Other People’s Lives: The Politics of Home Movie Day

By Becca Hall & Kyle Westphal

Twenty years ago, or even ten, the place of home movies within film history and film culture was contested and precarious. Thinking about them was uncomfortable. You remembered posing for the camera, mom rushing into the shot to fix your hair, dad barking directions, your sister rolling her eyes while her camera-less friends enjoyed a real vacation. Even the archivist’s preservation instincts butted up against memories of interminable reels of last summer in Sedona and being held hostage in the den as dad recounted each detail to any passing interloper. Is it so strange that documents of such profound embarrassment and coercion came late to respectability? (At the box office a few weeks ago, a man was looking at the Home Movie Day poster we had on display. “Oh, are you going to come? Do you have any home movies?” His reply: “Looking at those things is always so sad…”)

Yet these films—posed, planned, rehearsed, fussed over, and haphazard nevertheless—often say and show a great deal more than their makers intended. They spur us to recognize the highly social character of our relationships and routines (our whole lives, really) in a distinctive way.

With Home Movie Day fast approaching, it’s easy to take the present stature of these films (itself very much a product of HMD’s laudable successes) for granted. In their heyday, home movie makers reinforced each other’s activities with an array of periodicals and hobbyist clubs–but outside of the insulation of enthusiasm, their type became well known and a frequent target for satire. An early example: in 1939, Robert Benchley made a short for M-G-M, Home Movies, that promised tips for the amateur. As Benchley’s audience falls asleep or gets up to make a telephone call, the cinematographer-editor-projectionist-narrator goes on about using red filters and attributing out-of-focus shots to bad lenses.