How Home Movies Became a Revolutionary Medium
By: Ariel Yisrael
“Mold does wonderful things,” says Ron Magliozzi, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art. He says this while he and two other curators at the museum watch a film projected onto a screen. This is one of the particularly dilapidated home movies available for viewing in the museum’s recent exhibit. The exhibition is titled, “Private Lives Public Spaces” and was scheduled to be shown from October 29, 2019, to July 1, 2020. It featured 200 reels of amateur footage displayed on 102 screens and collected over 85 years. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the museum has made nine of these amateur films available free to watch on their YouTube channel.
Brittany Shaw, a curatorial assistant at the museum, quotes Lithuanian-American filmmaker Jonas Mekas who calls home movies “The folk poetry of the people.” The largest collection of moving image work created in the 20th century is home movies.
Magliozzi splits the amateur filmmaker into three categories: Hollywood cinema, artist’s cinema, and people’s cinema. Trained artists like Andy Warhol filming his muse, Edie Sedgwick, artful amateurs with a cinematographic talent who went on to film professionally, and finally, what he calls “hardcore home movies,” those filmed without any kind of rule book.
The exhibit features a few famous faces from Salvador Dali playing with a cat and a skull at his home in Spain to Charlie Chaplin in a ballet about courtship and the subjugation of the Earth.
However, the home movies created by ordinary people are arguably the most enthralling. The films are completely silent, we cannot hear voices or know the motivation behind the creation of these very personal films. Yet it’s easy to feel a kinship with them.
There are father-daughter tea parties on the roofs of 1920s New York skyscrapers, newborns meeting family for the first time, and groups of friends roughing it in the Canadian wilderness. The films present people of many colors, classes, and creeds documenting their experiences through decades. And though we can appreciate the diversity of these films now, this was not the original objective of the manufactures of home movie technology.
Home movie culture started in the 1920s when equipment manufacturers began selling specifically to a non-professional market. In an attempt to sell this innovative technology to the upper class, the ads often featured wealthy families in large estates using the cameras. In the 1940s, Hollywood directors and stars, like Doris Day and Bing Crosby, were shown using home movie cameras.
Personal cameras were strongly implied to be exclusively for the wealthy and white, to document the supposed glamour of their lives. The companies likely couldn’t fathom why someone who was not in the upper echelon of society would have any desire to document their experiences. Strangely it is these experiences that resonate the most. And even in films that feature families that fit into the idealized image of the ‘All-American Family,’ there are signs of misogyny.
The films document a lot of the struggles that defined the American 20th century. There is evidence of animal abuse, poverty, and segregation. They neither romanticize nor vilify the time but instead present it as it was for the people that experienced it. They shoot what they love. They offer glimpses into black life completely separate from the white gaze. These are not Hollywood films; there is no protagonist. Just normal people taking their stories into their own hands, likely unaware of the gravity of this decision. While watching these films and looking into the faces of these silent performers, it’s easy to appreciate home movies as a cinematic art form with perhaps the most vulnerable subjects ever recorded.