Home Movies – Dad’s Passion

I didn’t post anything yesterday as promised I would each day. I absolve myself. I made the rule. My intentions remain strong. As long as they are not leading directly to hell, I’m okay with everything. This is familiar territory in many ways.  I’ll explain.

Dad, 1935, aGE 31

I observed my father as I was growing up. So many projects he started but never finished. The first that comes to mind is his adventure with photography. He set up a pretty elaborate darkroom at one time. The evidence was all over the basement. An elaborate lab floor cabinet with a light box. Drawers and drawers of negatives. It took me a while to realize what all that stuff represented. Dad had been a real enthusiast and then gave it up. I remember asking him about it. “Oh,” he said, “a friend borrowed a lot of my equipment and never brought it back.”

“Didn’t you ask him for it?”

“No. A lot of time had gone by and I just forgot it.”

Capturing himself in is pursuit . . .

Okay, I thought. Not a very good reason, but I decided not to push him further. He bought the stuff during the depression when money was really tight. True, he had taken a lot of pictures of my sister and me when we were babies (a subject for another post.) Perhaps when he moved on to taking 8mm family movies, his interest in still photography gave way.

We had movies of Christmas, birthdays, backyard fun, family vacations . . . you name it. We enjoyed them. We would have family movie night and my sister, my brother, and I would sit on the floor in the living room while Dad loaded reel after reel into the projector. We got so we knew every film from beginning to end. The nights a new reel came back from the developer in Chicago was a special treat. He told me years later that he bought the movie camera so mother could take movies of us, his kids, growing up while he was away with the army. He was 36 at the time and expected to be drafted (a subject of a much earlier post on this site.) This is vintage dad. He captures so much of himself in this pursuit.

DAD’S 8mm Film Editor – Reels mount on either end and film is viewed through center eye piece.

 He wanted to take movies with all his heart. Whether he had have kids or not. Whether he’d be drafted or not. Whether he could afford it or not. Money continued to be tight during World War II. Yet, in my basement today is the crude 8mm film editor he bought through Meredith Jewelry store in Yankton. The address and date are still on the box. He read a book about making home movies. Years later that I read too. Right out of its pages, he wanted his movies to tell stories. I would wonder why Dad was taking a picture of a stupid highway sign. Why a car pulling up to the curb? Of course!These shots were the cutaways for the next film taking shape in his mind.

Tedious business . . .

Editing film back in the day was tedious business. Dad needed to find the frame in the film on the editor where he wanted to make a splice. Cut it with a razor. Then insert the new sequence into place by gluing both ends. This required planning, something that could take hours. There is no evidence that he ever carried editing out to this extent. My hunch is the amount of time it would take and the attention to detail squelched his passion. He probably decided what he envisioned was too complex and, damn it, too much work  I know. I’m his son.

L – r: James, Mary Ilessn, John – Siblings circa 1945

Two canisters containing films of extended length remain to this day. One film features family activities taking place in 1941 and 42. Without captions, it’s guesswork today to figure out who is in the frames, let alone place and date of any sequence. Still, there’s a story being told. Shy overall-clad men, with farmer tans, smile with sheepish skepticism into the lens, their uncertainty amply apparent that a camera as small as the one Dad was holding could take a good picture if a person was not standing absolutely still.

Looking under dressed for the sport . . .

A second of Dad’s longer projects is equally telling. He took his Brownie 8 to the bowling alley on league night. There, in dim smoky light, he captures in black and white one friend after another picking up his ball from the rack, aiming, and then gliding across the oak floor to deliver it at the fault line. Some are wearing suits. Others, their vests; all of which evokes a strange reaction in the viewer today—the guys wearing only dress shirts and ties seem underdressed. The film is boring beyond anything otherwise. Dad’s editing, as in the reel of family activity, consisted only in cutting off the trailer and header – those strips of film where numbers flash on the screen in at the beginning and end of each real.

Once is a great while, a splice would let go during a viewing. Then everything would come to a stop until the projector was reloaded – as with right now and my piece. Time for me to reload and pickup here on another day.

To be Continued