Last night at Writer's Group we were discussing old home movies. I remembered the following, which I had written over a dozen years ago. I did a bit of updating.8MM
An Essay and Remembrance
A video camcorder lies by telling too much truth. Set it in a corner, set it on a tripod, set the switch to "on." It tapes a two hour birthday party for two hours. There is no discrimination.
There was a time, before this technology, when there were only movie cameras, Kodaks and Keystones. They were rare and the film came dear; a five minute reel for more than the price of today's five hour tape. One had to be discerning with ones' shots. Film, unlike tape, was good for only one exposure, no backing up and re recording. This is not to say the resultant subject quality was in any way superior forty years ago. People were as foolish before a lens then as they ever are now, but the difference is less in the shooting than in the viewing. Five minutes of eight millimeter snaps along-a few shots of a lawn party-a minute of the dog prancing for a treat-and then it's two seasons later and cousin Bob is throwing snowballs at the camera.
The camcorder dwells on its subject as though, in later showings we would really care to see every single second of an event. We don't. After the first few moments of the auto show we have no need to be reminded of every single car in sight and every pace between them. Within the frail time constraints of film we pop from highlight to highlight-moving snapshots-more like real memory and in that way, less is more. Fewer, briefer shots draw our closer attention; pique our curiosity as to what is coming next. Film seems the more satisfying experience. Times are reminded to us, not replayed verbatim.
It's only now that this distinction comes clear to me. It's only now, this year, that after long neglect I went to buy some eight millimeter film and found that it is no longer even manufactured.
The room is only semi-dark and the projector, perched on the coffee table, is balky. It has been over twenty years since I've threaded stiff, white, leader film through it. My mind forgets but my fingers remember how, and the framing comes into line. There is a hot and musty smell as two decades of dust burns off the brilliant bulb. Unshaped greens and yellows merge on the wall. I adjust the focus and see among the trees my cousin, Bob, waving towards the camera-standing gawky-squinting against the sun. Another moment and Bob is walking my collie pup past the trees. And now he is snapping his fingers to make her stand and jump. It is nineteen fifty-five.
There is no art in these pictures. They cut from shot to shot in no order. It was a July afternoon and I, at ten years old, was blinking my cameras' eye at whatever I could get to cross my path. More shots of Bob, more of the dog and some of Billy Moses who lived across the street. I reverse the film and watch the last few moments again, not to see Billy, but off to his right is the side of my house. It looks less wide, less huge, than I remember; "big as a house" meant more forty years ago. The trailer of film slapped, I rewound, and threaded the next reel quickly.
This image is less jerky. It pans across lilacs and small white flowers and keeps panning, away from the garden of my Grandpas house, to a small and obviously staged procession. Cousins Bob and Mike walking slowly, Bob mugging for the camera, and between them is my Great Grandmother. In this picture she is ninety-two years old. I move closer to the screen to see her face-the scene wobbles and blurs-an eyeball close to the lens-minutes of shifting red-orange light-massive over exposure. As the last two feet of film ratchet through the gates I see a few seconds of my grandpa waving from the porch.
A reel showing my fifth grade class. A field trip. My classmates and teachers wave from various poses for the full five minutes.
Now...here...in this fourth reel...my mother walking the collie. She turns to the camera and waves. I pan down to the dog. I wait a moment for the pan to return to her face but it doesn't come; only the flowered print of her skirt. I want to see her face. I say it aloud to the image on the wall. Up...up...just a little...I want to see her face. Now the scene is shot from across the yard. She pauses and shades her eyes. She is small on the screen. Her hair is dark. Then it is Christmas morning. Dark indoor pictures of the tree. And the five seconds, no more, of my father squatting on the floor in his pajamas, holding up a box.
This reel will not seat onto the motor gear. It stutters along and I am afraid the film will tear or burn. After a fifth rethread it travels smoothly. Pictures of our beach vacation. A long pan of the wooden pier and then the sand. And then my family, framed well and close enough to see. Grandpa and Grandma, she in a beach chair, he standing beside, toned and tanned and gray. My uncle and aunt walking the waters edge. My mother and father relaxed and sitting on blankets. My father, lithe as he stands. He is dark blond and trimmer than I recall. A swimmer's body. He helps Mother rise and they move at ease with each other. I run this film again, and then the last part with Mom and Dad twice more. The warm and sandy images blur and sharpen, not from the camera lens but from the wet of my eyes.
The last reel. More of cousin Bob. More of the dog. And then a shot to prize. My Father wheels his new, yellow and green, nineteen fifty-five Buick Coupe into the driveway. He leaves the car wearing a snug, white tee shirt and khaki slacks. He walks toward the camera and me. He is smiling and unselfconscious and he doesn't wave. The film ends.
As I snap the cover on the projector a realization comes over me. My Father-my elder-my senior. My Father who died thirteen years ago at age eighty-one. I am now eighteen years older than he is in these films. And I drive a Buick Coupe.