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Home Movies Screened for a New Audience

August 17, 2003|Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer

They arrived on Saturday clutching plastic bags, cardboard boxes and faded suitcases full of memories: old canisters of film, stored away for decades, glimpses of lives and places that no longer exist.

In a back room at the Japanese American National Museum in downtown Los Angeles, dozens of Californians, old and young, unveiled their treasures -- home movies shot years ago -- for complete strangers. They told stories, cried tears and, more than anything, marveled at what once had been.

"Notice all the bits and pieces of everyday life that look totally different now," said Snowden Becker, a film archivist who led the session as part of Home Movie Day, an event aimed at celebrating celluloid home movie history and held in more than two dozen communities worldwide. "The world is changing in really subtle ways," Becker said.

For those who gathered, the day represented an opportunity to learn the finer points of film preservation and a welcome chance to view other people's historical family films. The same scene was being duplicated in such cities as San Francisco, New York, Toronto and Mexico City.

Representing a diverse mix of the California experience, some participants at the museum were longtime residents, others newly arrived in the area. But they were united by those rolls of film, which all of them had carried through life like unopened treasure boxes.

Some brought in 8-millimeter films, shot by parents who had died long ago; others carried tangled rolls of 16-millimeter, with no clue to what the film might reveal. One man presented the film he had shot as a teenager on a camera he had rigged up using pieces of an Erector set.

Throughout the day, there were small gems to behold: family vacations to places that had changed beyond recognition; an erupting Hawaiian volcano; a tractor mowing a field on a family farm in Kentucky; a boy in 1969 or '70, playing on the lawn of his Virginia home, mugging for the camera -- "classic home movie antics," Becker said.

And then there was the film shot in Compton in the mid-1950s and brought in by Ken Thompson, 60, and his mother, Naomi, 83.

"It's so rural!" one audience member marveled as, on screen, the Thompson children played with a group of goats their neighbor had raised. In another scene, a group of African American schoolchildren, dressed in Dutch clothing, performed an intricate dance for a May Day celebration at a school. "They no longer do that," Naomi Thompson told the audience.

"It's been a long time," she said of the film.

Becker encouraged the 50 or so people crowded into the room to notice all of the small details that were being played out on the white screen over her shoulder. "Community history is cultural history," she said.

For that reason, she advised members of the audience to do all they could to preserve their celluloid treasures. Film that has been spliced needs to be checked carefully, she said, especially because the splicing often was done with staples or tape that has since disintegrated. Film technician Steve Wright was on hand to inspect film and do patch-up jobs, if necessary.

It's also a good idea to transfer old films to VHS or DVD to more easily view the images, Becker told the audience. But don't throw away the old film, which often lasts longer. Place the film in a cool place. And whatever you do, get rid of all those old rubber bands.

"See this old film?" Becker said, digging through a plastic bin to find a reel of 8-millimeter film, fastened with a crumbling rubber band, which dissolved in her hand. "The rubber band, besides being gross, releases a sulfur compound" that ultimately can degrade the film it was meant to protect, she said.

Projectionist Steve Wystrach took another reel of Kodachrome film, stored in a yellow box, from that bin. He loaded it onto an old-fashioned projector and then lovingly swiped at it with a tiny brush.

Lights were dimmed. The projector whirred. And suddenly, a young Grace Simmons appeared on the screen. Elegantly attired in a form-fitting summer dress, her dark hair swept up off her face, the twentysomething woman waited at an open door for a moment and then leaned in to embrace a series of people: her grandmother, grandfather, a great-uncle and great-aunt.

Simmons, now 64, narrated along. "This is my grandmother's birthday, maybe her 80th.... It was 1965 ... I believe my ex-husband was taking the pictures. That was our first house, in Silver Lake. Oh, wow!"

The image projected on screen sputtered a bit as the grandmother held a birthday card just out of reach of the camera, and day progressed to night, as evidenced by a darkened room and cocktails rolled out on a bar trolley.

"I can't tell you how precious it is," Simmons, a 50-year resident of Los Angeles, said a few minutes after the film had finished. She waited for a second reel, this one of her young son playing in the family living room, also circa 1965, to be loaded onto the machine.

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