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I’m ready for my close up, Mr. Dachslager…

by larrydachslager on August 9th, 2013

The big VCR boom of the 80s brought about not only a change in attitude and practice toward watching studio movies, but it changed the entire concept and execution of making and watching amateur or “homemade” films. The purchase of a video camera and VCR made it possible for parents to easily record anything their children did at any time and immediately (and repeatedly) watch the adorable antics on TV. Today, with the ability of recording video with any camera or phone, any child’s action, as monumental as his/her first steps or as trivial as adorably spitting strained peas at the camera can be captured and shared with the world in a matter of minutes.

I can see how this ability would now be a proud parent’s dream. But speaking as a former child, I am eternally grateful that I was not brought up at a time when it was easy for my parents to document and replay my every waking breath. Most of my sister’s and my childhood events are relegated to our memories. Thankfully, if various family members recall the details of certain occurrences differently, we can’t simply consult the “instant replay” to learn the bald truth. This convenient inability affords us the luxury of selective recollection, allowing us to remember things as we wish.

This is not to say that there exists no cinematic proof that I was once a child. Before the days of digital and video recording, it was typical for families to own a movie camera and projector and make and screen their own amateur films. (Note that I use the world “film.” Frames, sprockets, and celluloid – just like the 35mm film they showed at the movie theatre, only, at 8 mm, much smaller – and always silent.)

projector

In addition to the camera and projector, it was also important to have a folding movie screen and, for indoor filming, a movie light bright enough to land an airplane at night. Film would often break, so it was also important to have a means to splice it back together. My father also bought a small moviola for editing which later played a very important role in my childhood. More on that later.

Moviola

My mom recently had our home movies converted to DVD and a few months ago, out of somewhat masochistic curiosity, I watched them all. Prior to this viewing, I hadn’t seen the footage since I was around eleven.  From what I can tell, my family’s home movies aren’t much different from those of most families at the time. They mainly consist of get-togethers with relatives, travel, milestone events, and stage performances.

It must be remembered that making these films was neither convenient nor cheap. Film was bought in limited roles of fifty feet (around three minutes) or two hundred feet (around ten minutes) and once the film was shot, it had to be taken in for developing – at additional cost. Therefore, film was not to be wasted. When the movie camera was aimed at you, the pressure to do something was enormous. When you watch a home movie, be assured that whoever was filming was yelling some variation of “DO something! Don’t just stand there. You’re wasting film!” That’s why people in home movies are often seen frantically waving, performing impromptu dances, and animatedly blowing kisses. Even though my family’s homemade films are now preserved on digital media, I am not technically savvy enough to share them with you on this page.  You’re welcome.

Home movies don’t have great production values and the content of ours weren’t very well documented when it comes to dates, locations, or even certain cast members who, to this day, remain unknown.  I kind of enjoy the sense of mystery that pervades our films.  Some people were canny enough to handwrite and hold up “title cards” in their movies for identification purposes. As a kid, I remember watching another family’s home movies and being terribly impressed by their idea of spelling out their titles on their refrigerator using plastic magnetic letters. I recall being wowed by their professionalism.

The viewing of home movies back in those days was somewhat inconvenient which made showings a relatively rare “special occasion.” The films were usually brought out when out-of-town family came to visit. Furniture had to be rearranged for optimum viewing opportunity. The screen had to be set up. The projector had to be dusted off and threaded. I even remember popcorn being served. Since the films were silent, everyone felt the need to provide a running Mystery-Science-Theatre-esque commentary throughout the showing. As a kid, I had very mixed feelings about these screenings. On the one hand, I loved watching the films projected on a large screen (well, much larger than our TV screen, anyway) right in our living room. I loved the accompanying often hilarious reminiscing of the adults. The aspect of the event that I didn’t like had to do with two personally appalling and embarrassing sequences that were always shown. When I knew those scenes were coming, I would “go to the bathroom” to avoid hearing the supposedly good-natured gibes from the crowd.  I will now dim the lights and take you through some of the highlights. Please refrain from making shadow puppets on the screen.

By the time we were watching these films, we’d already moved to Texas from Maryland. I loved the early Maryland films because they filled in my pre-memory information. The earliest films of me are of my second and third birthday parties, held in the tiny basement of our house. I’m at the head of a table, surrounded by kids eating ice cream. The adults are all standing. The men are wearing ties and the some of the women have pearls which may seem strange at a child’s birthday party, until you recall that these were the days when people dressed up to fly on airplanes or go to the movies. Even in that confined, windowless room, people are smoking. When the camera points at them, people suddenly smile, wave, and squint at the light. I always loved watching the part where I open presents. In one, Mom helps me rip off the wrapping and then brandishing its contents for the camera. Look everyone! It’s a Frankie Frank! For those who weren’t around in 1963 (and even some who were), Frankie was a close, personal friend of Mr. Potato Head. Sadly, neither Frankie nor his pal “Mr. Mustard Head” hung around long enough to star in Toy Story.

frankie-frank

In my early birthday party movies, I always appear rather underwhelmed. However, there is one magical moment where I unwrap a Fisher Price “Radio.” That was the one where you twisted the knob and music played as the dial spun around slowly. In the film, I gaze at the toy, confused. Someone turns the knob and my expression shifts from suspicious intensity to sheer wonder and amazement. As the music continues, I smile in delight and look around to make sure everyone else in the room can hear it. To this day, it is one of my favorite moments in any movie. It’s very likely that that was the very instant where I discovered my love for music.

By the time my younger sister’s birthdays were being filmed, we lived in Kingsville and then Houston, Texas. There are several running themes in all of the Texas party movies. First, I’m happy to say that the birthday cakes are always homemade and decorated imaginatively by Mom. My sister’s always seemed to be Barbie-themed.  One of my cakes is made to look like Snoopy’s doghouse and has a paper cut out of Snoopy sitting on top. Very cool!

Second, apparently there was a rule that every birthday party movie had to include a party horn war in which two children sitting next to each other try to put each other’s eyes out by uncoiling the horn at close proximity.

Third, watching the films now, aside from relatives, I cannot recognize or recall the names of any of the guests at any of our birthday parties – even my own.

As I mentioned, as we watched scenes of travel, family, and carefree youth and nostalgia, there were two segments that made me flee the room in shame. One was tied to my participation in a dance recital. I am onstage wearing a “shoe shine boy” costume and am tap dancing up a storm. That wasn’t the embarrassing part. Following the onstage portion, there was a scene outside of the theatre where I was clearly being instructed to dance. Still wearing the costume, but without the magic of stage lights, in broad daylight on the concrete, I just looked ludicrous. In another scene, filmed many years earlier when I was still in diapers, my father actually filmed me taking a crap. I could never quite see the entertainment value of this.  I’m toddling along when I suddenly squat down with a concentrated expression. Then I stand up and continue toddling, but with a slight variation to my gait. Though I remember the raucous laughter when this scene was shown at family gatherings, I cannot share any of the remarks that were made. I couldn’t hear them from my bedroom where I took refuge.

I will now make a confession that I have never shared before. Eventually, my father taught me how to use the moviola. One day, I snuck into the closet where the movies were kept, placed the movies on the machine, cut out the offending frames, spliced the film back together, threw the vile footage in the trash, and put the newly edited films back in the closet. I am satisfied that, unlike The Wizard of Oz’s missing Jitterbug number and King Kong’s long lost “spider pit” scene, both of which may someday be found – the legendary daylight interpretive dance and nefarious “crap” scene will never be seen again.

I’m very grateful to my father for shooting and my mother for preserving these films – especially to see my youthful parents, grandparents, relatives, beloved pets, and former homes as they looked back then. There’s something wonderfully eerie and “otherwordly” about all home movies before video with sound took over. There is much to be discovered and learned via homemade family films. The best views of the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the only moving footage of Anne Frank, and of course, the Zapruder film of JFK’s assassination are all powerfully provided to us by amateur filmmakers. Home movies hold the answers to mysteries of the past. Here’s a great example:

One of my favorite Hollywood clichés from before the mid 80s is where, after the untimely death of a parent, the surviving family members, sit on the couch, arms around each other and, with tearful smiles, watch home movies containing the lost loved one. The cliché continues today with the family watching the departed on home video with sound. But somehow, it’s just not as poignant as the earlier scenes where we know that the family went through the elaborate routine of setting up the screen and projector – just to watch a few fleeting ethereal silent images of happier times.

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