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HMD Report: Cambridge 2011

HMD Report: Cambridge

Report submitted by:
Liz Coffey
Report by Brittany Gravely, our annual note-taker and writer extraordinaire.
October 15 – Cambridge, MA

As watching celluloid – particularly small gauge formats – and even VHS becomes more and more an anathema to digital society, events like Home Movie Day must carry on in more clandestine, under-the-radar locales such as the classroom next to the main theater at the Harvard Film Archive. Small, cryptic signs guided the relatively ordinary-looking subversives into the dark where the annual rite could be performed inconspicuously.

Dungeon Master Liz Coffey lurked omnisciently in the back operating the immortal projection machines and (with Melissa Dollman) inspected the reels of memories people dared to smuggle in. Amy Sloper and Amanda Justice monitored the analogue video machine with a care usually shown only premature children, and in keeping with all-things nostalgic and covert, music was provided by record player that closed up like a suitcase when not in use.

After the usual introductions, brief history of film, quick run-through of Home Movie Day bingo rules and communal cookie-eating, the show began discreetly with Frank Floyd’s color Super 8 transferred-to-digital which he projected directly off of his computer – the same one his parents had in the 60s and 70s. Just kidding. But it is true that his parents were really cool in the 60s and 70s – his dad was in a singing group called “The Constellations” and his mom was a budding fashion designer. Thus, upon the screen splashed images of super-stylish men hanging out in a hotel, playing guitar and showing off their custom-made fashions featuring stunning ensembles like bellbottomed jumpers with puffy red sleeves and a little fur bag or for the ladies, a decadently fur-lined long skirt. We basked in the light of this ultimate 70s star glow.

The infamous John Quackenbush presented a color Super 8 reel auspiciously titled “Unk” which began with an overexposed Charles River and a slightly younger version of John sailing blithely upon barely visible waters. The mystery of the title disintegrated before our squinting eyes as John’s uncle waltzed into the delicate palette of downtown Boston. John was documenting this important, adventurous visit taken by bus and on foot, and maybe more, according to the aerial shot of traffic that closed out this reel.

A newcomer to this hip scene, Michael, casually produced a DVD of 8mm transferred to digital vid as if this were something he did everyday. Upon the screen his cousins took their first trip back to Lebanon, his mother’s hometown. It was the 1960s and cuteness, prettiness and stylishness were at an all-time high, but that’s not the focus of this sweet reunion where many of the cousins were meeting and hugging for the first time. Michael told us that originally there was an audio cassette made to accompany the visual documentation; although we couldn’t listen to this, the Crystals’ record playing at the moment did fit the magical walk down this memorable lane. By the time Palm Sunday rolled around, we were lovingly besieged by a lot of posing and waving to the camera by beautiful people in well-coordinated, cinematically-saturated solids. Crazy unleavened bread with layers like cloth unfolded to reveal men dining outside who toast the camera! I may have taken some artistic liberties with that sentence, but bottom line: these folks were more than hospitable.

And speaking of layers, Melissa Dollman took an educational approach to her home movie presentation this year, showing us part of a collection she claimed to have worked on. The son of Henry Koster, director of Harvey and many other studio pictures from the days you could say “studio pictures,” recorded his father as they watched his dad’s old home movies together. Are you following me? It was like looking into infinity. If you can stay with me for a moment longer, he did this so he could record his dad’s commentary on these exciting documents (originally shot on b/w 16mm) featuring old Hollywood writers, producers and starlets in Salzburg, Vienna, Linz, Budapest and various European locales. Upon seeing his old agent on screen, Mr. Koster goes into this crazy lawsuit story about this innocuous-looking guy who, turns out, was actually quite a snake in the grass. Meanwhile, actors and their wives swim, eat and generally look gorgeous. It was a precious, multifaceted document unfortunately ravaged by the quality of the VHS media of its time.

Next, the inimitable Brittany Gravely showed an alarmingly recent color Super 8 film shot earlier this very year on the new Ektachrome stock that Kodak released to compensate for the loss of Kodachrome. The intensity of the Floridian footage triggered a projector malfunction which Liz promptly alleviated. And soon enough, we were back in one of Brittany’s hometowns, Jacksonville, where an old hotel was being demolished. On down the palm tree-lined streets one stormy day, we see bits of Florida old and new as well as plenty of friendly Florida flora… not to mention fauna in the shape of a cat comfortably hanging out in the fork of a tree. Someone commented that it looked like a panther which forced Brittany to tearfully admit that Florida is currently being overrun by a scourge of mini-panthers which stalk their human prey from backyard trees. This footage was crucial to her ongoing research into this frightening epidemic.

Betsy Sherman tactfully switched subjects with a rollicking 8mm Kodachrome of her family in Brookline, Mass. back in March and April, 1961 when she was a lass of a mere four years and her brother was only one. Her brother kind of stole the screen with his special leash and his abhorrence of walking. When he does walk, the great outfit he has been stuffed into makes him move like a robot. No wonder he was so skeptical of the practice. The siblings had endless fun on playground structures of the past and their cute mother laughed about it all while relaxed in a chaise lounge.

Amanda Justice bought a mystery VHS tape at a flea market in Waldo, FL and little did she know, it contained the Secrets to the Universe. This appeared to us mortals as three figures from the 1980s pretending to be a band (of sorts) performing Paula Abdul’s “Knocked Up.” Amanda explained that there were video karaoke-type booths at fairs and the like which would composite you and your friends against totally cool backgrounds and add totally awesome video effects while a totally tubular song played, and voilá! Video killed the radio star! The pseudo-band was simply composed of a shirtless, leather-jacketed, glasses-wearing, guitar “playing” man and two dancing ladies whose outfits somehow managed to sum up all of the primary 80s styles (starred half-shirt among them). They performed a synchronized dance which we wondered if they had made up beforehand or were following dance instructions. Either way, it was amazing. Blown by fake wind, frozen periodically by this ingenious video effects device, and laughing occasionally to themselves, every inch of this video radiated pure pleasure.

So pleasureful, in fact, that we started considering VHS camcorders the future of image making. Sensing the bizarre cinematic-retro-mutation danger, Liz snapped into action and dialed into the Emergency Alert FilmCon5 System which, under such dire conditions, instructed the user resort to the radical Option X: bring out the most outmoded and obscure type of filmmaking device one could lay one’s hands on. Sweating celluloid bullets, she pulled out a magnificent monstrosity called the Pathé “Baby,” a 9.5mm film projector from God-knows-when. The strange frame size alone distracted people long enough for Amy to obliterate the video decks and allowed Liz to launch into a history of the French-made 9.5mm format, noting that it is still a viable format in Europe, where such abominations are still cherished. The thing about 9.5 is that the sprocket holes are between frames rather than on the sides, allowing for a greater image area, yet a more dangerous situation for the film in case sprocket damage, etc. occurs and all hell breaks loose on the actual image rather than the shoulder of the road, as it were. This design’s original intent was to separate the amateur film mavericks from poser riffraff.

Well, there was a method to Liz’s madness for a change; we were about to watch some 9.5mm, albeit transferred to DVD. Another newcomer on the scene whose name shall remain anonymous due to the political hazards of harboring such an un-American film format (or I forgot to write it down – you decide) brought this contentious medium into our realm having inherited this footage from her family. It was silent b/w film from the 1920s shot in British-occupied Hong Kong of her grandfather and great uncle as adorable little boys playing with an extensive wind-up train set. Strands of sunlight streaked this beautifully-exposed miniature world populated with tiny figures on bikes, horses and various vehicles surrounded by tiny fake everything. They even had small cannons that really fired something. These were long, loving shots of the boys enjoying serious play in this splendid room, but eventually we do catch glimpses of regular-sized adults playing a regular-sized game of Mahjong.

The old-HMD-timer Reed Sturtevant was up next with a color Super 8 reel primarily focused on his son, a baby at the time of filming, who spent much of his screentime crying over the threat of water touching him and then over more ambiguous, less tangible things. In usual clever Reed fashion, there was a shocking shot of the baby in the driver’s seat of a car followed seamlessly by his teenage self driving a fancy red car though the beautiful countryside of Limerock, Maine. Turns out, they were on their way to the Skip Barber Racing School where his once-sensitive, emotional offspring kept it way cool drag racing and looking like nothing, not even water, could unsettle him.

Finally shedding the icy detachment of academia, Melissa screened footage from her own mother’s childhood in 1950s South Dakota. On the color 8mm which had been transferred to video we witnessed such memorable images as a toddler in fluffy dresses, a big-eared kid with a gun, and a baby exploring the simple pleasures of a single shoe and a pliable mattress. In the midst of the inordinate amount of mellow family fun time, one child gorging on sausage, pushing kids around and generally disrupting the good times turned out to be Melissa’s mom. Fortunately, the cute images that kept coming amid holiday festivities – which included some really cool elfin shoes – distracted us from this unexpected family exposé.

Brittany decided to ease Melissa’s embarrassment by showing a strange color Super 8 roll from 1979 that began innocuously enough upon a carousel. She and her sister and aunts showed off their tube socks astride these magical beasts and everything seemed normal until… they entered the dark jungle by boat and were menaced by animatronic jungle animals courtesy of Disneyworld. Then, jarringly, we were thrown back to the icy reality of her other homeland, Marengo, Illinois where a continuous pan of the snowy terrain proved interminable. Snow, snow, and more snow. We got it. Okay. Finally, her family’s little snow-colored poodle Gigi entered snowy stage right and made life worth living again!

And if you thought that was a freakish whirlwind, for a real metaphysical turn of events, Tara Nelson produced a Super 8 roll, shot by her husband Gordon, of last year’s Home Movie Day in Boston! If you recall, it was in Fort Point and it was a reel par-tay. This was exquisitely portrayed via Gordon’s artful double-exposure, hand-processing, and skillful cinematography. The LL Cool J record that accompanied it heightened this visceral experience and also added a danceable hip-hop edge to the nature footage that followed.

A shot of a dead goose served as a dark signpost of urban reality.

Quackenbush was at it again producing a sequel of sorts to a reel he showed last year from the same batch of found footage shot by a contingent of plump, middle-aged American tourists in the 50s or thereabouts. Just like last year, it was a treasure of a reel and I was obviously quite taken by the show because my notes couldn’t keep up with the parade of images on screen. And at this point, frankly, I can’t recall what “Golden Apple – beautiful lake” and “bridges trio” means, but I do know about “customs US/Canada.” They were having fun at the US/Canadian border! There were also ladies at a fancy estate and shots of a city which appeared to be Toronto. I also quite clearly remember the gravesite with the ominous words “Pray For Us” sculpted out of shrubbery. And, who could forget Niagara Falls? More bridges, more seasides, and a bonus seaside that came with its own kissing couple. This was real tourist leisure time what with shots here and there of landmarks like a neat castle-like building and with all of the beach scenes (including the requisite suntan-lotion-applying shot), picnicking, pedicab riding, carside posing, field bathing (don’t ask), see-sawing, sliding, geese feeding, garden partying, etc. Yet all of this was just a build-up to the primal heart of this reel: a monkey in the backyard! Signifying the bizarre confluence of events, a miraculous soundtrack synchronicity sent everyone into incredulous shock. Meanwhile, these backyard mysterions gathered around a cauldron (which hopefully, the monkey was not a part of), and there are extended shots of cows and farmers again accompanied by eerily appropriate chords from the record player matching onscreen action as if it had been scored beforehand.

We were really on a roll now. Reed was up again with the only footage he ever purchased off of Ebay featuring 1960s Okinawa. Immediately we were greeted by rice fields along the edges of which frolicked charming children. Also pretty charming was a donkey attached to a special agricultural contraption and happy women waving to the camera as if welcoming us into this land of ridiculously cute kids and hardworking villagers harvesting rice and other grains. To gain perspective, we were swept up into an aerial shot of green and beige land next to blue, blue water. When we come back down to Earth, there is some kind of memorial people are visiting and it involves a shot of a real human skull. The brief comic relief – a person walking with a bundle that has a hat on it looks like a walking bundle – prepares us not for the gory exploits to come! We witness actual scenes of whale slaughter in a lagoon area – from the killing to the chopping up, the camera spared no gruesome detail. Thank you, Reed, for warning us ahead of time about this grisly scene! When I opened my eyes again, there were children in little cars riding around in circles followed by a special circle dance outside. While I tried to piece together the evolving metaphorical subtext, US soldiers convened, and I took off to the convention of some sort they were holding that day involving a lot of seated older Japanese people drinking orange soda and watching grand spectacles such as beautiful, colorful dances. They seemed to be honoring a group of older women in the audience in some fashion. On and off stage, it was an incessant parade of smiling faces, great outfits, bright ribbons, and brilliant flowers until we get to the neutral tones of the military man giving a speech with the aid of a Japanese translator. Then the soldiers begin giving ominous silver boxes to everyone and we see a sign that reads “Christmas in Nakagusuku-son” clearing up at least a few questions. Soon, we return to village life: processing grain and toting bundles. And once again we are air-lifted to observe the villages from the sky and even see the inside of the helicopter. Radio dishes of some sort come into view – most likely connected to this apparent military base. Finally, it closes out with picturesque shots of boats and village life carrying on…

I hope I did that one justice – it was an exotic slice of history with a little mystery, and those kind really make you think. That’s the great thing about Home Movie Day – not everything is spoon-fed like the drivel those Hollywood pictures dole out, except maybe the bingo prizes which Liz kept coming to pacify an increasingly agitated audience.
Anyway, moving on to Amy Sloper’s thought-provoking b/w Super 8 movie from 2010… To the intrepid tunes of a James Bond soundtrack, we are taken through the intricate world of Amy’s office desk. Having received the assignment, we take a ferry ride upon the dangerous waters of the Boston Harbor and catch a fatal glimpse of Boston’s traditionally overexposed skyline. Blinded by this iconic light, we then beat a fast retreat to the dark ambiguity of a New Year’s party and breathe a mutual sigh of relief that we cannot see what sordid events are unfolding inside this sketchy apartment. Then! the day we have all been waiting for arrives… the great Book Topple of whatever year it is now. Part of Amy’s library-related job is to treat books like the dominoes they were always meant to be and – still with 007 playing in the background – we see the care and concern taken lining up books all over the office. If they don’t fall correctly, well, lives are obviously on the line. So when the books finally fall – okay, so maybe Amy didn’t film the end and maybe we will never know what became of those thrill-seeking librarians, may they rest in peace.
And it was another golden oldie from the annals of Brittany’s life, or pre-life, featuring her older sister in color Super 8 in the year 1971. Easter always brings surprises like robotic larval forms squirming happily but oddly on their parents’ bed. The naturalistic lighting fell softly upon her white dress and a strange plastic rabbit looming the background.

Not to be outdone by dainty girl babies on display, Frank Floyd jammed the filmwaves with more of his Super Seventies childhood. Once again, via color Super 8 transferred to the digital realm we were subjected to his ultra-cool parents living their ultra-stylish lives in an ultra-cool pad. Not only that, but his dad shows off some ultra-cool parenting skills as he grooves out to tiny Frank playing a giant drum set in what appears to be a fairly avant garde manner for the time – all the while wearing amazing pants and a dazzling hat. Little Frank’s 70s hairstyle is also pretty easy on the eyes.

Queen of the Scene, Liz Coffey, ramped up for the end of this roller coaster of a day with her recent “black-and-white remake of another home movie I made.” Who remakes their own home movies? And who remakes them in black-and-white? Only the most dedicated and eccentric home movie freaks, and in this kingdom, Liz obviously reigns supreme. So don’t ask “why,” just sit back and enjoy Tilt-a-whirl Part II: Monochromatic Death – a dizzying ride in Old Orchard Beach, Maine that admittedly did feel more gritty and real in black-and-white.

And the last entry of the day was another contemporary film, yet shot on long-expired Kodachrome which Tara found at the house of experimental filmmaker Saul Levine. She mentioned it was Christmastime, but the smoke stacks and rural farmland scenes did not come off as overly festive. There is a dog running around in a wreath-like configuration, a tractor that is vaguely sleigh-like, and an older man in a sweater who could never have been mistaken as Santa. (Turns out he’s Tara’s dad. Not Santa, the old sweater guy.) The action gets pixilated… as in single-frames, not Christmas fairies like you might think, and the muted, milky movie unspools like so much ribbon onto the spinning take-up reel of our lives.

Sorry, I’m not really sure what I’m saying anymore. These Home Movie Day notes take a lot out of me, like Home Movie Day itself. Traveling all over the world, back and forth in time, in and out of people’s lives… it’s not really just a “day” in the traditional sense and it’s a daunting task describing the real effect this stuff has on all of us. In closing, I may never know.

This was compiled by Liz Coffey.
2011 Event Report
City: Cambridge, MA
Event Venue: B04, the classroom / screening room Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts
Event time (screening): 12-3pm
Event time (inspection): 11am onwards
Total Audience: around 30
Number of people bringing films: 13
Liz Coffey

Melissa Dollman

Amy Sloper

Amanda Justice
Brittany Gravely
Zach Long
Press (pre-event and post-event):
“Dig This”editors’ picks – Weekly Dig 10.12.11
“8 Days a Week” editors’ picks – Boston Phoenix 10.14.11
“Weekend Arts Picks” on RadioBoston, 90.9 WMBR 10.13.11
facebook event page, HFA online calendar
and oddly: “Home Movie Day in Cambridge” – Centers and Squares 10.14.11

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