header image

My Aunt Alice’s Home Movies

CHUCK KLEINHANS

PREFACE, 2017

I wrote this essay in the mid-1980s and it was published in a themed issue of the Journal of Film and Video on home and amateur under the farsighted editorship of Patricia Erens. The collection was pioneering work that reflected various developments in related areas. Folklorists, ethnographers, and visual anthropologists were reading amateur films in new ways. At the same time technological changes gave many more people access to relatively inexpensive moving image recording. Some artists were creating new work documenting daily life, and some intellectuals pushed cultural, political, and social analysis looking at the personal and everyday in a more sophisticated way.

Subsequently, all of these concerns became richer and deeper as new investigations and institutions expanded the media studies field. Some scholarly milestones: Patricia R. Zimmermann, Reel Families: A Social History of Amateur Film (Indiana University Press, 1995) provides a generous survey concentrating on the U.S. and how this consumer technology was used there. Michelle Citron, Home Movies and other Necessary Fictions (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1999) details the artist’s own life and creative work particularly through the use of family home movies in her film Daughter Rite. Karen L. Ishizuka and Patricia R. Zimmermann, eds., Mining the Home Movie: Excavations in Histories and Memories (Berkeley: U of California Press, 2008) provides an international overview of amateur domestic movies. And Charles Tepperman, Amateur Cinema: The Rise of North American Moviemaking, 1923-1960. (Berkeley, U of California Press: 2014) concentrates on the technical/industrial and institutional structures that gave rise to noncommercial filmmaking.

In addition, important archival work in the U.S. and abroad has collected and preserved home movies which are now often valued for their unique presentation of “from the ground up” evidence of ordinary people’s lives, particularly of underrepresented populations. (Including, of course, the Center for Home Movies, this very site.) A good example would be Professor Jacqueline Stewart’s work in building a South Side Home Movie project documenting the otherwise little-seen daily life of African Americans in Chicago in the 20th Century. This body of steadily growing work is connected to the pioneering Chicago Film Archives that makes a point of collecting and preserving Midwest regional nontheatrical motion pictures. It, along with similar centers around the country, sponsors “home movie days” encouraging people to find and contribute their family collections.

As a child growing up in the post WW2 era, I had various occasions to see slide shows (typically of exotic vacations abroad) and some home movies (often travels, some of gatherings) within the extended family, with neighbors, and family friends. Home screenings in general were often referred to with jokes and mild disparagement by comedians who reminded middle class viewers of the often boring and conventional nature of the images. Having an excuse to leave when this post-dinner ritual was to begin was a “smart” strategy to avoid dozing off. To some extent the television set has displaced the projection screen.

But I always looked forward to my aunt’s movies: they were funny and clever and, of course, the depicted people I knew well. My aunt Alice continued to makework after my article was published, and I’ll discuss that briefly in an afterward.

[Full disclosure: Zimmerman, Citron, Stewart, and the folks at the Chicago Film Archives are all friends and colleagues.]

MY AUNT ALICE’S HOME MOVIES

Originally published in the Journal of Film and Video, Vol. 38, No. 3/4, Home Movies and Amateur Filmmaking (Summer-Fall 1986), pp. 25-35.

© Chuck Kleinhans, 1986.

The normative framework for thinking about film is the fictional dramatic narrative. We sometimes think about alternatives such as instructional films, documentaries, or experimental lyrics. But virtually no film theorist, critic, or reviewer has ever given serious thought to home movies. Yet if we realize that knowledge is located at the edge as well as at the center of discourse, we can learn something from thinking about home movies.

My aunt Alice’s home movies interest me in several ways. Many of them are very typical of the home movie genre in form and content. Others are ambitious parodies of mass culture, usually Hollywood movies. And all of them are good examples of a phenomenon neglected by critics, women’s hobby art.

First, some clarification. My aunt Alice is Alice Marie Nelson Worthen of State College, Pennsylvania, and my mother’s only sister. She made films in regular 8 mm starting in the 1950s and later worked in Super 8 mm. More recently she has been working in consumer format VHS video and transferred most of her earlier films to videotape. But, reflecting the current usage, these are all referred to as “home movies” in the family. There’s also a question of authorship to be cleared up. As happens with many other home media makers, her work is almost always collaborative, and the actual credit for direction in some cases belongs to someone else, while she takes the role of producer.

For example, the family take-off of Jaws was directed by her daughter, Pat Worthen, and many other works have a degree of group improvisation that would defy traditional notions of scripting or directing.

https://vimeo.com/198051374

Another issue needs to be settled: critical objectivity. By writing about my aunt’s home movies, I am automatically validating them. My motives are multiple. First, I’m writing about them because they are the home movies that I know best. They circulate in the context of the maternal side of my extended family, and I think the social situation is essential to understanding the artistic object. But I’m clearly not a disinterested outsider in discussing them. I trade personal and familiar knowledge for pure “objectivity.”

At the same time, I teach film and video at Northwestern University, I have a long standing interest in consumer format technology, and I’ve worked professionally in Super 8 mm and 1/2 inch VHS video, so I have a well developed familiarity with the possibilities of the media my aunt uses and a strong sense of aesthetic value in the formats. So I think I have some ability to distance myself from her work in describing it and evaluating it. At the same time, personal relations intervene, and I wouldn’t publish anything about the work which she didn’t agree to have in print. I wouldn’t jeopardize our friendship and trust to make a critical point. [1]

Home Movies

By singling out Alice Worthen’s work from the vast number of amateur media works, I make a choice. The choice is somewhat subjective and convenient, since I have not surveyed large numbers of home movies in order to write about these. But neither is it totally arbitrary, for I do have a general idea of what home movies are like from having seen them in many situations over many years, and I think my aunt’s films hold up pretty well in the comparison. However, I am not trying to claim her as an undiscovered primitive master, a Grandma Moses of 8 mm film. In fact, much of her work is rather ordinary: vacation films of standard landscapes shot from moving vehicles and typical tourist spots given perfunctory documentation, for example. A recent tape contains extremely long sequences of her young grandchild, Danny, acting like a cute kid (long because video lends itself so well to the long take, and unfortunately boring–to me, at least–after a while because only a loving grandmother could dote this much on the child, no matter how cute he is).

This itself says something important about the genre: it is defined, like the snapshot, in large part by its social situation. The image taken among family and friends is later viewed primarily by those same people. In other words, it depends on recognition for its pleasurable effect most of the time. Knowing Danny, I have more interest in his image than someone who sees only “a little kid.” Home movies exist largely as momentoes, ways of overtly documenting an important moment (and covertly revealing a relationship between filmmaker and the people, or sometimes location, being filmed). Thus they fascinate those who can share in the immediate sensation of recognition, which is primarily other family members. For outsiders they are interesting largely as curiosities Papier-mache shark begins “underwater” attack in the Jaws parody. (that is the kind of bathing suit they wore back then), or as pathologies (as in their elaborated use in Michelle Citron’s Daughter Rite).

In several studies of home movies, anthropologist Richard Chalfen pioneers investigation of the subject. He considers it within the category of the “home mode of visual communication” which includes family album snapshots, wedding albums, baby photos, etc. Chalfen points out that the home movie has a “patterned content.. .distinguished by a limited number of people participating in a confined array of places and events” (“Home Movies” 129).

One pattern is that we generally do not find unfamiliar people or even disliked family members central to the image. Home moviemakers prefer to record and celebrate births rather than deaths, weddings rather than divorces, vacations rather than vocations, and so on. We also do not often see people arguing with each other, using the bathroom (other than children playing in bathtubs), vomiting, engaging in sexual intercourse, and the like. (130) [2]

Chalfen also notes some interesting formal characteristics by comparing “How To Do It” manuals with the actual practice of amateurs. Planning the shoot is not significant, nor is careful cinematography. The footage shows frequent panning and zooming, rare closeups, varied shot lengths, little visual continuity or conventional progression of images.

Spontaneous recording is exceptional; typically people pose or act-up, and this is seen as part of the fun. Waving at the camera, walking directly into the camera, extended staring into the camera, and striking a pose often appear. We might remember that all this activity is seen in the Lumiere film showing an outing of still photographers debarking and acknowledging the movie camera. Even the first documentary characters knew how to behave for the camera. Exterior locations predominate. Editing is rare, usually just trimming heads and tails of rolls, and sometimes removing badly exposed shots. The most frequent topics appearing in the home movies Chalfen studied were vacation activity, holiday activity, special events in family members’ lives, and slightly unusual local activity such as throwing snowballs or displaying a new toy.

Exhibition is often seen as very important in home moviemaking. A party atmosphere is typical. Many home movie makers attest to using cameras for a simple recording function which in exhibition becomes a trigger for visual memory and family recall of places and events. Taken sequentially, home movies provide a track of gradual change, as with children growing. The making and the exhibition are both bonding activities, with relations reestablished, turned into media representations, and celebrated in exhibition. Reaffirmation of people, things, and values are central to its function.

Chalfen’s analysis provided me with a good starting point for considering Alice Worthen’s work. The internal and noncontextual analysis so common in aesthetic film analysis cannot deal with the full experience of my aunt’s home movies. In the family setting they are always accompanied by commentary about the film, the people, and the past. The family audience has an elaborate foreknowledge of the people/actor depicted, and this knowledge is part of the pleasure of recognition in experiencing the work. Today’s kids, for example, have great delight in seeing their parents and aunts and uncles as children.

While Chalfen clearly indicates that the home moviemakers he met had no artistic aspirations, my aunt’s work varies in that she could be thought of as a hobbyist, a talented amateur who, while not quite an aspiring Spielberg in Super 8, often makes aesthetically thoughtful and ambitious work. We need to be aware that the amateur area of media production is not an undifferentiated mass. There is a certain stratification between those who use film or tape as just a moving image snapshot, a raw and sufficient documentation of this or that event or person, and those who have more consciousness about artistically shaping their product. In some of her travel and family images it seems that Worthen is simply using a snapshot mode of working. But in others she exerts a kind and quality of control that makes her artistic aspirations and abilities clear.

Alice Worthen was always the most “artistic” of her family’s children, writing poetry, and loving music and dancing, according to my mother. Their father was a skilled artisan, a jewelry engraver, and their mother a housewife, both immigrants from Sweden and Norway, respectively. Alice was a teenager in the 1940s and after the war married Byron Worthen, a veteran who went back into the Air Force as a career officer in intelligence. The family, eventually with four children, lived a typical military life on or near air bases in New England and Texas, with an extended tour of Japan in between.

Vacation and family events predominate in the mid-1950s films made when the family first got its movie camera. The first film shows the summer 1953 vacation at Gunn Lake. Alice appears in the film in a two-piece bathing suit, in the water, doing a cartwheel and a chorus line kick in front of the laundry hanging on the clothesline. There’s a certain cheesecake voyeurism here, and obviously her husband took the pictures. In a sequence from the next summer, Alice is found dancing in nature in leopard skin pants and a black halter top. In family viewing, people often remark that Alice has a “good figure,” which seems more of a judgement of the labor and discipline involved than a voyeuristic comment. If we see Alice here as object of the male gaze, we also see the gaze itself, for this is Byron’s view of her in this recreational situation. The film documents, within the established forms of our culture (here cheesecake), his pleasure in looking at her, in the physical aspect of their relationship. And in turn, Alice performs for the camera and takes up willingly, and with some talent, the role of exhibitionist. She seems to be having fun.

Summer 1953

https://vimeo.com/197850184

Other family reels from this period show family holidays such as Halloween and Thanksgiving, a trip to a Santa theme park, a kid’s birthday party, a picnic, trying out new ice skates on a frozen pond, vacation at the beach, a family wedding, daughter Patty dancing for the camera in a dance costume, etc. The video version adds a kind of generic music track—”Here Comes the Bride,” for the wedding, “In the Good Old Summertime” for vacation sequences, “Jingle Bells” for Christmas, and so forth.

Fall and Winter 1953

https://vimeo.com/197849398

Summer 1954

https://vimeo.com/197850638

1954 to 1955

https://vimeo.com/198047743

Though Byron took some of the family’s first moving images, Alice soon began to be the main movie maker. Alice’s early films show her interest in going beyond simple documentation. Christmas 1953 shows holiday preparations such as Alice hanging ornaments (and wearing a bright red sweater that the 35-year-old Kodachrome still reproduces well). Later at night, a close up shows Santa entering the house. This moment in family screenings always evokes the story that Ken, then the youngest child, believed in Santa until the third grade because he took the film as documentary proof. This is accompanied by amusement at his gullibility about the mythical gift giver (which, of course, everyone present has personally experienced), and humor with the artifice of cinematic representation. [Ordinary people watching home movies, by the way, are much less confused about the aesthetic and epistemological issue of film representation than some film theorists I’ve read.] A close up of the clock at midnight begins a little fantasy sequence in which the Suzy Walker doll walks (though cut off at the legs in a classic example of parallax problems), another doll dances, Raggedy Ann and Andy dance together (at times revealing the strings moving them), and the toy train runs and falls off the track.

The film continues with Christmas morning present opening. Byron is shown making a log cabin out of toy logs and reading a Christmas book. Some shots are so underexposed that no detail can be seen. Toward the end of the day we see adults sitting around drinking and smoking, and then Alice in a new pretty and frilly nightgown. The film has a double ending of a shot of blowing out a candle, and then repeated without success in extinguishing it. [These doubled and repeated shots seem relatively common in home movies, in part because people edit in the camera and don’t always discard retakes.]

Christmas 1953

https://vimeo.com/197849108

Vacation in Michigan, June 1956, begins with the new baby (Barbara), and panoramic shots of Niagara Falls. Shown now, my mother and aunt remember this as “the summer after Mom died.” It was a gathering together of the two sister’s families, with the sisters’ father. It was, as I see it now and not consciously as I remember experiencing it then, for a brief time, a ceremony of family cohesion: the recent widower, his daughters and their families, together for the first time since the funeral the previous summer.

June 1956

https://vimeo.com/197850933

For Grandpa, it meant seeing the new grandchild. But it was also a fishing vacation, and it also documents the men fishing, but in terms of screen time this is rather small (compared with actual time in vacation hours). There is the close up of Grandpa and a day’s catch, the kids playing in the water, my father asleep in an outdoor chair, different people playing catch, the baby in dappled sunlight, and people playing with the baby. The baby symbolizes the continuity of life, the passing of generations. Of course this is not a complex and developed symbol. Rather, it is largely through standard sentimental cultural association that we understand it, augmented by prominent screen time. There is also an orange sunset over the lake done in dramatic pans which frame the scene with silhouetted trees—a standard appreciation of natural beauty.

The home movies from the period when the family lived in Japan show a mixture of the ordinary (a plane taking off at the air base) and the unusual (people in traditional dress awaiting a parade of costumed celebrants). Christmas interiors alternate with Tokyo exteriors. Alice explains shots of a cherry blossom festival by observing that her husband was working so much that she finally decided she would not see Japan unless she and the kids just started traveling on their own. She was interested enough in Japanese culture to study traditional Japanese dance and became the first Westerner to rise to the rank of teacher. Although this is not shown in the films, we see her dancing a traditional dance with the family’s maid and the maid’s daughter, imitating coal miners shoveling. Barbara, now grown up enough to enter a Japanese kindergarten class, is seen in various activities such as a school ceremony based on a star-crossed lovers legend.

1958-1959

https://vimeo.com/197851156

A considerable hiatus, almost twenty years, takes place between the early silent home movies and the later work. When Alice begins filming again about 1980, it is with a Super 8 sound camera with a zoom lens. The main subjects are European travel: to Germany with her two daughters to see her Air Force noncom son Buzz (Byron Jr.), a single parent stationed at a German base. A tour of the Alps follows.

Germany 1981

https://vimeo.com/197849763

In this film and two fairly long travel films shot in Scandinavia on organized tours, the camera functions much as a snapshot device to record scenic locations and interesting local events. At times there is an unplanned humor when several tourist guides speak different languages at the same site, or off-camera sound contradicts the image track, as when my mother, Mildred, is heard to say, “Where are all the tulips?” while the camera records shots of Copenhagen traffic taken from a hotel room. Sound jump cuts are also a noticeable feature of this footage, an effect exaggerated by the 18-frame difference between image and sound cutting in Super 8mm. Alice dubbed in Grieg symphonies and concertos for some of the landscapes. Otherwise the audio is the original event’s sound. The new zoom lens adds one style device: zooming in on a distant object which is held dead center in frame—such as a stork and nest on a roof. It functions as a pointing finger would.

Scandinavia 1985

https://vimeo.com/181974377

In one sequence, wanting to record continuously a band playing a Strauss waltz on the other side of a wall while she sat in an outdoor cafe, Alice keeps panning slowly back and forth and zooming in and out (and in and out of focus as well) from time to time, in a shot that always reminds me of the Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet films with their obsessive use of synchronous location music dominating a minimal image. I am also amused by the shot which is done for strictly pragmatic reasons of filming while the band keeps playing because I always contrast it with Straub-Huillet’s elaborate theoretical explanations of their virtually identical practice. The point here is not to dismiss the pretensions of the avant garde, but to note that aesthetic claims made for experimental work are often delivered with a valid contrast to dominant film practice, but without regard for the same devices occurring in other cinematic areas such as home movies. After all, if Straub-Huillet are achieving distanciation effects and asserting soundtrack integrity, so is Alice Worthen.

Mass Culture Parody

In addition to the classic home movie topics and styles seen in her earlier and later work, Alice has consistently made mass culture parodies. It is easy to see why popular culture formulas are adopted by amateurs: they are easily understood and imitated, even when high production values characterize the original, because the essential idea is to sketch in a quick resemblance while having a good time.

The Cub Scout film made in 1953 is a deliberate imitation of the Keystone Kops films that Alice remembered from childhood. As a Cub Scout den mother she was responsible for teaching her group of young boys something about filmmaking. She organized the kids to make a film set in her kitchen. The action begins with a baker putting bread into an oven, then taking out a pillow which comically represents the enlarged bread. At this point there is a shift from black and white film to color because that is what was in the camera at the start and what was around to reload with.

Cub Scouts 1953

https://vimeo.com/216528941

The film proceeds with various characters entering the bakery and a certain amount of tussling and spanking and cross-dressing. A pie fight begins, and to a cry of “Fire!” a group of firefighters enter to spray people in the face, including the old looking at the hose when the water is released trick. [If I were writing about an authorized experimental filmmaker, I could go on about how this is an homage to Lumiere, self-consciously referring to cinema history, self-reflexive and distanciated, etc. etc. But actually, it’s just a funny joke that someone thought up on the set or remembered from its innumerable reappearances in film comedy and everyday life.] A wallpaper hanger goes flying and a banana on the floor assures the pratfall of a fellow carrying dishes. The narrative ends with general mayhem. The film uses lots of medium shots, typical of shooting in a restricted interior space, and the lighting is uneven. But there is lots of action to pay attention to.

During the screening, Alice sometimes explains the production situation included the other mothers being present during the filming (they are seen in a brief insert shot) and says that the kids were especially wild and whacky because the mothers were present. My mother commented on this film that it showed that Alice was a good mother because she let those young boys totally mess up her kitchen in order to have the fun of movie making.

Return of the Jetai (August 1981) is the one work with the most appeal outside the family circle. A non-satiric parody of the Star Wars series, it liberally employs the paraphernalia of Star Wars toys and dolls to imitate the original. [Alice had not at that time seen Star Wars, and depended on the kids’ pronunciation for the spelling of “Jetai.”] As with the Cub Scout film, the work is organized with the children taking on roles found in the “original” mass culture product, and it is amusing, in part, simply by the discrepancies in the translation. At that time two of her grandchildren were living with Alice who noticed that all the kids on the block got together and played with their Star Wars toys, pooling their resources. She suggested making a movie which was enthusiastically taken up by the children. Shot in synch-sound Super 8 mm, the film fits in the familiar amateur parody genre, which Super 8 Filmmaker magazine, when it was published in the 70s, used to encourage through regular reader reports and highlighted film projects showing how you too could do underwater scenes with your aquarium, produce gory makeup from household supplies, and cheat on Hollywood style special effects.

https://vimeo.com/221359725

The charm of Return of the Jetai builds on the discrepancy between the lavish spectacle and high production values of the original on the one hand and the backyard imitation and child-scaled narration of the Super 8 mm version. The initial title roll, for example, unravels from a paper towel roll. We hear a child reading the script, an untrained reader, and the shift in keys of relative realism marks the difference; but what is added is equally important. The home made production includes the obvious enthusiasm the children have for the story and adventure. Their own participation leaves constant traces of this personal engagement in the production which is carefully erased from Hollywood production. (Or which is sometimes placed elsewhere, the “behind the scenes” production or post-production interview in Entertainment Tonight or People.) Thus we hear sound effects from the toys, plus the kid’s vocal imitation of battle sounds, explosions, weapons, and so forth.

The film is filled with Melies type magic and make believe such as a toy space ship in the foreground with an outer space background of a spinning black umbrella with white star spots pasted on. Model spaceships pass by on obvious wires and strings, and Star Wars character dolls are held by little hands as they move about. In typical home movie style, most of the sequences are done in one shot with one take (particularly if there are no noticeable narrative or cinematographic errors which call for a second take). The film has some obvious “errors” in production such as close-ups done with a camera without macro focus which results in the foreground being extremely out of focus. At times this creates an odd foreground/background effect with kids faces or shoes appearing sharply in focus in the background while the ostensible action is virtually unreadable.

The overall effect could be described as “palpably unreal,” because by imitating only some of the codes of the original, the missing or distorted codes stand out as even more distinct. The slippage is the source of one of the film’s main effects: a sense of fun. This attitude of “We’re doing this for its own sake and our pleasure in it,” is recognized by both kids and by adults watching the film. A good example comes at the end of the film when the forces of evil have been vanquished and Princess Leia and Han Solo meet again. The reunion sequence (done with dolls) shows an unexpected reaction:

Princess: Glad to see you back, Han.
Han: Yeah, me too! (they embrace.) … .Wow!… .Will you marry me, Princess?
Princess: (immediately) No! … (delay, then from script) Yes, I will marry you.

Watching in a group, this is always one of the most appreciated sequences for two reasons. It’s funny to violate the convention of reunited lovers whose marriage seals the narrative closure. And it’s especially funny to have a pre-adolescent girl blurt out the truth of her feelings before being recouped into character and marriage.

The final credits, which introduce the faces of the off-screen voices, provide another comic touch, especially in the case of a boy of about six who tries to get his high pitched youthful voice to imitate the breathy bass voice of Darth Vader.

But the film does not end at that point. A typical, and well executed, home made parody to that point, the conclusion, “Short scenes from the special effects crew, shot on location,” shows how the kids put on the show and has the power and intimacy of a mother’s (or in this case, a grandmother’s) observation. The oldest boy is clearly the boss of the whole project, but we also see how the youngest kids feign the reunion sequence from Return of the Jetai. Incompetence or short attention span in order to avoid being bossed around. One production outtake shows a toy spaceship starting to “fly” on a string and then falling off with the off-screen sound of a voice crying, “Oh!” These observations of the mistakes and social organization of the movie-making make an intriguing document of the domestic sphere and children’s world and imagination.

What intrigues me about this film is, beyond its immediate charm, its relation to mass culture. Clearly, much child play in our society at this time takes place within structures provided by mass culture: playing cowboys and Indians for most of this century has been based on commercial narratives, dime novels and movies, not on any frontier experience. Similarly, playing soldiers when I was a child was based on popular fictions, not the related experience of World War II veterans I knew or journalistic reports of the Korean War. Many intellectuals and social commentators assume that this is somehow inherently limiting of the imagination. At its worst, as with the Frankfurt School analysis of Adorno and Marcuse on the left, and rock lyric and movie censorship groups on the right, it is assumed that children are just indoctrinated by mass culture narratives and are powerless to resist or change the message. Yet such theories do not explain how I and so many others are able to distinguish inherent ideology. Such theories also cannot account for how people adopt, adapt, and alter mass culture products. But the Cub Scout film shows how silent film slapstick can be adapted to simple media production. The Jaws parody documents a family vacation, while turning the tables on a big budget thriller. Return of the Jetai evidences the culture of consumption with its plethora of Star Wars toys, but it also shows children taking over the appealing adventure of the original, while discarding much of its apparatus. The point being that mass culture is not a one directional influence. Of course it affects and helps shape the imagination. But it also is possible to take it over for one’s own purpose and imaginative end. Unless we grasp both aspects of mass culture, our analysis of it is fundamentally wrong.

One moment in the Alps travel film crystallizes this potential for me. On a high Alpine meadow, everyone gathers together: Alice, recently a widow; Pat, living with multiple sclerosis; Barbara, recently divorced; Buzz, united with his two kids who Alice had been taking care of. The women in dirndl skirts, and Buzz in a Tyrolean hat, stand in the meadow. Buzz announces, “Now, you vill see the singing Worthen family. And you vill like them. Ve have ways of making you like them.” With this mock introduction, taken from Hollywood Nazi officer characters, the family troupe begins singing, “Doe, a deer, a female deer. . .” and suddenly are in The Sound of Music. For me this scene is always bitter-sweet, for the film shows the re-uniting of the family after much separation, hardship and pain. The performance asserts the continuity of existing social relations, after the death of Byron, the patriarch. That it uses the device of imitating a film which is ideologically about the persistence of the father provides an irony to the moment. Thus the family, in the present, appropriates mass culture for its own ends, its own statement.

The Sound of Music

https://vimeo.com/197851317

Women’s Hobby Art

Feminist art critic Lucy Lippard writes about women’s hobby art, the kind of art that is often partially pre-packaged in craft stores and which often involves making “something from nothing.” It’s clear to me that my aunt’s movie making is a hobby activity which involves documenting the growing family and later travels with family members. It also involves taking over mass culture for personal use, slyly insisting on the use value over the exchange value of popular culture products.

Recently Alice put together a collection of these family films on a videotape, A Few of My Favorite Things, adding a music soundtrack to the silent ones. She also did a little editing along the way. The Jaws parody prominently featured Barbara’s ex-husband, now much despised by the entire family, and his image was liquidated. This prompted my mother to remark that since all of her and Alice’s children who married ended up divorced, it would be a lot more convenient if wedding pictures were posed in such a way that you could easily trim away the ex-‘s at a later date.

A Few of my Favorite Things: A Collection of Short Scenes

https://vimeo.com/176763872

Alice converted her films to video right after the 1984 Christmas at her house when I first systematically looked at all her films with an idea of writing about them. Thus the ethnographer’s greatest fear, of altering a cultural phenomenon by examining it, became a fact. At that family gathering we taped the day, and a year later when the extended family gathered in both Pennsylvania and Illinois for Christmas, videos were made of both celebrations and then duped and exchanged. My mother bought a VCR largely to be part of this exchange. (She tells me she’s too busy to go and rent tapes or tape off the air.) So the family has begun video letters as a way of keeping in touch.

This women’s hobby activity is also a form of family history. There seems to be a pattern in my family which casual conversations with other people seem to confirm as a general phenomenon. Even when men of the family make images, it’s often women who do the editing (just like the dominant cinema!) Whether through scrapbooks, photo albums, or home movies and tapes, it seems like women are often the historians of domestic space and activity. For Alice this extends even farther. She is now completing her second “miniatures” project—a form of hobby art which involves building elaborate doll houses and interiors. Her current project (which involves much planning, shopping at special “miniatures” stores when she visits my mother, and so forth) is a re-creation of her childhood house, the same one that my mother now lives in. My aunt’s home movies, and now tapes, are media products that would normally not be noticed. They are everyday forms of documentation and artistic expression. Their meaning is not contained in them as discrete art objects. Rather, they have meaning and come alive for amusement, enlightenment, and interpretation in a social process of taking, showing, and sharing. Like so much of women’s labor and activity in our society, they are taken for granted unless we take the time to think about them. By singling out my aunt’s work, I hope others will begin to look at women’s amateur media making in their families and environment. This overlooked area can teach us much about media in its social context.

I Love Lucy

https://vimeo.com/179985700

Home Alone

https://vimeo.com/179985699

The Wizard of Oz

https://vimeo.com/179985697

Gone with the Wind

https://vimeo.com/176764193

Alice in Wonderland

https://vimeo.com/176764112

Notes

[1] Out of course this condition operates, implicitly or explicitly, almost all the time in art world criticism when a writer knows the artist. It would open a lot of eyes if “truth in packaging” was observed and writers routinely made explicit their present and past professional and personal relations with the artists they write about.

[2] The avant garde “home movies” of Brakhage and others shows the same preferred inclusions (with the birth film a distinct subgenre),but with the significant addition of the taboo activities documented.

Works Cited

Chalfen, Richard. “Cinéma Naïveté: A Study of Home Moviemaking as Visual Communication.” Studies in the Anthropology of Visual Communication 2:2 (1975): 87-103.

____ “Home Movies as Cultural Documents.” Film/Culture: Explorations of Cinema in its Social Context. Ed. Sari Thomas. Metuchen: Scarecrow, 1982. 126-138.

___ “Studies in the Home Mode of Visual Communication.” Working Papers in Culture and Communication 1: 2 (1976): 39-61.

Lippard, Lucy R. “Making Something from Nothing (Toward a Definition of Women’s Hobby Art”). Get the Message? A Decade of Art for Social Change. New York: Dutton, 1984: 97-105.

___ “The Pink Glass Swan: Upward and Downward Mobility in the Art World.” Get the Message? A Decade of Art for Social Change. New York: Dutton, 1984: 89-97.

 

AFTERWARD, 2017

My aunt Alice continued to make movies after the ones I discussed in my 1986 article.  Her favored form was the comic imitation of classic Hollywood features that could easily showcase her grandchildren and children.  They were thus social occasions in which the making of the film was part of a group effort, during a gathering of the clan, and aimed at the fun of collaboration as well as a finished project that could be viewed and re-viewed later.  One thing changed: a switch to consumer format video that allowed for a more versatile soundtrack while sacrificing image quality achieved in the previous use of 8mm and S8mm film.

In the late 1980s, Gone with the Wind restaged  1939’s epic melodrama.  Appropriately it starred Alice’s younger daughter, Barbara, as Scarlett O’Hare.  Barbara had always loved the film, the novel, and the fancy dresses of the costume drama.  This was a perfect match of fantasy and fun recreation.  Also, as a fable of an overly romantic woman who learns from life and finally matures, the story narrative had a certain autobiographic resonance.  Barbara had an early marriage to a handsome scoundrel.  They divorced quickly.  Working as a nurse, she then met Rich when he was recovering from a motorcycle accident, they fell in love and he was a great family man.  Of course, outsiders wouldn’t know that backstory, but within the family, which is the primary target audience, there’s a bittersweet tone to the narrative, at least for the older generation who know the history.  This also solves a practical problem since Rich (who had an appropriately dashing mustache) liked being in the home movies and could play Rhett Butler, allowing for an authentic passionate kissing scene.  (Scarlett’s crush on Ashley famously remains unfulfilled, and in Alice’s iteration, he is played by Barbara’s older brother.)

Costumes are part of the fun, particularly for Barbara who gets several different sensational gowns. (The tight lacing scene with the corset is omitted; just Barbara in a bra while dressing.)  Inevitably, it would seem, there’s blackface: with “Mammy,” played by older sister Pat and “Prissy” played by her niece Melissa.  While you couldn’t do the story without these key characters, the inherent racism of the depictions remains.  In more recent years, especially with the vast increase in African American actors on film and television screens, the problems with earlier depictions have become more obvious. [3]

The film includes a “ballroom” scene (shot in Alice’s dining/living room)width everyone doing a Virginia Reel, and staircase sequences (again with the two-story modern house subbing for a colonial Southern mansion), and what is probably a Civil War re-enactor’s Confederate general’s uniform.  The burning of Atlanta sequence is actually pirated footage from a VHS tape inserted into the film (or perhaps shot off the TV screen).  This marks what is an interesting technical and aesthetic development.  In the pre-video era no one had ready access to classic films.  At best one might catch a favorite on late night television.  But the introduction of home video decks and a whole consumer rental market starting in the late 1970s meant that you could rent or purchase films and view them whenever you wanted.  It also meant that with very simple two decks and cables you could dupe rental tapes for your own use, and actually do simple insert edits from a source to your own tape in progress.  The net result was the potential for a closer repeated study of the original in a derivative imitation like this, as well as the wholesale reproduction of parts of the original film (that is a VHS copy of the film) including the soundtrack.

1989’s The Wizard of Oz operates in a similar vein.  The Alice version spotlights her granddaughter Melissa, a teen, who early on showed talent in singing and performance.  As Dorothy, she shines, using her own voice against an orchestral background.  Siblings play the Scarecrow and Lion/Good Witch and a young cousin plays the Tin Man in a clever homemade cardboard outfit.  When knocked on, the special effects crew bangs on a pot to get (near) synch sound from the “metal” man.  Other kids get to play Munchkins and Guards.

Given the make-believe nature of the original, this imitation often works quite well: Dorothy’s dog, Toto, is here a stuffed animal she can carry about.  “Kansas” is a small rural location with an outbuilding while Alice’s backyard covers other outdoor shots (clearly shot at different times due to a summer look in one and snow on the ground in another).  And the “Tornado” is a cone of wool attached to an electric eggbeater which turns on to spin the dramatic storm as a toy house goes flying through the sky (on fishing line).

With fewer effects and costumes, the remake of 1990’s Home Alone, relies on broad humor and farcical recreations of key moments in the original film.  Icy steps are done with cellophane wrap over the front stairs, a foiled intruder flies off to a rough landing (done with a dummy whose head keeps falling off in the outtakes reel).  Stunts, traps, and falls galore. The entire cast gets separate portrait shots for the credits, including a gag inclusion of “Joe Paterno.” At the time he was the most famous person in Alice’s home town, State College Pennsylvania. This inclusion was done with a color photo of the record-holding football coach. (A few years later Paterno was disgraced when it was discovered he covered up a pedophile scandal involving one of his assistant coaches.)

Home Alone comes in at a little over half an hour, and the long outtake section that follows (27 minutes) shows the making as a family group activity, enhanced because several participants have camcorders and thus there’s lots of footage, overlapping takes, and so forth.  There’s also a frequent glitch in the prime camera with video shearing of the image and other breakdowns from time to time.  Probably the most enduring part of the whole tape is at the end of the outtakes where the extended family’s new toddler, Tori, entrances everyone by getting into high-fiving and throwing her arms up and exclaiming “yea!” again and again.  Everyone is gathered around in the living room, relaxing and in a holiday mood.  The little kid is encouraged to find various folk’s belly buttons, and does so with innocent delight.  Simple pleasures, family bonding.

A few years later another large scale production brought off Alice in Wonderland.  Centering on Alice herself as the title character, the film includes two summer visitors, her sister Mildred Kleinhans (my mother) and Kate Nelson, a younger second cousin.  Again clever casting and costumes appear: the White Rabbit, the singing flowers, the playing cards, the Caterpiller, the Cheshire Cat, the Queen of Hearts, the Mad Hatter, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, and so forth.  The large cast is put through energetic paces, but most of the singing is simply miming to the existing soundtrack of the Disney animated film from the 1950s.  And cinematic wit largely fits the prop gimmicks of “bigger” and “smaller” after Alice goes down the rabbit hole.

In 1998 a final film, a recreation of two I Love Lucy sketches appeared.  Alice and Patty as Lucy and Ethel boisterously stomp on “grapes” in one, and they get jobs working on a candy production line which speeds up driving the hapless pair into a frantic attempt to keep up. These are broad farces based in famous moments in the TV sitcom.  Former child star Danny, present in earlier Alice excursions, is now old enough to play Ricky (the Desi Arnez character).  Behind the camera, Rich tries to control the many blown lines, messy actions, as scenes are run again and again.

Alice’s life changed around this time.  She met a widower, Woody Breon, and they married.  Her grandchildren were now grown up and there were some great-grandchildren.  Her daughter Pat died following complications from multiple sclerosis, and daughter Barbara contracted debilitating Lyme Disease that took years to diagnose.  Her sister Mildred, now in her late 80s, could no longer live at home alone in the Chicago area and moved to State College into a retirement and nursing facility.  Alice continued to be active: a square dance group, a jug band, and producing a Saturday night “Praise Service,” for her new church that aimed at engaging young people in a music and performance oriented alternative to the traditional Sunday service.

Alice had always been a talented and very funny storyteller, especially in relating events in her own life in comic terms.  These family stories, which often revolved around Alice being a naïve person in a situation which then had a sudden reversal and reveal, were a delight and often told and retold at holiday gatherings.  Alice was motivated to turn them into a book, Green Gravy, Monster Bread, and Other Adventures: An American Experiences Post-War Japan (Lexington Kentucky, ExLibris, 2011)

My favorite tale involved how, needing school clothes for her kids while her Air Force officer husband was stationed in Japan, she found the military base store didn’t have any.  Alice decided to get the cloth and make them herself.  Needing a seamstress, she innocently remembered an office outside of the base’s main gate with a sign in English that indicated it was a “labor exchange.”  Inquiring there, she was told they did know a woman who could sew and told her to meet the person at the gate the next morning.   A young woman was there the next day, and on arrival at Alice’s home the family’s Japanese housekeeper was upset and alarmed, spotting the new arrival as a local “bar girl” (to use a euphemism).  Alice set the young gal to work and she did a good job.  As it quickly turned out, Byron, an Air Force intelligence officer, returned home asking Alice why she had been seen going into the local Communist Party headquarters.  Military intelligence and her matronly housekeeper were shocked, but all was reversed when other officers” wives found out about the seamstress because they too needed sewing to be done.  As it turned out, everything worked out for all concerned and the hooker found a new steady occupation with her seamstress skills.

That book was followed by another, this time recounting stories from childhood teen years and enhanced with many family snapshots.  Holes in my Shoes: One Family Survives the Great Depression (Lexington Kentucky, ExLibris, 2012).  Dedicated to her great grandchildren and beyond, the repeated moral pointed to how a rich social life could be found with economically simple means, that materialism and consumerism should not be valued over family and friends. Implicitly appropriate for the era of the Great Recession of 2008.

Film scholars have written a lot in recent decades about film and memory.  Recall, reinterpretation, amnesia, and witness have all been brought into the mix.  I see my aunt’s work a little differently.  Within the extended family, my aunt Alice’s home movies provide most essentially the pleasures of recognition: here’s what we looked like then, these people are worthy of being captured in a movie, the collective makers are validated as creative artists.  Nothing overblown, just appropriation of commercial and industrial culture for a local and familial face.  Movies plus Home.  Worth putting together.

[3] I discuss some of this with reference to Gone With the Wind in:  “Anger or Laughter? The dialectics of response to The Birth of a Nation,” in Michael T. Martin, ed., Untitled The Birth of a Nation anthology, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2017. Forthcoming.

Chuck Kleinhans is an Associate Professor Emeritus in Radio/Television/Film at Northwestern University. Since 1974 he has been the co-editor, founder and publisher of Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media.

chuckkle@northwestern.edu


The Center for Home Movies would like to thank Alice Worthen-Breon for her generosity in allowing us to publish her movies, and A/V Geeks (www.avgeeks.com) for digitizing the films and videotapes.