Real Reels Start Rolling

Lucy Gellman PhotoMolly Wheeler first heard of Home Movie Day in 2004 while attending a conference for the Association of Moving Image Archivists. “It just cracked my mind open,” said Wheeler, reflecting on the annual celebration of amateur films and filmmakers in a recent interview on WNHH’s “Deep Focus.” “I thought it was one of the coolest events I had ever heard of.”

Watching other people’s home movies may at first glance seem like a strange candidate for the coolest way to spend an afternoon. But for Wheeler, an archivist at the Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library who specializes in audiovisual material, Home Movie Day represented a perfect intersection of three pursuits she cares deeply about: film preservation, social history, and community engagement.

That’s because Home Movie Day, which Wheeler and fellow Yale film archivist Brian Meacham will be hosting this Saturday afternoon at the New Haven Museum, offers something a little bit deeper than just an opportunity to reminisce on bad haircuts and summer vacations. Rather, it creates a space for people to celebrate home movies as both a folk art and an historical document, as both a unique example of film heritage and an embodiment of personal and collective memory.

“Some people have never seen moving images of themselves as young people,” Wheeler said, “and it’s really exceptional for someone who’s older to be connected with their young self… To actually see [themselves] dancing or moving or looking at a camera, to see family members interact [in a way] that challenges what you remember. It gives new information.”

These are the types of simple but resonant revelations that Wheeler and Meacham hope to achieve through the public screening of home movies: that collective moment of recognition that the audiovisual record of even the most mundane parts of life can produce in an audience a connection with others and a deeper understanding of oneself. “It doesn’t have to be your grandparents for you to sense the kind of import of that moment,” Meacham said. “When you’re seeing something, when you recognize the people but you’ve never seen the scene before. It’s kind of amazing.”

Home Movie Day 2015 New Haven will run from 12-4 p.m. on Sat., Oct. 17th at the New Haven Museum. Meacham and Wheeler will spend the first two hours of the afternoon inspecting film submissions and offering expert advice on how best to preserve home movies recorded on 16mm, 8mm, and Super 8 film. The latter half of the afternoon will features screenings of select home movies, with optional narration from the person or people who submitted the films. The event is free and open to the public.

The Return of VHS

If home movies represent one end of the spectrum of movies as popular culture, in which any person with a camera can document her life, her family, and the gestures and interactions of a particular moment in time, then VHS represents another end: a format that allowed movie fans for the first time in history to pick exactly what they wanted to watch, when they wanted to watch it, and to do it all from the privacy of their own homes.

“The democratization of movies was made possible by VHS,” said Yale librarian David Gary in the second segment of Thursday’s episode of “Deep Focus,” which highlighted a few VHS-centric events that will be taking place in New Haven this weekend. On Saturday, Joe Fay at Lyric Hall will be hosting Magneticfest, a VHS swap and series of screenings of exploitation movies like Night Train to Terror that helped define the VHS era. On Friday, Gary will be presenting a free, public screening of the VHS documentary Rewind This at Yale’s Linsly-Chittenden Hall. The screening and subsequent conversation with the director is part of Gary’s desire to draw attention to the university library’s recent acquisition of 2,700 VHS cassettes: a bold assertion of the cultural, material, and academic significance of this influential home video format.

The vast majority of the movies in the collection were produced and distributed between 1978 – 1985, the early years of VHS and, to Gary, the pivotal years for its development as a mass cultural product. They’re also predominantly horror or exploitation movies, the staples of early video store collections, and are invariably accompanied by original cases that draw in the viewer with promises of kaleidoscopic sensations.

“One can argue that the packaging is sometimes more important than the movie itself,” Gary admitted. “It’s very lurid, very bright, very gory. When independent moviemakers were making movies in the mid 80s, some of these movies were not all that great, and the way to draw people in was through the box art. The box art did a lot of the selling of these movies.”

But even these boxes embody for Gary a material significance that elevates the VHS above something that is merely colorful and provocative. “I see VHS as sort of like a rare book,” Gary noted. “There are aspects to it, like the binding and paper of books, that people who study this use as really excellent evidence. [From tape stock to labels to box art and liner notes], the physicality of VHS has the same sort of evidence in it.”

Click on the audio player above to hear the full conversation with Molly Wheeler and Brian Meacham about Home Movie Day, and with David Gary and Joe Fay about VHS. The latter conversation begins at the 27 minute mark.

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