Normally, it would be a major buzz kill to bust out the home movies at a convivial gathering of strangers.
But that was the draw Saturday at the Echo Park Film Center — a serendipitous journey through personal memories and shared history captured in jumpy, grainy, corny and ultimately engrossing home movies spanning much of the last century.
"You have no idea what might turn up," said Sean Savage, a film archivist with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Savage and fellow archivist Brian Drischell organized the film portion of Los Angeles' Home Movie Day. The worldwide event takes place one day a year and pays homage to the small treasures hidden away on old 8- and 16-millimeter film reels and aging videotapes stashed in attics or boxes at garage sales.
The premise is simple: Drop by with a few reels that you have no way of watching or that you think are cool. Then let the pros load them on clackety old projectors aimed at a large screen — and see what happens.
"Oh, my God, that's my best friend!" Betsy Kalin blurts as her 23-year-old film begins rolling. Kalin, a filmmaker, said she hadn't seen her Super 8 footage for two decades and couldn't recall what it showed. "That's a crystal I used to have in my room," she tells the audience as, together, they are carried by silent images back to Kalin's dorm room, with lounging students and poster-covered walls. "This is really trippy."
Kalin randomly grabbed a few reels from a drawer, hoping she might get to see her father. "He passed away 11 years ago." Dad didn't appear. But an ex-boyfriend did.
"That was not what I was expecting at all," she says.
Minutes later a girl is smiling, decorating a Christmas tree. An older man's hands are lacing wires onto ornaments. Then a view out the window of a traveling car. Snow is blasting across the highway. It's Tim Wilson's childhood in Ames, Iowa. He hasn't seen it in 20 years.
"This might be the only film of my family," Wilson, 44, says softly. A road sign announces the Minnesota state line. "Maybe we were visiting my grandma."
Some share jewels they picked up at a yard sale or purchased online. In one, a casket and military guard pass along a crowded parade route. Then a spirited, rider-less horse with reversed boots.
"There's Jackie, and Robert Kennedy and Ted," says Brian Douglas. He's driven from Victorville to showcase a pair of gems. First is curbside footage — rare because it is in color — of President Kennedy's 1963 funeral procession in Washington. He got it on the Internet for $35.
Next, the audience views a sea of GIs in jungle-green uniforms. There's a stage, and Bob Hope and Raquel Welch are clowning and dancing at a USO show in Vietnam. GIs are mounting the stage, go-go dancing with mini-skirted Welch. Douglas found this time capsule buried in a box of 8-millimeter reels at a flea market.
"I feel they are kind of like history, of significance to American culture," said Douglas, who collects and sells historic photographs and enjoys sharing his home movie finds as a hobby.
That's part of the message of the nonprofit behind Home Movie Day, which held a separate screening Saturday in Culver City for videotape. Organizers encourage everyone to preserve old family footage and promote good storage practices. Keep films cool and dry, they advise, or deposit them with film archives that can preserve them. Never discard film, they say, even if it has been transferred to video tape: The film will far outlast the videos.
Some "home movies have been entered into the National Film Archives as treasures," Savage said.