GHENT, N.Y. — It’s probably safe to say that nobody is as interested, or interested at all, in watching a 16 mm home movie of my first year of life as I am — from the time I’m brought home from the hospital to my triumphant first birthday party.
The only possible exception might be my mother. But, sadly, she isn’t around anymore.
That doesn’t make my experience less valid or riveting, at least to me. But, it does raise a question that isn’t strictly philosophical, but also isn’t purely economic: How much should I be willing to pay to have hundreds of hours of aging 16 mm home movies transferred to modern technology?
My parents took the films between 1952, when they got their jewellike Bell & Howell movie camera as a wedding present, and the late 1970s, when they stopped documenting their lives and those of their four sons.
Transferring home movies to digital isn’t cheap. A modest 400-foot film costs well over a hundred bucks, and I have reels that exceed 1,200 feet in length. Also, much of the subject matter is repetitive.
Birthday parties, Christmas mornings, summer vacations. There’s only so many times you can watch yourself blow out the candles on your cake before even you lose interest.
But, the rewards are also substantial. While my brothers and I star in the movies — as one would expect with a parent as the director, cinematographer and cameraman — it’s all the other stuff, the life unrolling on the fringes of the frame, that makes them fascinating.
The 1950s and ‘60s cars and taxis whizzing past on the streets of Manhattan, where we grew up. Women and men’s fashions. The midtown skyline rising above the trees in Central Park.
As a child, I was fascinated by the heights of the buildings. The Essex House, the tallest building on Central Park South. The broad-shouldered bulk of the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center.
And the Empire State Building. At the time, it was unchallenged as the world’s tallest building. It loomed over the city and, seemingly, the whole world, a symbol of American might.
That skyline seems impossibly quaint and modest today, as faded as the colors in some of the films. It’s been eclipsed by successive generations of development, little of it as architecturally compelling. Or maybe it’s just because my eyes aren’t as awestruck as they once were.
But, the Empire State isn’t even the tallest building in New York anymore. That distinction, if one employs the metric of highest habitable floor, goes to several so-called “supertall” apartment skyscrapers that cast long shadows over the park and are out of reach to all but the planet’s wealthiest citizens.
After I upload the movies onto my computer — the photo shop where I take them returns the original reels in the metal cases that have safeguarded them across the decades, along with the keychain-sized USB drive that they’ve been transferred onto — I send them to my brothers and my cousin. He makes cameo appearances in most, and has been struck and saddened by the fact that most of the relatives hugging us or sitting around the dining room table sipping tea and eating Danish are long gone.
My reaction is the opposite. The movies bring them vividly back to life.
By the way, they’re silent films. There’s not even the whir that accompanied them as they wend their way through the projector when my father screened them for us as children. Our anticipation to see ourselves on the collapsible projection screen he trundled out once a year, as we lowered the shades and doused the living room lights, was palpable.
But, in a way the absence of sound makes the movies even more compelling. You can almost, but not quite, read family members’ lips. It makes you pay closer attention, more aware of body language, of any gesture or nuance.
Even more valuable, the films allow you to see people, from the perspective of adulthood, that you knew only through the self-centered prism of childhood. You’re able to appraise them anew, appreciate them in ways that were beyond your capacity when you were younger.
They’re available in ways they never were before. The movie my parents took in Spain and the south of France in the summer of 1952 isn’t just a document about its time, but also a new window onto their relationship in the early months of their marriage.
With the benefit of the diaries my mother kept of every day of her life from the early 1940s through the late ‘70s as source material, one can identify places, people and events in the films that might have been lost to history without them. In tandem, one can appreciate the rush historians must feel unearthing a revealing letter, photograph, or some other artifact that answers a question or solves a mystery and sheds fresh light on the past.
I don’t know how many of the movies I’ll have transferred. Doing all of them would cost thousands of dollars.
I also recently had my parents’ projector repaired so that I’ll retain access to the films even without digitizing them. But, they’re increasingly brittle.
Threading the film through the projector’s gates and sprockets without tearing it is well beyond my technical abilities. So, I’m planning to lug the thing to my mechanically minded brother’s, as well as some of the movies.
I have no doubt that watching them — for us, if not our spouses or children — will evoke some of the excitement they did when my father first showed them more than a half century ago.
My only regret is that when I was emptying my parents’ apartment, I didn’t salvage their collapsible projector screen. I’ll have to purchase a new one. One could watch the movies against a bare white wall. But, it wouldn’t be the same thing.