Recently, from deep within what I call my Closet of Doom, I unearthed a bag of celluloid treasures. Some were tucked inside square, yellow Kodak cartons and bore labels such as “The Desert Town” and “D&D Movie ’81.” Others, spooled naked on plastic film reels and wrapped with decomposing rubber bands, had no labels at all.
I knew these relics dated to the 1970s and ’80s, to an era when I was going to be the next Steven Spielberg. I shot dozens of Super 8 cartridges to capture my teenage world. These short movies had not seen the light of day in decades, nor the light of a projector bulb.
I tracked down a projector and screened them on my living room wall for an audience of one. Magic. But I longed for more viewers.
Thanks to Home Movie Day, any awkward, nerdy, or homespun masterpiece can now find a wider audience. The annual celebration of amateur films and filmmaking celebrates its 10th incarnation this Saturday at close to 100 locations in 20 countries worldwide. Locally, folks will gather from noon to 3 p.m. at Somerville Community Access Television (SCATV) in Union Square to screen submissions in their original, obsolete formats — 8mm, Super 8, 16mm, and VHS — and share what lost events and memories these jittery, dusty time machines evoke.
“There is almost 100 years of movies that have only been shown in peoples’ houses,” said Liz Coffey, film conservator for Harvard Film Archive Weissman Preservation Center, which cosponsors the event. Coffey said an artifact like a three-minute Super 8 film — “more of a snapshot than a narrative” — deserves a wider audience. But people sometimes lack working projectors and a reason to pull their films out of storage.
Home Movie Day to the rescue.
Some brave folks bring footage that hasn’t been shown in years. Or ever. Coffey offered this advice: “Ask your parents.” They might exhume a box of movies documenting your seventh birthday party or first dance recital, or that cringe-worthy yet wonderful James Bond spy movie you made in high school.
The event is as much about enjoying these relics from the past as it is about calling attention to the fragility of “moving-image records,” Albert Steg said in an e-mail. Steg is a Cambridge-based member of the board of directors of the Center for Home Movies, which helps coordinate the worldwide event. “They can be lost to benign neglect until no one knows what or where they are, and they wind up in a yard sale or out on a curb along with the fondue set.”
In that sense, Home Movie Day is also a consciousness-raising: a chance to meet your local film archivists and learn why digital formats — like VHS or DVD — aren’t the best archival format to preserve these films for posterity. “The longevity of film compared to newer formats is pretty spectacular,” said Steg. “Reels of 16mm from the 1930s are typically still readily projectable today.” But sadly, many people toss their films when they transfer them over. “The idea that ‘digital is forever’ is misguided.”
The issue is “format obsolescence,” said Lexington resident Reed Sturtevant, a Home Movie Day attendee since 2005 and self-described “gearhead” who owns hundreds of movies and some 20 movie cameras, and runs a site called Super8wiki.com. “A ‘.mov’ film — will that be available 20 or 30 years from now? That’s a big long-term issue.”
Amateur home movies date to the birth of film and have always been a “subculture in cinema,” said Gordon Nelson, a filmmaker and instructor at SCATV who is facilitating the screenings. “[One of] the earliest films of the Lumière brothers [was] of the family eating breakfast. It’s about 30 seconds long, but it’s a home movie.”
Nelson said the home movie explosion in America began in the 1930s with the “regular” 8mm format. Then, in the 1960s, came the “goof proof” Super 8 format, whose cameras used easy-to-load cartridges and exposed the film automatically. When VHS camcorders proliferated in the 1980s, Super 8 declined. But home movies are “still vital,” Nelson added; they’re just shot on cellphones and uploaded to YouTube.
Nowadays, Super 8 is mainly used by artists — “retro hipsters who might be buying manual typewriters in Brooklyn,” said Sturtevant, who began shooting Super 8 movies as a teen and MIT student in the 1970s and still occasionally shoots them. “Especially with the old film stock, like Kodachrome, the color is just visually beautiful when you project it.” The format has “that look”: a rich color palette and a flickering “unpredictable quality” that can produce “artistic surprises” that digital filters and editing software can’t reproduce. “It’s a cultural heritage that could become lost if people aren’t aware of it and [don’t] preserve them.”
Steg hopes people consider the power these objects have “to capture so many of the ephemeral details of life you don’t really appreciate until they’re gone.” Outdated clothing styles, old car models and signage, images of neighborhoods that don’t exist anymore. In that regard, these films are receptacles for history.
“We do ask people to talk during their movies,” Coffey said. People stand up to explain the context (“That’s my mom, she’s been dead for 20 years”). “The event has a lot of heart.”
That these films were never meant to have a wide audience makes them all the more endearing. And enduring.
For Sturtevant, Home Movie Day is about the “warm human experience” of the screening itself. “You set up the projector, you turn out the lights, you’re all there together,” he said. And there in the dark, he added, you might find yourself saying, “My mother had a hairstyle like that, too.”
My mom sure did.
To participate in Home Movie Day, drop off your films by Oct. 19 at the offices of Somerville Community Access Television (90 Union Square, Somerville) or the Harvard Film Archive (24 Quincy St., Cambridge).Films must be inspected for damage before being run through a projector. More information: www.homemovieday.comEthan Gilsdorf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.