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Commentaries on this Media!

The Private and Public Viewings of Home Movies

by Ethan Tussey

by Andy Uhrich for IN MEDIA RES

Who were the intended audiences for home movies prior to online platforms? Were these visual records of everyday life in the twentieth century meant for private or public eyes? One common assumption, since challenged, was that these quotidian documents were created only for family and friends. This view led to a devaluation of home moviemaking as not being able to address larger social concerns or interest someone unrelated to the people onscreen.

While there are thousands of home movies that might fit this stereotype, thanks to a growing number of scholars, archivists, and individuals saving their family heritage we have a better sense of the amazingly heterogeneous wealth of personal and public experiences these films include. Seemingly cliched home movies can contain information on the wider times in which they were shot. And while their exhibition might have been limited to close-knit circles of family members or networks of amateur film enthusiasts, many of these films imagined a much wider audience.

Take, for example, "The Last Reel" (1986), made by Arthur H. Smith with his wife Blanche and excerpted here. The film documents their life as retirees in a California mobile home community as they navigate the difficulties of living in a smaller space and providing financial help to their grown-up children. In the voiceover Smith addresses his imagined viewer as "you" with the same mix of amorphousness and specificity of a television announcer. While perhaps a simple act of appropriating TV talk, it reveals how the oppositional binary of public and private is actually a constantly negotiated state, a point made by the anthropologist Susan Gal. The public is always found in the private and vice versa. This private film addresses us decades later through public modes of address.

I raise these points as a way to open this discussion of what it means to take these private movies and present them to new public audiences. What new meanings accrue to these films when we become the "you" addressed by Smith? Are they still "home" movies when they're screened in a theater or viewed online?

The Last Reel Excerpt

An excerpt of the beginning of Arthur H. Smith's autobiographical home movie from 1986, "The Last Reel."

from The Last Reel (1986)
Creator: Arthur H. Smith
Distributor: Center for Home Movies
Posted by Ethan Tussey