Homeward Bound: The Tangled Legacy of the Home Movie
As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty
For every film we argue over and write articles about, there are legions of moving images we often ignore: industrial films, commercials, educational series, sound tests, news clips, travel diaries, amateur short films. Of all these, the home movie comes especially close to the intentions of cinema’s earliest founders, treating the camera not as a storytelling device or a magic wand, but a means of faithfully documenting life in motion, preserving the moment for posterity, and giving memory some analogue in the physical world.
Home movies in the pre-YouTube era came hand-stitched out of dates, places and proper names, often known only to the people who made and watched them. They were memorials to moments, inextricably attached to the specific, unrepeatable circumstances that created them, and very few aspired to timeless, universal appeal. They could be historical documents, family albums, ways of getting in touch with the past or staying in touch with it, chances for grown-up viewers to watch themselves take their first steps again and again, but they made no pretense to being art, in the narrowest sense of the word. Their aesthetic merit was incidental: their beauty was the beauty of their subject, their meaning the sum of the facts of the moment they recorded.
Some of the earliest home movies, as we now understand the term—domestic documents focused primarily on the daily details of family life, shot by amateurs on small, portable cameras—were made by a man named Archie Stewart, from Newburgh, New York. Spanning from the 1920s to the ’90s, they document decades of family vacations, birthday parties, Christmas celebrations, reading lessons, dance and piano recitals. Staged portraits of dignified grownups and grinning kids share space with scenes acted out by subjects indifferent to, though never unaware of, the camera’s presence. There is something morbid about watching Stewart’s home movies today, sweet and folksy as they are; their unguarded intimacy, the way they invite us so fully into their maker’s present, only reminds us how thin the link is between his present and our own. For his part, Stewart likely would have been baffled to see strangers watching his footage in the comfort of our living rooms—but the way he addresses so many of his voiceovers at an absent “you” suggests he might also have been pleased.
Yet Stewart’s films also suggest that, even at this early stage, the home-movie maker was never content with playing the part of the impartial spectator. “Here’s the old gang getting the Christmas tree ready for Santa Claus,” Stewart tells us in his reedy, affectionate voice. “I’m rather interested to see how this picture will come out. I’ve changed the lens from the lens which came on the camera to the Taylor-Cooke lens.” As the kids fiddle with ornaments, their dad chatters excitedly about pan-chromatic film and photoflood lamps. The playful lens-swapping and careful camera setups were the stirrings of a desire that later home-movie makers would adopt in full force: to render the moment as it was experienced firsthand, through the filmmaker’s own eyes. The present, Stewart knew, was more than a series of events to be listed off ; it was a vast network of sensations, textures, associations, scents, colors, epiphanies brief and prolonged. To record the present faithfully would require a fresh visual language, one that corresponded to the way that individuals absorb the world in the heat of the moment. By equal parts accident and necessity, the amateur cameraman had become a poet.
Thus the home movie and the art film became unlikely partners, and their two competing goals—to document the present as it happened, and to re-construct an alternate present according to the filmmaker’s own specifications—merged into a third: to self-consciously aestheticize life in the moment. In the diary films of Jonas Mekas, a hero of New York film culture whose latest feature Out-Takes From the Life of a Happy Man has a run at Anthology Film Archives, this tendency found what might be its fullest possible expression. Each of Mekas’s films speaks in a slightly different register—from the ebullient to the subdued, the urban to the pastoral, the manic to the wistful—but taken together, they seem like fragments of a 90-year-long film inseparable from the director’s life.
The subject of Mekas’s visuals are the way light reflects on city streets in summer and on snow, the way children run through Central Park, and the way water laps on Mediterranean rocks; birds in flight, fellow luminaries of downtown film culture at work and at play, dogs and cats at war. There is little ostensible premeditation to Mekas’s shooting style, but the films’ frequent superimpositions, their associative editing and meticulous sound design, and the way they flutter breathlessly from image to image suggest a conscious attempt to replicate how we take in the moment, processing a half-dozen details at once, flitting from sensation to sensation.
Ever since the mid-Fifties, when Mekas switched on his first Bolex in the streets of New York, the association between the home movie and the art film has become easier to confirm and harder to define. In the Seventies, Ed Pincus used the home movie to sketch self-portraits that were candid, complex, and frequently unflattering: in Diaries we find bucolic scenes of family life and idealistic peeks at the then-current counterculture side-by-side with tear-stained marital spats and shots of Pincus climbing in bed with a succession of lovers. The form may at times resemble a home movie, but the film plays like an especially unsparing autobiography—one that doubles, willfully or not, as a psychological study of a generation. Thirty years later, Terence Malick would ground his extended meditation on the origins of the cosmos, the problem of suffering, and the invention of grace in a re-creation of a Texas adolescence that owed as much to Mekas and Stewart as it did to the filmmaker’s own boyhood memories. (The same year that saw the release of The Tree of Life saw the invention of Instagram.)
Post Tenebras Lux
Carlos Reygadas’s new feature Post Tenebras Lux is a home movie in fits and spurts: a portrait of an upper-class Mexican family starring Reygadas’s own children and shot in the director’s own home, packed with scenes of family outings, frolicking children, and pet dogs. There, for the most part, the similarities end. Both lead roles are filled by professional actors. The film’s final third tells a story of class conflict, violence, and guilt. Exteriors are shot with lenses that distort the outer edges of the frame, literally blurring the already-fuzzy line between the home movie’s desire to record the plain, clear facts of the moment and its equally strong desire to pass those facts through the tinted, half-opaque filter of its maker’s sight.
There are other tip-offs that we’re no longer in Archie Stewart territory: the unannounced leaps forward in time, the recurring presence of an animated devil, and the couple’s mid-film trip to a European sex sauna where overweight, middle-aged men stare emptily into space. But even as these scenes declare the film’s status as the product of a meticulous and pre-ordained design (none of the home movie’s pointing and shooting here!), they also deflate that design with well-timed cutaways and deadpan, barely perceptible winks.
But the film’s beating heart is in the kids’ unrehearsed bedtime babble; in the sound of water flowing, branches snapping, and reeds folding; in marital spats small and large; in the texture of a hardwood floor or a dog’s fur; in the sight of two wedding-ring-bound hands fumbling for each other on an empty passenger seat. All of Reygadas’s attention-grabbing formal devices feel foreign next to these moments of unaffected, natural beauty—and yet they’re the same devices that, like Mekas’s rapid-fire edits, encourage us to invest ourselves in the moment, to feel vicariously whatever Reygadas felt in the space between action and cut.
Post Tenebras Lux suggests that the home-movie maker can only fulfill his ambitions by appealing to strategies outside the home movie tradition, maybe even hostile to it. But for a possible reconciliation between the two traditions, look no further than the film’s stunning opening scene: Reygadas’s young daughter wanders a massive, waterlogged field as day fades into a stormy night. It’s a bravura technical performance, complete with long, graceful camera whirls, first-person POV shots, and that ubiquitous blurring on the edges of the frame. All this formal trickery comes in service of the haphazard, zigzag movements of animals and kids—as if that meticulous creative type behind the camera was willing to toss his artistic designs aside for a few minutes and submit, like any good home-moviemaker, to his daughter’s whims.
Late in Post Tenebras Lux, husband and wife send the kids to bed and spend a moment alone, he laid up injured in bed, she sitting at the piano playing a gorgeously off-key rendition of Neil Young’s “It’s a Dream.” The song ends, she covers up the piano, and he, pulling her close, describes in detail a moment from his early childhood. Is the whole of Post Tenebras Lux like that vividly recalled memory, a fragment of time past made to feel at once close and unrepeatable? Or is it all, per Neil Young, a dream fading away? Are the devil and the sex sauna meant to challenge the home movie’s connection to reality altogether, to hint that the family outings, the marital squabbles, and the kids at play are, once projected onto the screen, no more real than the wildest figments of Reygadas’s prodigious imagination?
Out-Takes from the Life of a Happy Man
In her FILM COMMENT review of Out-Takes from the Life of a Happy Man, Amy Taubin describes an apropos scene: “[Mekas] remembers as a 5-year-old sitting on his father’s bed at night and telling him ‘in detail’ everything that he did, everything he saw and heard during the day. It was, he says, as if he was singing the day.” Mekas’s films have often seemed torn between a child’s desire to fully invest in the present and a grown-up’s knowledge that the present is something fleeting and unrecoverable. Out-Takes is the first of Mekas’s diaries I’ve seen to make that tension explicit: from time to time, the film’s grainy, luminous 16mm-to-video footage gives way to digitally shot scenes of Mekas staying up late at night in the editing room assembling the film that we’re watching, playing and re-playing fragments of his distant past. One might expect that, seen from up to 50 years’ remove, Mekas’s “out-takes” would start to seem to the director like dreams, or at least memories. Taubin writes:
This film, Mekas explains [in voiceover], is not about his memories. The memories are gone. The images are all there is. They alone are ‘real.’ …The images are not substitutes for the lost paradise of Mekas’s childhood in Lithuania. The images dance together on the screen as things of beauty in themselves. Nothing matters except their movement, the movement of the camera that finds them, and the movement of our eyes joining the dance.
All of which hints at Mekas's desire to return to a different lost paradise: that of the home movie, the film that keeps no beauty for itself but assigns it all to its subject, the film whose director, to the extent that he or she exercises any control over the proceedings, does so to bring the subject a little closer, to make the past a little more present, a little more real. Perhaps to live in and among such movies has been the secret of the nonagenarian filmmaker’s enduring happiness. Still, there is a deep sadness that runs through Out-Takes, though Mekas would probably be loath to admit it. The more real the past seems on film, the more painful it can be to revisit.