Today at work I looked at some anonymous home movies that are deteriorating, to decide if they’re worth keeping or not. Since every home movie is different, I had to watch them to gauge their worth – it’s impossible to tell quality from looking at them through a loupe on the bench.
This was a box of ten or so 8mm films from the 1940s-1950s, purchased by someone on ebay or something, and then they made their way here to the HFA. The cans have no information on them, although at some point someone, either here or there, put sticky notes on a few that say things like “1950s water skier, horseback riding, football arena, farm horse, snowlice (rabbit kill) spring (family), baseball game.” I don’t know about you, but aside from the “snowlice” (maybe it’s supposed to say “snow/ice”), I didn’t find this a particularly evocative description. Sounded rather dull.
I watched the first reel, which was OK. Beautiful Kodachrome, lovely 1950s rural scenes. People swimming in a lake, hanging out with animals on a farm, riding horses, etc.. It seemed like a family vacation reel. It was nice but nothing special. Then I watched a few more reels. I wasn’t expecting the whole box to be from the same family, but it is. The content is repetitive – spring baby animals and flowering trees, summer at the lake, swimming, bringing home dead animals from hunting, then it is winter and there is ice fishing and playing in the snow.
There are a lot of people in these films – many kids and adults. One kid manages to be the star, though. The house, with its made-for-Kodachrome red doors, was a lovely recurring scene. I couldn’t quite place it geographically – it looks like New England, perhaps Vermont, but could be some other northern spot where there is water and snow and hills and trees.
The mid-1950s Kodachrome film is a thing of beauty. It was a filmstock for all seasons, and this cameraperson knew it. It really showcases certain colors, transforming the natural world into art. Autumn leaves and blue skies, red doors and white snow, blue lakes and green fields. People in the films were dressed like they knew the magic of Kodachrome would preserve their visages for a century in red and black wool plaid jackets, blue cowboy shirts, and incredible bathing suits.
The more films I watched, the more I loved them. Yes, the same things were recorded over and over, but there was a touching intimacy to the films in addition to their colorful beauty. The family clearly loved animals, despite killing many black bears, bobcats, white rabbits, and a few things in between. They kept sheep and cows, dogs and cats, and tamed a deer and her baby (which led to a joke scene of a hunter being stalked by a deer). In one snowy scene, a young boy is walking in front of the house with something white stuck to his chest. Is it the baby we saw in the last scene? He’s not holding the white thing, though; it’s just clinging to him somehow. The camera moves closer, and we see it is a giant white cat, which then licks the boy’s face as the film runs out. My eyes welled up. In another charming sequence, it’s lambing season, and baby lambs are jumping around all over the green pasture. Then the camera cuts to a baby crawling in the grass, dressed in white, looking like a little lamb.
It’s easy to love a well-shot film. Most scenes were correctly exposed, and the addition of a finger occasionally making its way into the frame only adds drama to the proceedings – who is holding the camera now? Who usually holds it? Sometimes the film is left to run as the arm holding the camera drops, filming a topsy-turvy world, most dramatically so during a toboggan run sequence, sadly underexposed.
To try to explain these films (this film?) by merely listing what has been recorded, which is often how home movies are explained in catalogs, is like doing the same for a feature film. It does not do it justice, and it does little to make sense of it unless you’re opening a stock footage mine. I wish I could somehow add smells to the description – the aroma of lobster cooking outside, the crisp autumn air, the flowering trees, the horses – the film is that evocative. The films are silent, but the sound of the projector is hypnotic. I feel like this is my own family and I feel nostalgia for this life before I was born.
Kodachrome is dead. LONG LIVE KODACHROME!