Reel History | Film | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Reel History 

A few years ago I showed my parents some Super 8 mm movies I'd made. When the lights came back on, my dad got up and left the room without a word. I wondered whether one of my student films had offended him somehow. But a minute later he returned from the garage carrying a shoebox, inside of which were a couple dozen reels of film no one had viewed for at least a quarter-century.

The most recent shows my younger brother, now a corporate lawyer, as a 3-year-old playing in the sand of a New Jersey beach. In another I frolic on the beach at age 5, along with my mother and my little sister, the latter of whom would die a year later. My mom, filmed by my dad, walks outside a San Francisco hotel on their honeymoon. Extensive footage shot by my now-deceased grandparents depicts their late-1950s Hawaiian vacation. And my father himself shows up in cap and gown on the day he graduated from LaSalle College some 40 years earlier.

I didn't actually see these silent color movies until months after my dad dug them up; they were all on regular 8 mm, and I had to find a different projector. But when I did, it was like getting a second -- in some cases, first -- chance to experience my own history and that of my family. All happy, often sunlit moments, sure (this wasn't Capturing the Friedmans), but a gift nonetheless, a little surprise package forwarded by the past.

Starting in the 1920s -- first on 16 mm film, then on its half-sized progeny, 8 mm, and finally on Super 8 -- Americans shot untold millions of feet of home movies. By the time home-video cameras took over in the '80s, so-called small-gauge film had, under the nose of Hollywood's 35 mm flicks, inadvertently recorded a half-century's secret history of birthday parties and funerals, high school football and street fairs, loving portraits of boyfriends and first drives in new cars.

Thanks partly to the video revolution, much of that history has remained secret, even forgotten: Exhibiting film on home-movie projectors is a vanishing craft. But not everyone has given up on domestic celluloid. On Sat., Aug. 16, the first annual Home Movie Day will seek not only to raise awareness of this neglected cultural resource, but also to let you screen your own home movies for free.

With sponsors including the Association of Moving Image Archivists and Eastman Kodak, Home Movie Day is international in scope and will be marked in Pittsburgh at the American Legion Hall in Squirrel Hill. Anyone with home movies (no video allowed) can show them and learn proper care and storage from Russ Scheller and his staff from Summit Film Lab & Media Services.

"People sometimes think, 'Now I'm transferred to video, I can pitch these old films,'" says organizer Joe Morrison, of Pittsburgh Filmmakers. Wrong answer: Despite advances in video technology, film remains the best proven archival medium. Some film stocks are surprisingly hardy (even my family's carelessly stored reels still pop with sleek greens and bright reds). With reasonable precautions -- low heat, low humidity -- even film stored at home can last a century or more, decades longer than videotape.

Still, transferring to video is worthwhile: To project old home movies is to risk damaging them. Fortunately, Pittsburgh's Home Movie Day is also staffed by local filmmaker Greg Pierce, whose avocation is collecting, archiving and screening orphaned films -- including other people's discarded home movies. With expert help, you can keep these translucent strips of your past safe and accessible into the future.


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