Saturday, October 11, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 19

And he was there with his movie camera, as I plummeted down Ninth Street, in my Soapbox racer, helmeted head tucked low, as he was always there for any of his children’s special occasions. Any handyman in the 1930s and 40s with an artsy-techno streak would inevitably be drawn to home movies. Kodak introduced black-and-white 8mm film in 1932, and Kodachrome film came along in 1936. I don’t recall my father ever being particularly interested in still photography—he left that to his mother and sister—but he took to home movies like a duck to water.

The first films in his oeuvre were black-and-white. I recall footage of a big steam shovel (yes, real steam!) working on Ninth Street outside my mother’s and father’s family homes (yes, the same street that at the other end hosted the Soapbox Derby), and my sister Anne’s first birthday party in 1939. Surely, I saw these later on, probably several times, for I would have been too young to remember firsthand Dad’s earliest dabbles in the Hollywood art. These were the standard four-minute Kodak flicks on metal reels; when the war started the reels became plastic.

Reliable memories kick in from about the time the war began. His camera was a keywound Cine-Kodak. He was seldom without it. Reel by reel his collection grew—each yellow box returned from Kodak processing neatly labeled—eventually filling a cabinet in the upstairs hall. It seems I spent my entire childhood either self-consciously acting for the camera or sitting on the living room floor with my sibs—Mom enthroned in her wing-back chair—as Dad projected his films onto a roll-up screen with his Keystone projector. Shooting movies indoors required floodlights, with big tin reflectors, mounted on tripods. We ripped into our Christmas presents or licked birthday-cake frosting off our fingers in blazing illumination. I wonder if always being “on set” turned us into little prima donnas, showoffs for life. Conspicuously under-represented in Dad’s movies was my mother, who was adverse to the marrow of her bones to show-offery of any sort. She generally absented herself from the “set,” retiring to some other corner of the house, leaving the wannabe Hollywood director and his pint-sized actors to their glitzy business.

On at least one occasion, Dad’s home-movie making veered towards the professional. He made a promotional film for the American Lava Corporation which must have been one of the first such enterprises. I remember how it began. First the title, spelled out on a black background with the white plastic alphabets you could buy for such purposes. Then, a cascade of the company’s ceramic insulators spilled out over the title. I thought it was as good as anything I had seen in a Hollywood movie. Making his longer films required splicing, and his splicing equipment was a handyman’s dream: two reels mounted at opposite ends of a wood board, a magnifying viewer, and a wonderful stainless-steel precision cutter and clamp with pins to hold the film’s sprocket holes exactly in place. He taught me the art of cutting and splicing, which subsumed the greater art of editing. It was a skill I would later put to advantage in my writing.

Home movies in the 1940s and 50s were the cutting edge of the creative handyman’s gee-whizery, the place where art and technology met. The Cine-Kodak camera with its big flat wind-up key, the clickety-clack Keystone projector, the blazing hot floodlights, the stink of splicing fluid. The arty gimmicks—titles, zooms, segues—and the little actors performing their tricks on cue. These days anyone with a mobile phone can make a movie, and watch it wherever you want, even send it across the world through e-mail. For me, the idea of personal filmmaking will always be associated with that magic moment when the family gathered in the living room, Dad threaded the Keystone, the room lights were turned off, and—clickety, clickety, clickety—the powerful tungsten bulb in its cooling-finned housing projected images of the silent Shirley Temple wannabes onto the silver screen.