Stephen Parr In the Home-Movie Archives

Michael Fox August 7, 2006

There was a time when nobody showed their home movies outside of the family or their closest friends. Generations later, all those films are finally coming out of the closet, and the attic, and the basement. Curators and preservationists, along with such odd bedfellows as John Waters and Martin Scorsese, recognize amateur films as a kind of national cultural history documented in thousands of privately collected moments. To codify and celebrate this maligned yet unvarnished art form — there, I said it — an ad hoc group of film historians and exhibitors devised the idea of an annual Home Movie Day three years ago. Dozens of cities have jumped on the idea, with the nonprofit San Francisco Media Archive hosting the local festivities. The public is invited this Saturday, Aug. 12, to 275 Capp Street for a reception in the morning, an afternoon clinic offering free examination, repair, and cleaning of films and screenings in the evening. (For more details and to RSVP, go to or call 415-558-8117. While you’re at it, take a peek at We asked S.F. Media Archive director Stephen Parr to ferret out the deeper meanings for us.

SF360: The entertainment value of old home movies is apparent, but what else should I be looking for?

Stephen Parr: Home movies, or amateur films, were made without any interest in remuneration. People made these films to document their family’s history, vacations — their lives, basically. There is always an element of camp in anything that’s dated, because we’re so fashion-oriented. But there are a lot of other issues that are important and often get overlooked: Who shot the film? It has to do with gender roles. Generally, men would shoot the films. Who gets camera time? Who doesn’t? Oftentimes the favorite child gets shot. Sometimes the patriarch will get a lot of time. That’s a metaphor for the family unit.

SF360: It sounds like you’ve become pretty practiced at reading between the frames, as it were.

Parr: A lot of times the things that are most interesting are the things that don’t get recorded. For instance, we have a film that [spans] about 30 years of home movies. There’s a boyfriend of one of the teenage girls in a very brief segment of the film. It’s obvious that he’s not welcome. It’s very curious what gets shot and what doesn’t.

SF360: Nonetheless, watching the equivalent of family snapshots loses its novelty after a while.

Parr: Most people think of home movies as birthdays, vacations, holidays, but a lot of people shot really unusual things. We have some film where [the filmmaker] used a CinemaScope lens, and got some remarkable cinematography of San Francisco in the early ’60s — the Fillmore, the Mission. Other people shot home movies of a wake at someone’s home. These were films of the last years of someone’s life, and you could see this illness manifesting itself, and then the wake. One of the clips is of a family carrying a placenta. Very strange, very strange.

SF360: Any other subgenres that you’ve identified?

Parr: A lot of people fancied themselves as filmmakers. Not trying to make a Hollywood movie, but just trying to tell a story. They’d dress their kids up like some kind of cartoon characters or pioneer settlers, and play out little stories. A Bay Area film, ‘From Here to Profanity,’ shot in 1957 by a guy named Lloyd Sullivan, [is] a story of a young boy and girl pretending to be a married couple. He gets drafted, he comes home safely.

SF360: Do you buy the idea that nowadays everyone is so accustomed to camcorders that they click into performance mode, whereas 50 years ago people were more natural and authentic when the camera was on?

Parr: I think people were a little more aware than we like to think. People always look back on the past as a more innocent time. To a large extent it was. But these people were still aware of what they were making, that they were going to put it together, and they were going to screen it, and people were going to watch it. A lot of these people were on the cutting edge of cinematography because they were making up their own cinematic language as they went along. They weren’t influenced by all the things people are influenced by now. Pretty much everyone has a cell phone, and those phones have cameras, so essentially everyone is a cinematographer now.

SF360: Does this abundance of images make them less valuable?

Parr: Film was fairly precious when it first came out. So you had to compose it, stage it — you had to have a certain amount of technical expertise just to make a film that would be viewable. Let’s go from 1950 to 2000, the price of recording something has gotten so cheap [that] there’s probably more people shooting videotape in one day today than shot film in an entire year in 1950. There’s so much more footage available. Does that mean there’s better stuff? Probably there’s richer material out there. There’s the portability, people don’t have to worry about cost, it can be recorded and processed in real time. And there’s kind of an intimacy that can be created. Before when you pulled out a camera, people just looked at it. It kind of looked like a gun. They were more self-conscious. Now people are entirely aware of it. We live in an electronic environment. We’re more familiar with our cell phones than with the food in our refrigerator.

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