I just finished a week of amateur films and home movies for a new course I am co-teaching entitled “Cinema and Revolution.” We screened/discussed key films from the post-war American avant-garde (including Brakhage, Mekas, Levine, Menkin) alongside a set of home movies. I wanted students to think about the differences between these two amateur modes, their different expressions of contingency and history, and (perhaps most interesting) their very different conceptions of “home.”
The lectures were nevertheless overshadowed by an unexpected encounter with my own family history. About two weeks ago, a collection called “The Amateur as Auteur” arrived (ordered way back in January). I took a quick look and decided to add the “Stewart Family Home Movies” to the screening list for the week. The films were made between 1936 and 1939, by a film enthusiast named Archie Stewart. I knew the Stewarts were from upstate New York, but did not know anything else about the family or their provenance. As I prepared for lecture, I caught two names that I had missed during my first screening session: Newburgh and Orange Lake.
(Stewart Family Home Movies, 1936-1939)
It seems that I inadvertently assigned my own home movies. My mother was born and raised in Newburgh, New York. Her childhood home is on the shores of Orange Lake. I spent my summers swimming in that very lake and looking out towards Pine Point, the peninsula just behind the unhappy little girls (who must now be in their eighties).
The discovery forced a slight adjustment to the lecture plan. I spent a good deal of time discussing (via Susan Sontag) the affective “surplus” of home movies and those strange, personal histories inscribed, lost, refound upon their surface. The home movie, like the twilight, elegiac art of photography “testifies to time’s relentless melt.”