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One Year of Home Movie Day Extravaganzas in Words and Pictures

October 23, 2014

Home Movie Day LA - October 18, 2014

Participants and volunteers at LA’s Home Movie Day braved extensive construction and slightly confusing pedestrian and parking instructions at the Goethe Institut, Los Angeles to attend Home Movie Day's 12th edition in LA.

Readying the projectors for Home Movie Day LA at the Goethe Institut. The one farthest to the right is a 9.5mm projector from the 1930s. (Picture by Kim Luperi)

Volunteers Tessa and Alejandra inspecting and prepping film. (Picture by Kim Luperi)

What was particularly interesting about this year's program was the fact that attendee’s home movies were interspersed with films that Daniel Chaffey, Program Coordinator for the Goethe Institut, had ‘rescued’ from a friend in Germany. Daniel screened two educational films from the 1930s: one scientific animation that the audience guessed was cell mitosis and another very revealing, if not at times uncomfortable, short highlighting the process of producing sausage casings (a sewing machine was involved in the latter). 

Sewing membranes to make sausage. Yum. (Picture by Kim Luperi)

The afternoon kicked off with a film screened on VHS - the first time in my three years of volunteering that I've seen a VHS being played, though we accept them - showing performer Wanda Smith entertaining troops during the Korean War. As usual, we observed plenty of family gatherings, most of which involved food in one way or another. Fun fact: In more than one family get-together film that we watched that day, a man appeared onscreen dressed as a woman! Gorgeous Kodachrome footage of Expo ’67 in Montreal; movies from a Japanese community in Glendale, AZ during the early 60s; shots of Lion Country Safari in Irvine during the mid-70s; and film of Las Vegas, including Fremont Street and the year-old Caesar’s Palace in 1967, were among the treasures screened. 

Wanda Smith entertaining troops in Korea. (Picture by Kim Luperi)

A blurry photo of footage from Expo '67. (Picture by Kim Luperi)

Someone's grandmother posing at the new Caesar's Palace in Vegas, circa 1967. (Picture by Kim Luperi)

My favorite image from Home Movie Day LA - a family lake outing. (Picture by Kim Luperi)

A very special treat came in a different form, literally. USC archivist Dino Everett brought a 9.5mm projector and shared a bit of history about the rarely used format: for example, the sprocket holes for 9.5mm film are found in the middle between each frame, as opposed to along one edge (8mm) or both edges (most other formats). For those of us not as well versed in film formats, Dino also shared that 9.5mm film is actually closer in size to 16mm, not 8mm, because the area used for the image is larger than usual due to the single perforation between each frame in the middle of the film strip.  


Using the 9.5mm projector, Dino screened a 1939 German home movie from dancer/comedian Harry Fox, who lent his surname to the Trot of the same name. The film followed some of Fox's exploits and performances over the course of a year, providing a few quick glimpses into life under Nazi rule (just quick though – for the bulk of the film you weren't able to tell the Nazis were in power). 

Harry Fox on the Accordion on 9.5mm. (Picture by Kim Luperi)

Despite the construction around the Goethe Institut, Home Movie Day LA was a fantastic event. While fewer people than usual brought films to screen, we still had an impressive turnout – probably twice as many people stopped by to check out stranger’s home movies! – and volunteers and attendees alike had the opportunity to share in the uniquely emotional, sometimes downright funny experience of viewing other’s home movies in a public setting. 

We also had some pretty cool pins and swag. (Picture by Kim Luperi)

"From the East: Home Movies from Cold War-era Eastern Europe" – October 18, 2014

Later in the evening, the Wende Museum’s Kate Dollenmayer, who helped coordinate Home Movie Day LA hours earlier, presented a selection of home movies from the Wende’s collection.  Kate explained that many of the personal films the Wende Museum acquires are from anonymous donors and/or the families and subjects of the movies are unknown. The first film she shared highlighted this fact: the footage came from the Hoffman Collection, which includes 30 short films spanning 30 years in the life of an East German family. Ironically, though the collection has a name, that’s about all the Wende knows; attempts to locate the family and glean any more information about them have turned up cold.


Though all the movies Kate shared were captivating historical documents, by far the most interesting to me was recorded by Herbert Sturdy in 1957. As opposed to most of the movies in the Wende’s collection, this film Kate actually had a good amount of information on. The movie featured an American family visiting Berlin four years before the Berlin Wall was erected. Even though there wasn’t a physical barrier between East and West, Berlin was still very much split in two, as exemplified by several signs (“You are now leaving the British side” and one warning of land mine danger in East Berlin), and the general upkeep of both sides of the city (though Berlin was still recovering from the devastation of WWII, the West was definitely more modernized and rebuilt compared to the East, which still laid partially in rubble and destruction). While many in the audience were aware of the political situation Berlin faced at that time, the images and landscapes we saw on screen did more than any history lesson or textbook could do to paint such an incredibly moving and fascinating portrait of a city split in two.

The Wende's Kate Dollenmayer designed this flyer for Home Movie Day LA and the Wende's screenings later in the evening, using an image from the Wende's collection. 

In a slightly different move from other home movie screenings, many of the selections were accompanied by music. Digital transfers of short films from Leningrad, Russia (now St. Petersburg) during the late 70s-early 80s, featuring hippies and camera work that tended to focus on hair, clothing, and dramatic walking shots, were screened alongside cassette recordings produced during the time period. The musical pieces, mostly folk tunes sung in Russian or German, obviously weren't originally intended to accompany the Russian films, but the subjects fit particularly well together, so it worked out in the end.


We also had the privilege of enjoying some of the films with live music. My favorite selection involved three musicians - Jerry Sommers (on the bağlama), Jessica Eng (on the bağlama and vocals), and Molly White (on the violin and vocals) – who performed traditional Balkan folk songs in Bulgarian and Macedonian while Super 8 footage of Bulgaria and Croatia screened. The luscious tunes made the film much more moving; I almost felt as if I were wandering the shores of the seaside village and walking the cobblestone streets of the adorable small town shown in the movie in person!  


There was, however, one musical selection I did not enjoy, and the reason for that partly stems from a Q&A I attended recently with a composer. The musician said that when he scores documentaries, he never intends for his music to comment on or influence the audience’s interpretation of the film, which is a perspective I wholeheartedly agree with. I was greatly reminded of that sentiment while a pulsating, ominous bass score, performed live on a guitar, played over an East German home movie featuring a family. The menacing music sounded perfect for a creepy narrative, not a home movie; it most definitely informed my interpretation of the film, which started off with a trio of older women pulling luggage over multiple landscapes before they join what appears to be family members for a meal. Later, the family congregates in a backyard, where they play with an energetic (and potentially dangerous, according to the music) puppy. A long shot late in the short featuring one of the ladies – who clearly did not appreciate the camera following her – walking through a desolate, bleak town once again was scored to feel like it was the beginning of a horror movie! The music had me observing the footage with a completely different mindset – instead of an open mind, mine was filled with tension and dread - which I did not really appreciate.


Despite the musical snafu (for me, at least), I really enjoyed the selection of films Kate chose to exhibit. Even in 2014, the images and stories from Cold War-era Eastern Europe have a strangely polarizing effect on viewers, and the home movies we were lucky to watch provided a rare personal and humane look into a subject that tends to lean, well, on the cold side.


For more information on Home Movie Day events near you, check out:

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I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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