19 December 2006

Searching for Memory in Home Movies: 1 of 3

Shaun Wilson
unpublished essay (part 1 of 3)

Despite the fact that cinema can bring with it an engagement of memory through the places and characters represented by and from its subject, another kind of cinema - home movies - is a unique filmic genre in the sense that, philosophically, vintage amatuer film can itself evoke an endless flood of private glimpses into the domestic lives of family and friends.

In its heyday, from the 1940s until the mid the 1980s, 8mm film became the medium of choice for many families to document their lives through the moving image. These kinds of films are now often located in hallway cupboards, wardrobes and darkened spaces; a distant filmic reminder of old technologies from a by-gone era. In the age of digital video practice, however, 8mm home movies are perhaps at their most powerful in terms of cultural and historic value. While this is a fundamental part of how film can gain philosophical worth over time, what emerges through deeper probing exists an emotive relationship between the viewer and the image through memory: a ‘reinvented’ memory located from and within film.

The primary difference between film as home movies and film as cinema is found in the intent of both mediums. Cinema, whether narrative or non-narrative based, focused on establishing a public viewing in which the subject was available for both entertainment and scrutiny, yet home movies were private films and most certainly kept out of the public gaze. They are, first and foremost, a method that preserved glimpses of family and friends in candid moments remaining, as if locked away and within their immediate environment.

Over time, these filmic glimpses often evoke connections between the past and the present that ultimately claims ground between identity and memory. Emma Crimmings in ‘Traces’, from Remembrance and the Moving Image, suggests a connection between film and memory; not in the pictorial sense but rather in the relationships that form between the audience and film and also the re-emergence of an experience from the past brought into the present.

'Through projections in living rooms and bedrooms all over the world,
these abundant quotidian moments are harvested, processed and
preserved only when they are stored away in the dark, enclosed
places – pantries, garages, wardrobes – for eventual retrieval and
remembering in a distant future.' (Crimmings, 37)
Crimming’s argument places home movies within two factors: first, committing and archiving captured moments on film and second, re-experiencing the past through the archive. Although it is clear that the first describes a methodological process, what is important to my artwork is how these records change over time to then evoke memories through experiencing a re-invention of the past through the archive.

The value of Crimming’s position reflects the personal nature, and power of, home movies when viewed with distance between what we see on film and how we can then experience such film. Western Australian film theorist Leon Marvell calls this ‘the experience of deep time’ (Marvell, 77) – the journeying back through memory arriving at a mnemonic zone, a mix between the present and the past where emotions locate themselves in transit with the moving image and of self.

These conceptual values are not unlike the French existentialist philosopher Gaston Bachelard who likens the emotions brought about through memory with revisiting, going back to, childhood as he states:
But reverie does not recount. Or at least there are reveries so deep reveries which help us descend so deeply within ourselves that they rid us of our history. They liberate us from our own name. These solitudes of today return us to the original solitudes. Those original solitudes, the childhood solitudes leave indelible marks on the soul (Bachelard 1971, 99).
In this passage, Bachelard strips away memory and returns to childhood as the base for reverie and, moreover, the coming to terms with memory from childhood. Given that the memories I have of witnessing my families home movies are derived from childhood I now witness such footage as an adult with a distinct sensation of longing — for both people represented in the film who are no longer here and also for the places of childhood depicted in the subject that have changed or become something else —, then it would seem logical to include a Bachelardian perspective on memory, in context to childhood, in the construction and display of the artwork. For me to engage memories with my family’s footage is a merger between the poetics of sentimentality and the melancholy of loss.

Without these qualities, of emotions regenerated from memory through ‘deep time’, the artwork might succumb to blandness whereby reprojecting source footage in a gallery environment could not consolidate any greater emotional linkage or connect with the recalled narratives I am trying to convey in the artwork. However, articulating memories through film draws close proximity to that which Bachelard raises, of revisiting a location inasmuch value as I do when I witness my family’s home movies. Evidently, it becomes clear that for me to engage with these memories through the artwork I then have to use childhood as the mnemonic base to go back to in order to come to terms with the film.

My first memories of witnessing my families vast collection of Standard 8 film was in the year 1975 when, as a three year old, I recall sitting on my grandparent’s sofa, captivated by the exotic locations screened before me – Germany, Guam, Holland, and Far North Queensland. These places and others were filmed predominately by my grandfather, Tony Barbone, during his part of his time in the United States Air Force between 1956 and 1964 and also after his retirement from the Air Force between 1965 and 1986. Where Tony travelled so too did his Bolex camera resulting in hundreds of hours of footage that, as I remember it to be, created much excitement and wonder still evident in me today. Yet the ways in which I experience these films in the present, through memory, is not as I did in 1975 but rather as a point of memorialisation, of coming to terms with the loss of much loved family members who appear in the subject. Yet these emotions I feel are grafted onto the original memories I recall of 1975, coexisting as both wonder and longing. Childhood becomes a harbour to shelter the duality of memories I share with these films and, in terms of the artwork, becomes a narrative-based access point to engage with the production of my art practice.

Evidence of this is also found in French Literature as the Poet Georges Rodenbach, in XIV from The Mirror of the Native Sky (1898) describes a process of going back to childhood in order to re-experience memory in much the same way as Bachelard prescribes a zone of memory through childhood, not as a journeying back and into the past but rather as a perception of returning as a child to then articulate memory.
Gentleness of the past which one remembers
Across the mists of time
And the mists of the memory
Gentleness of seeing oneself as a child again,
In the old house of stones too black
Gentleness of recovering one’s thinner face
As a pensive child, forehead against the window paine… (Rodenbach, 63).
I reference this passage in regards to what Bachelard and Crimmings establishes and in relation to contextualising the artwork insofar as describing my relationship with the source film — as an adult remembering through a child’s memories. Moreover, what Bachelard also brings to his position is the intimate nature of memory that, in turn, opens up the possibilities of recollections evidenced in the home movies; undeniably personal and intimate. This deeply private filmic territory locks in the secrets of family histories yet at the same time provides an opportunity for the viewer to engage with someone else’s stories so often intricately crafted within the image and of the subject. Fiona Trigg, in the essay ‘Bourgeois Dictionaries / Meanwhile Somewhere…1940 – 1943’ comments:
'An outsider can easily miss the hidden stories and secret resonances buried in the visual traces left by the people who capture their lives on film. Watching other people’s home movies can be like listening to someone describing their dreams: occasionally striking but more often than not banal.' (Trigg 2003, 71)
In the historical sense, home movies were often composed by amateur film makers intended to be viewed at home with friends and families, depicting celebrations, holidays, domestic life and characteristically imbedded with imperfections: incorrect lighting, camera shake, bad cropping and irregular compositions, non-sequential editing and poor quality film stock. Nevertheless, these blemishes only enhance ‘deep time’ experiences for the viewer as if a type of time-based printmaking – mnemonic monoprints etched into each frame almost lost in real time projection. Yet once slowed down these markings come alive: a hair, a scratch, a fingerprint; future relics of other memories generated at some point after the original event was committed to film.

Moreover, these marks are to Rodenbach's concept of revisiting memory as it is to the fragments of reverie that Marcell Proust describes, in Remembrance of Things Past, by his journey back through childhood memories of eating a Madeleine. I make these comparisons to raise the idea that, like the timely residue accumulated on film, childhood memories are peppered between narratives in both authors work, randomly appearing - overlaying existing stories - only to then disappear then re-emerge at a later point in time. Such animations are evident in the way I have chosen to slow down the home movie footage where each residue slowly emerges on top of an existing frame thereby changing the original image to something else. Rodenbach does the same thing by revisiting memories that, one might argue, in effect, changes the original memory to a hybrid, animated reverie just as Proust's memory of eating the Madelaine coexists with other intertwined memories, and so forth.

This raises the question of how can the image located in home movies change by the presence of scratches or hairs while still compounding a sense of belonging to or marking a significance of filmic identity? Are these residues simply connectors between memories embedded within the artwork? No, they are not. I use these marks in the art making process as both links to other memories, as did Proust and Rodenbach through text, and also as means of anchoring the charactability of a placed character, of moving through and within place, conjured through the experience of deep time. In fact, place - not the physical locations depicted on film as such but rather an understanding or coming to terms with how these locales impact on human experience - when viewed as a conceptual structure becomes important to the artwork. Places are the written spaces that my family, captured on film, has moved through both in their memories and in my own recollections of watching these films.

Places give us, the viewer, a comparison between past and present but also a connection that can give rise to other memories, and from this, forgotten experiences that lurk within each individual frame as well as our perceptions of the subject. If these kinds of places are understood from the perspective of German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who argued that the difference between animals and humans is that animals inhabit places while humans dwell in places, then this attachment to the locations with which we experience and move through are a key factor into why such filmic locales can be important to us and that of memory.

Australian philosopher Jeff Malpas, in the essay ‘Memory, Place, and Film’, raises this idea in context to Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire (1992) by stating that:
‘Memory always places us somewhere and every memory always involves us in some sort of bodily orientation. Memory is tied to the body and so also to place. This means that memory brings body and place with it, but body and place also bring memory. Memory – and so also the sense of a past – is part of the very fabric of place. Perhaps the best example of this in Wim Wenders’ work is in his homage to Berlin, Wings of Desire. In that movie, the city is perhaps the leading character in the film – indeed the original title was Himmel ├╝ber Berlin (‘Heaven over Berlin’), while Wenders himself says that ‘the city called the film into being’. It is a film, one might say, about the spirit of a city as much as it is also about the spirit of human life in that city, and it is also a film that plays with the fabric of the city as constituted in memory, in memorialisation, in the past and in the future (for memory is never only about the past).' (Malpas)
From this perspective, Malpas distinguishes the connections between memory and place as separate from the past as "past" and in turn brings the past through place and what is recalled from such places into the present. Although Malpas is not advocating that the past is some how removed from memories evoked by film he does raise the idea of advancing the past into the present, that memory is around and within the places we inhabit. Like Wenders’ Berlin, in Wings of Desire, where the scars of the past are evident in the present, we are reminded of a city that co-exists with the echoes of its history - its interrelated past - imbedded within dwellings as perceived and experienced in the present.

In regards to home movies, they are much the same. An example can be found in witnessing a known dwelling committed to film and then making a comparison with that of the same place in the present viewed as a central character in such emotive narratives. As Malpas compares Wenders’ Berlin as a character in Wings of Desire, so too can the locations and dwellings featured in home movies become a placed character judged by its former depiction.

Characteristics of artwork I have produced in 2006 engage places depicted through my home movies as an embedded character so that much of the deconstructed film becomes part of my own identity — places cease to be locations and, in turn, phenomenologically, become part of the characters to which I engage with and through film. The danger here is to produce art that is 'about place', that is, involving artwork as a depiction of place or using place as a decorative metaphor in conjunction with something or someone else. These matters do not interest me, but what does intrigue me - in this sense - is how place can be connected within the subject so it then becomes a connection between memory, and not simply part of a memory, that navigates in and out of each frame to thus assemble film as a mnemonic beacon.

References

Emma Crimings, 'Traces', Remembrance and the Moving Image, exhibition catalogue, ACMI, Melbourne, 2003
Leon Marvell, 'Brendan Lee, Shaun Wilson, Alexandra Gillies', Photofile, ACP, No.76 Summer, 2006
Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, Beacon, Boston, 1994
Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie, Beacon, Boston, 1971
Jeff Malpas, 'Memory, Place and Film', in Filmic Memorials i, Melbourne, 2005
Fiona Trigg, 'Meanwhile/Somewhere...1940-1943', in Remembrance and the Moving Image, ACMI, Melbourne, 2003
Geroge Rodenbach, 'The Mirror of the Native Sky', in Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie, Beacon, Boston, 1971.