Peter Shelton

Home Movies Lost

Posted in At the Movies, Watch columns by pshelton on September 2, 2010

Somewhere, somehow the home movies got lost.

We think they were with my dad, but since our parents’ divorce decades ago, the locations of some things have never been entirely clear. At any rate, the reels of 8mm film that he shot and carefully spliced together from the 1950s and 60s are nowhere to be found. Dad is sick about it, but he doesn’t know where else to look.

These were movies of our wonder years. The years when the four of us kids were almost completely unselfconscious in front of the camera. Sister Polly, who later became a ballerina in New York City, did sometimes look as if she were already playing to an audience. We all waved and mugged now and then. But for the most part, Dad’s wind-up Kodak caught a young, sunny California family unawares: digging in the sand, sailing a dinghy on the bay, bringing a proud, wooden-ski snowplow to a complete stop.

Mom in her 30s looked like a beauty queen in her modest two-piece swimsuit. (She was May Queen in college.) She seemed always to be talking to the camera, as if she could deflect its eye from her pulchritude.

Now and then she would pick up the camera, which freed Dad to behave in ways we rarely saw otherwise. For example, he’d lope down a dock as if in preparation for a swan dive, only to trip at the end and tumble cartoon-like into the water.

As I try to piece these silent images back together in my mind, I know I’m probably recombining them with still photographs and with bits of pure, unrecorded memory. Not that it matters terribly. But I do feel a certain urgency to capture what I can recall of the missing movies. It’s been 30 years, probably, since I’ve seen any of them.

We kids used to beg to watch them when we all still lived at home. We loved the clickedy-clack of the projector and the light-splashed, not-quite-real representations on the screen. Mostly, we loved that it was us up there, our history, our favorite places. We were already cementing legends, reinforcing what looked like perfect childhoods. Though of course we weren’t aware that we were doing either – building the armature of myth, or claiming any sort of perfection.

I know there were reels devoted to summer vacations on a lake in the Sierra. I know there were reels shot at the launching of the war-surplus Navy lifeboat that Dad had converted for pleasure-craft use. But were there moving pictures of brother Tom throwing handfuls of pebbles, like musical chords, into the lake? And am I remembering movies of me standing at the tiller on Mister Roberts’ maiden voyage out the jetties, the sun down already but the chill vanquished, easily, by a fierce new pleasure? Or are these memories coming from someplace else?

Did we have reels of Polly dancing as a pre-teen, before she went off to New York? Do I remember movies of Wendy at the birth of a foal named Zanzibar?

If I were tasked to recreate these films, I’d have to rely heavily on historic fiction; I’d have to blend sources of memory and imagination into an approximation of the missing celluloid truth.

Did the films reveal character? Or fate? Could you tell by looking that Wendy would become a veterinarian, and then a young widow? Could you see Tom’s future gift for comedy? Did Polly’s fatal perfectionism show? Were there hints of our parents’ split to come?

Last fall I spent a few days with Dad watching DVD transfers of old movies his father had taken in the 1920s and 30s. I brought along a digital voice recorder to get some of the stories I hoped the movies would spark.

Dad’s memory was still sharp at 86. As we watched scenes from his golden, southern California youth (in black-and-white), he chuckled at some episodes, expressed astonishment at others – astonished that so much time had passed, that both of his bronze-god brothers were gone, that automobiles were so different now. And on the other hand, astonished that he still felt, on the inside, no different from that 10-year-old doing calisthenics on the lawn there in La Jolla.

There were other moments, though, that presented a mystery. “I have no idea where that is,” he’d say. “Or who those people are. I must have been there. But I have no memory of it.”

If the lost home movies were found, miraculously, tomorrow, would we recognize everything we saw?

One Response

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  1. Bob Berwyn said, on October 10, 2010 at 10:32 pm

    Hi Peter, love this post! My dad was a big movie maker, too. We still have ours, I hope you find yours.

    Lots of ski footage and fooling around; fast-forward scenes of my grandma walking uphill in the snow. My favorite is my parents honeymoon in Sicily. My mom puts a small cactus in a camping chair on the beach, my dad pretends not to notice and sits down. Later, their Studebaker gets stuck on the beach; the entire village comes down to help them push it out.

    I’ve also been trying to record some of my dad’s memories on a digital recorder. He swam across the Danube in 1951 to escape the Communist regime in what was then Czechoslovakia. Within a few weeks he was working as an interpreter for the CIA in a Vienna refugee camp, and then spent his entire career with that agency. I started writing about this history here:

    And you’re probably on top of this, but I heard Chris Landry give an interesting dust-on-snow talk at an avy workshop last week:

    Cheers, hope all is well.

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