962, featuring her and her brother as youngsters at play. A lot of pool shots: swimming and diving, and much leisureliness in general. At one point, things get pretty tropical & flamingos enter the scene. A little heavy-handed, but…
Betsy’s second reel stayed with the water theme: this time at the beach with Mom feeding the gulls. By the time we’re back to the pool, the jaunty music (provided by Jason) has become downright triumphant as Dad gracefully dives again & again off of the diving board. With one simple cut, we’re transported to Franklin Park Zoo for a moment with the kids enjoying the playground. But the real treat comes when we’re back at home with the children and babies who, once again, are water-focused; one serious little boy who surely grew up to be a successful maintenance person of some sort, fills his bucket and empties it in such a way that makes those on the slide and fooling around with the hose seem absolutely lackadaisical. His only cinematic competition was a glamorous little girl in pink with hat & sunglasses to match. Her ease with home movie fame & fortune was enviable.
Next up was a color Super 8 film provided by Yours Truly: The opening shots featured a trip to Busch Gardens in Tampa in the bicentennial year of ’76 and some good shots of tigers at play in and out of the water. One got annoyed with another and acted like my tough-guy cat Toby, showing the other one with a giant paw what’s what. The tribal tunes Jason put on for this first part carried over into my little sister’s first birthday party, so the Gravely women were suddenly conducting an ancient, sacred rite of passage in a 70s kitchen with a big white cake. My mom made a slice with the shining knife and we looked on bathed in mystical candlelight. The more widely-known ancient ritual of Japanese Imperial Court Dance took over the screen in the next black and white 16mm film. We were surprised to learn from Gwen that this was not unearthed from an old tomb, but was actually shot during Boston’s First Night back in 1994 or ’95 AD in a storefront on Newbury Street. And it was a “modern” interpretation, but entrancing and well-exposed nonetheless.
We switched formats for the next one and watched a VHS tape that was originally shot on a VHS camcorder in 1986. It was a Mother’s Day present for Kelly’s mom that her dad choreographed and staged in their 80s living room. The sweatpants-wearing leader was flanked on both sides by his children as they performed to that Mother’s Day standard “When the Going Gets Tough (the Tough Get Going)” by Billy Ocean. None of them seemed overly passionate or determined, but I think maybe it was a more post-modern take. Her little brother at times just stood there awkwardly stretching his shirt or looking down, and I wondered how many times those intricate expressions were practiced late into the night. The surprising highlight was Kelly’s sax solo using – get this – a recorder as the saxophone and donning sunglasses for true 80s style. Her mother must have been proud and maybe a little confused. Kevin had the audacity to show b/w 16mm footage of 1930s East Boston on DVD. I overcame my embarrassment for him once his lovely grandmother lavishly posed for us at Revere Beach. (This was shot by his great uncle who worked for local amateur filmmaking equipment company Keystone, giving him access to contraptions like a 16mm camera.) There was much beach play, dancing and acrobatics among the adorable kids on this summer day.
Next, we were on their porch watching the little girls frocked & hamming it up for the camera. Finally, it was already wintertime and the long, dark coats of women formed moving silhouettes against the snow-covered streets. Amy Sloper presented a color super 8 Ektachrome film of a trip to Germany shot way back in 2008. Most don’t even remember that distant time when people still did weird, morally-questionable things like visit the spot where Leni Riefenstahl shot Triumph of the Will. In her defense, Amy was obviously wracked with emotion because she could barely focus this simple, consumer-friendly camera. Nevertheless, I could make out the many daunting steps of the stadium’s ruins and some fuzzy kid with the nerve to perform bike tricks in this charged space. A girl walking at a disconcertingly slow pace across the screen brought a wave of nervous laughter to an audience already on the edge.
Someone (Amy) tried to patch up the psychological damage done by abruptly throwing on a “mystery reel” of regular 8mm found in a Seattle camera shop. Late 70s/early 80s folk graced the screen in an outdoor, rural bbq scene of baseball caps and plaid. The camera focused intently on a squirrel delighting in birdhouse provisions, and then took us inside to Christmastime and a heavily tinseled, cone-shaped tree. All-in-all, it looked like a good time: turkey carving, Santa, and lots of laughter.
Reed, one of HMD’s heavy hitters, was up next with a color, regular 8 movie entitled The Fantasies of Professor Brainstorm made in the 1970s with a high school friend. Apparently, they used to show this to neighborhood kids as a way to make money. In short, this movie was amazing: a solid narrative with action, a soundtrack (presented here on CD), comedy, creative costumes, stunning special effects, and even a vaguely moral lesson. There’s too much to go into here, but Reed as the lithe, long-haired scientist dreams of creating a formula to bring him great powers to aid him in defeating the archetypal demons that haunt us all: the Karate Master, the Sword & Bow-and-Arrow Guy, and of course, the Shaving Cream Monster. In his yellow towel cape, the humble scientist is transformed into the ultimate superhero magically making himself and objects move or disappear, zapping enemies with film-scratched lasers, and easily subduing any nemesis no matter how scary or powerful. He wakes up from the dream and learns a lesson in hubris, but I won’t give the ending away since I believe it’s due out in theaters later this winter.
Liz tried to compete with this instant classic by impressing and confusing our senses with her more “experimental” product: unslit, color regular 8 projected as 16mm, featuring four squares of action. Resembling a rougher, artier Thomas Crowne Affair, it was bikes and bike people rather than Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway. Though the ending was the same – I looked up in the sky and cried.
Melissa uncovered another one of these “found at a yard sale” type flicks - this time in faded colors of a lesser 16mm stock of the late 60s or early 70s. It actually turned out to be an educational film called Words That Describe Sounds featuring a girl and a boy disputing how to properly illustrate certain sounds through made-up words. They would write down their interpretations and silently enter a lip-reading battle that was translated via subtitles, featuring words like “glub” and the ever-popular “skeez.” Despite its inordinately high entertainment value, it was immediately confiscated by the HMD Security Team, and Melissa was quietly escorted out.
Another Gravely Super 8 Production was up next, cryptically titled “1971 Easter.” It starred my older sister in her larval form on my parents’ bed. Like a strange wind-up baby in lacey white, she appeared to wriggle in place to Jason’s telepathic selection of delicate music box sounds. This was one of my dad’s minimal, single-themed pieces he has become famous for here at Home Movie Day. Peter Mork, another HMD SuperStar ®, allowed us the privilege of viewing his Ideal Domestic Scenes from 1950s America in the brilliant saturation of 16mm Kodachrome. His cinematographic father once again wowed audiences with this dreamy footage that was surely sought after as highly-effective anti-communist propaganda. Everyone fell under the dreamy spell of this perfect family gorgeously lit at Christmas. His father let the camera dance around the tree for a bit – showing up-close shots of each ornament. Christmas morning brought an array of delights: a baby good-naturedly hiding disappointment in unwrapping a box of clothes, the family dog decorated with a bow, a boy demonstrating his new mini-drill kit with a wholesomely demonic expression, and for the girl – a 1950s homemaker mini-cleaning set, brother & sister dressed as cowboy & girl parading for the camera… it goes on and on. At one point, the little girl shows off her record player with a zoetrope-type situation on the spindle – causing ooohs and ahhhs and much light-headedness in the audience. And then laughter during the scene when a gleeful Grandpa unwraps the thinly-disguised gift of a cane and proceeds to unwrap yet another! One of my personal favorite moments was the bohemian (maybe I’m projecting here) [quit projecting, Brittany, that’s my job! ~Liz] aunt and uncle solemnly entering the living room with presents on a stretcher. After Christmas, one of these perfect children presented their perfect science project to us – a board with multiple switches and circuits. And then we are transported outdoors to Ashfield, MA for the purple heart ceremony. Peter broke his arm and his parents conducted an elaborate parade of flags and people and even the family cat to honor him. (At around this point in my notes I have written “UNREAL” and underlined it twice.) This is all topped off with a bbq and juicy watermelon-eating around the picnic table. Finally, the adults play some more by enjoying winter cocktails outside in the snow and fun times in & out of a spacious igloo.
By the time we reach the fishing scene, several audience members have passed out. Liz wakes them up with some film cleaner fumes and I take a bathroom break… … Only to miss a greater part of the b/w Super 8 documentation of the wedding of John & Eve in Jamaica Plain, MA, 2008. Jason smartly accompanied this joyous occasion with the symphonic version of Bowie’s Life On Mars? and I made it back in time to see some tossing of the bride and groom in the air.
As if he hasn’t shown off enough for one day, Reed now presented another product of his precocious teen years – The Game – which was an Honorable Mention in the 1970 Kodak Teenage Movie Awards. This was a darker, apocalyptic tale set in 1992 of the ultimate chess match between the US and Russia televised worldwide. By the time we see a TV set with “Los Angeles” or “New York” on it followed by fiery footage, we understand who the unfortunate loser is. And my last film of the day (on Super 8 Kodachrome) was of a recent trip to Chicago in 2007, followed by an abrupt shift to visit my parents in the mountains of Georgia. The best part was footage of Cloud Gate in Millennium Park – a silver bean-shaped sculpture that makes the world look rounded and people distorted. Unfortunately, the reflections distorted my cinematographic skills so the rest devolved into urban mural footage, city signs of skulls and happy french fries, and finally really boring panoramic shots of mountains which always look much better in reality.
After the Snoozefest Alert sounded, Amy woke people up with some more modern footage shot around the same time of local people, cats and sheep frolicking indoors and out. Well, the sheep were never indoors… that would have been something. Kevin presented our other VHS footage of the day – this time, it was the 80th birthday party of his grandmother – seen only moments before in her youth as a bathing beauty. This time, she was brought to tears, reunited with billions of friends and family gathered as a surprise in her yard. Touching, but in need of an editor with an iron splicer, so Kevin delicately pressed “stop” and saved us all from having to witness the weepy intricacies of every hug of the day.
The illustrious John Quackenbush disclosed the most controversial found film of the day – this one was color, regular 8 from the fifties and appeared to belong to a wild bunch of older folks on their golden journeys. John rescued this reel from a dumpster and had never seen it. After the show, he donated it to the HFA. We begin in Arkansas, according to the box, and it’s cold and wintery. Which might be why they decide to take a trip to the Deep South. First stop: Mardi Gras! Some truly incredible footage of the parades and shenanigans that go on during this famous celebration: strange monkey-men, an array of bewildering floats, old men in gold body paint, people in blackface and weird masks. Then they leave this hedonism to go to Florida where they are greeted by stucco, palm trees, and giant oranges. They spend much leisurely time out in pristine Floridian yards, cafes, and orange groves. All this was semi-standard stuff, but to my amazement, they venture out to the shanty towns and stop in on an African American family as if they are a tourist attraction. One shot features the old, portly white man petting a little African American girl on the head. And there is much footage of the families on their porches, in the yard, … a sight I have never seen at home movie day.
Rarely do folks of color emerge on the screen at HMDs in the Boston area, and certainly not the rural poor! Someone films out of the car as they drive by house after house with women in rocking chairs on porches. Beautiful, mysterious roll. By the end of it, they are back in winter country – looks kind of like a main street in a New Englandy town – and the man grabs his lady’s head in some kind of jokey fashion, but it’s a little unsettling. The snow stays with us for Liz’s next submission on b/w Super 8. She filmed her neighbor Dave shoveling the snow outside their Roxbury apartment building last winter while he chatted on and on, seemingly oblivious to the fact that she was doing none of the work. We witness the natural decorations of wintertime upon fence and tree.
Adam Scotto arrived late but the beguiling goddesses of home movies let him present his films anyway. He showed us a glimpse of his childhood in Nantucket in 1973 on Kodachrome Super 8. He demonstrated an array of fun things to do on the beach: play with a bucket and sand, fun with a coke can, and finally, getting tossed up high into the air by his dad (who died in 2005). His mother and young sister were also present. At the end, we also see that he enjoyed the pleasures of swings and slides. His next detour took place in 1974, May to be exact, and the setting this time is Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. Jason added another dimension to their adventures by playing some music of the Moog, and the electronic sounds followed the great bubbling water falling as well as the kids skipping along, playing at a playground, and suddenly it managed to alter the course of time and space as we suddenly witness the changing of the guard in London.
Adam’s third Super 8 was tellingly titled “Baby 1974 – Jumps 1977.” And we see happy, young Adam crawling, then hopping on one leg – obviously, taking his time to evolve to actual walking. The toddler-aged daughter in this experimental family is already wearing glasses and we see her looking young & intellectual one moment, and then the kids are put to work using an old-fashioned ricer the next. To build strength to survive in such an environment, they also provided the children with a punching bag and let them jump off of the stove repeatedly. Just as I was about to call social services, there was some weird but benign circling-with-a-toy-phone routine and strange dancing that hypnotized me just long enough. I have neglected to mention that throughout the day, there was all this talk of the mysterious man by the name of Merritt and his ancient films from the 1940s. He dropped his footage off then disappeared into the fall foliage with his family. They came back just in time to witness reels that his (great?) grandfather shot back in Hartford, CT – footage he had never seen. The filmmaker was a member of the Amateur Cinema League and we were treated to the opening intro graphics that members spliced onto the heads of their films: nice! Then to the action: couples boating in Long Island Sound and looking good. We then see all kinds of boats – large and small. A virtual boat extravaganza, I dare say, before we are back on land with a funny dog getting food at a picnic and Grandma on a scooter in a Farmington neighborhood. We see lovely autumn colors, the aforementioned dog looking cute at the door, a farm with pigs, a girl on a horse, and back to what appears to be an underlying theme of the day… the water. I soberly gathered my belongings and headed off to a post-home-movie-day celebration of watching more movies, and this important day came to an end.