The prologue to this week’s This American Life introduces us to the filmmaker Alan Berliner. Berliner spent six years finding and watching home movies shot by American families from the 1920s through the 1950s. He condensed these tapes into his collage film The Family Album (1986).
Berliner tells Ira Glass that home movies follow consistent patterns. These films tend to focus on children, and are mostly set in the summer, at beaches or swimming pools. Home movies, Glass suggests, are a way of preserving the thought that “we were a nice family”. Families preserve this thought by behaving the way happy families are thought to behave—splashing around a pool or sitting down for Thanksgiving dinner—and then filming themselves doing so. Everyone’s home movies look the same. Even so, these films can show more about a family than one might expect.
Glass splits the episode into five acts. The first features the humorist Jonathan Goldstein and, of course, his family. When Goldstein was a kid, he filmed his family’s Rosh Hashanah dinner. He now revisits the tape.
Goldstein develops a portrait of his family by introducing poignant details that hint at a larger, unshared story. Young Goldstein, embarrassed, films his mother singing in the kitchen; older Goldstein, reflecting on the tape, recognizes that his mother was singing because she was happy. “I haven’t seen her sing like that in years,” he says.
We learn that the Goldstein family used toilet paper as an all-purpose substitute for napkins, paper towels, bandages, and Kleenex. We also find out that his grandfather ate dessert alone in the basement, believing that no one upstairs listened to him anyway. Through his commentary on the tape, as well as snippets of audio from his 1980s-era video, Goldstein gives the listener a layered, capacious sense of his family’s dynamic.
Act two examines the early work of the film director Darren Stein—notable for the black comedy Jawbreaker (1999). By “early work”, I mean juvenilia. When Stein was a kid, he organized the other children on his cul-de-sac in Encino, California to make movies. The neighborhood shot dozens of films—all of which had Stein at the helm.
This segment’s revelations are funny in the same macabre way that Stein’s mature films are. Try not to laugh when Glass says: “They did a Holocaust film when he was eleven.” Then try not to feel bad for laughing.
The most insightful moments come from Stein’s reflections on what, beyond artistic interest, led him to make the films in the first place. Making his movies allowed him to maintain social status in his neighborhood during a time when he had few friends at school. One film—called “Gay as a Whistle”—allowed him to work through his sexuality in a preliminary way.
In act three, Glass interviews producers and writers on America’s Funniest Home Videos. This segment, which lasts just five minutes, comes across as dated (the episode originally aired in November 2002). Listening 13 years later, I was surprised to find that America’s Funniest Home Videos is still on the air. Now in its 26th season, it no longer enjoys strong ratings, but manages to produce a good number of viral videos for digital audiences. I wonder what overlap still exists between AFHV fans and This American Life listeners. Many of the segment’s concerns—such as, where do people set up a tripod? Why do people film themselves so frequently?—no longer apply in a time when filming on mobile phone cameras has become ubiquitous.
In act four, the writer Susan Burton reflects on her willed, manufactured change from a nerd to a popular girl—a transition documented in her family’s videos. Unlike Goldstein’s account of adolescent awkwardness, Burton relies more on narrative than on audio excerpts from the videos in question. Her story of teenage metamorphosis is wittily recounted, with certain idiosyncrasies—her nerdy obsession with the migratory patterns of killer bees, her studious rotating of 16 fashionable outfits—lending quirk to a familiar story.
The last act is brief but potent. David Sedaris’s mother, we learn, hated being filmed. Sedaris reminisces about how, sitting in the Raleigh airport, she covered her face when a woman nearby pulled out a camcorder.
When his mother died, he and his sisters took turns holding her belongings to their noses—Mom’s coat, Mom’s pillow—finding solace through scent in the absence of images and video. Three years later, he and his sisters discovered a tape. Sedaris recalls:
“Whoever shot the footage had caught her unaware, walking out the door of a restaurant and slowly moving into the sun. It was such a small thing, our mother snapping shut her purse and putting one foot in front of the other, but it seemed to us like a miracle.”
Because Sedaris is so funny, I always find his heartfelt moments all the more powerful. In his brief segment, he reminds us why we make home movies in the first place. By capturing motion, we capture a sense of someone’s personality, an individuality often hidden in a photograph’s static grin.
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