You think you’ve seen them before you start the projector, and afterwards you realize you really haven’t.
That’s Rick Prelinger‘s tenth reason that home movies are important. He tweeted twenty two of those gems last week (archived here), and I could honestly have picked any one of them to lead off this post. He tweeted them out one by one late Friday evening California time. That Prelinger wrote them on a day and time when fewer people are on Twitter makes these thoughts just about as fleeting in the digital age as the genre of movie making he’s describing.
Prelinger doesn’t make clear from his tweets alone, but from context, I’d offer this as a definition for home movies:
Films and videos made by amateurs, generally intended for ‘personal memory capture’ or to be shared with a small audience of close friends and family.
The truly amazing thing about Rick Prelinger’s collection is what happens when these artifacts are shown outside their original intended audience. When we’re removed enough that the people involved still retain their privacy through the layers of time and anonymity, all sorts of startling and yet familiar things emerge. Having been lucky enough to attend one of his “Lost Landscapes of San Francisco,” I’ve had the opportunity to see these intimate documents projected in a room full of people that their original creators never dreamed would be interested. They captivated the attention of the large hall in a way that highly scripted feature films often struggle to do. Audience members yelled out street names and identified eras. Prelinger added what details he knew and the rest of us filled in the names of shipwrecks, Republican Conventioneers, and graveyards long since relocated to Colma.
I’ve held onto that experience as a counter-point to moments when all I hear is ‘Story, Story Story! The story you tell is all-important.” I will never deny that we’re narrative animals or claim that story isn’t central to our humanity. But the thing is, it’s not always the creator’s intended story that ends up making a work compelling. Often it’s the story that we as audience members create. The compelling qualities of these movies – the things that Rick Prelinger tried to capture in his list – work because our internal narrative drive as audience members is strong enough to search for and create story when we all we have are fragments divorced from their original context. We, the audience fill in the gaps with personal experience, our own sense of historical context, and the workings of our own imaginations. In some senses this happens for every story, even ones where there’s more authorial intent evident. And that’s for the best, because the stories crafted by your audience can be much richer and more personally compelling than anything you, the storyteller, could have dreamt up.