Recently, my father had the family home movies from the late 1950's/early 1960's converted from decaying reels of 8mm film to digital. Until December 8th, they sit in YesVideo's cloud, where we can all access them with an email and a password. There are seven of them, each running about 25 minutes, and even though they are not really connected by anything except their occurrence during the same year or couple of years, they do capture a partial childhood.
I don't know that the phenomenon of home movies is understood these days. Video recorders were not the same--they were relatively unobtrusive and had such long filming that the fanatic could film anything and everything so incessantly that everyone quit paying attention. Digital recorders eventually fit in pockets and now have become phones. The fact that now anything can and is recorded at any time changes our attitudes toward being filmed.
But at the time, oh boy, when that camera was out, it was everywhere. And it wasn't some sleek thing that fit in your pocket. It was a large, bulky thing, like a lunchbox, if you've ever used one of those, and heavy and with a blinding light attached to it that was its own presence in the room. And we were supposed to pretend that light and camera weren't there, were supposed to go about our normal business of being children while this voracious intruder recorded everything. And it wanted smiling, lots of smiling, and waving. "Wave at the camera," we would hear over and over, acknowledging that it had its own demands.
I suppose the topics were no different then than they are now--birthdays, holidays, trips and vacations, benchmarks of daily life like a new dog or a Little League game or a lazy Saturday afternoon.
There is probably nothing more mind-numbingly boring than watching someone else's home movies. But that was the trend at the time, especially if the family had been on a special vacation somewhere, maybe even out of the country. They would invite the neighbors and all of us would sit in a darkened living room with a rackety projector spewing out the starts and stops, the bad lighting and too much panorama, the endless pictures of children swimming, walking, climbing, eating, waving, touring, riding and just being filmed.
I knew, but I had forgotten, that these movies have no sound. That meant that if we were at someone's house, we heard a slapdash narrative of little more than names of places and descriptions of events that we could see taking place. "Now, here we are....." or "This is _____(insert child's name)____ ..." peppered the storytelling, clarifying the obvious.
Now, with no sound, I see my family and myself doing our special or everyday activities, but almost can't help but to include my own voiceover. Without it, the people I'm watching seem like strangers I once knew but can no longer connect with. It's dreamlike in that way. It's like seeing the Ghosts of Childhood Past. But if I talk, then memories start to come back and I think that I understand myself again.
My first steps as a baby are captured on one of these reels. At first, this seemed frightfully important. My first on earth and Neil Armstrong's first on the moon held equal sway in my mind. I had always known from family lore that those steps had been recorded during a family vacation to New England in 1958. Indeed, there was something pleasurable about seeing myself teetering and tottering probably toward the beckoning arms of my mother, but it didn't change me like I, for some reason, thought it might.
That doesn't mean we haven't all been watching them endlessly, searching in our own ways for what they show us of our lives then. We have. But the moments that seem to matter (I speak only for myself) are the ones that validate who I have become in more abstract ways. After all, I walk everyday; it had to start somewhere.
It's quite possible, in spite of what I've said about other people's home movies, that next time I will subject you to one of mine, but I'll do it with words instead of pictures, and you will not be held captive. You can turn it off and leave whenever you want.