The Charm, Beauty, and Significance of Home Movies

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I love this interview with archivist Rick Prelinger, who’s been collecting home movies since the 1980’s. His archives are accessible online.

How can you not be attracted to home movies? Just about every home movie is unique and exists in a single copy. And while many of them picture similar events (birthdays, holidays, trips to the lake, honeymooning at Niagara Falls), each has its own look and emotional feel. I’ve started to think that maybe the essential story of the 20th century is really the composite story made from identical events shown slightly differently.

They’re also structurally unique. Most documentary films these days are built as narratives — stories with a beginning, middle and end; stories with some kind of conflict and resolution; stories with “compelling” characters. But home movies bypass this artificial layer. Home movies are stories all by themselves. There are many small dramas we might imagine about the people, places and activities we see. But in themselves they’re little narratives about the unfolding dynamic between the person shooting and the person shot; about performing for the camera and watching people perform; about family mysteries we may never solve.

Then there’s the element of unpredictability. What will the next shot be? What will these people do? Where will the camera shoot next? You can find anything from close-ups of ears of new sweet corn to covert shots of President Roosevelt walking down a ramp from his private railroad car, shot from behind a baggage cart so that the Secret Service wouldn’t notice and take the film.

And just as there is unexpected beauty in daily life, there is real beauty in films made by ordinary, nonprofessional shooters. It can be intentional or accidental, but I am constantly struck by the wonderful images I find that would be extremely difficult to shoot on purpose. Strange juxtapositions, unpredictable camera angles, mistakes that make perfection look boring.

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