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Home Movies 

A family can be as fragile as an old 8-millimeter film.

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It took time to use an 8-millimeter home movie camera effectively. Time and experience. Not just anyone was qualified. I think it was something of a calling.

Precursor to today's sleek camcorders, the 8-millimeter was fickle, clunky, and slow. Before the invention of easy-load film cartridges, you had to sit down and thread the film over, under, and through the camera's tiny spindles--consulting the instructions after so many failed attempts. When you wanted to film indoors (Christmas mornings always called for this), you had to build a skeletal tree of blazingly hot "sun lamps," which, if nothing else, enforced the discipline of filming from one perspective--just between the hot lights and the nearly blinded children. There was no steadicam roving from room to room, no zoom shot. There were no close-ups, come to think of it, that didn't dissolve into a filmic pudding of brown light. And, of course, there was no audio recording. Just images, just faces, just film.

My mother was called to the order sometime in the early 1950s. In the division of labor between male and female, which in our family followed the most traditional Irish-Catholic-military lines, she was solely in charge of filmmaking, a position she embraced with patience, humor, and creativity. Mom was the cinematographer, director, editor, and projectionist of the family film archives.

To this day, long after the five daughters and one son have grown up and my parents have moved twice from our childhood home in Spokane, the family Bible still lies open atop the home-movie hutch in their living room. I peeked inside the hutch recently, taking great care when cracking open the cabinet doors. Box upon box of small 8-millimeter movie reels were stacked within like a house of cards. I held one hand out to catch a pile as they tumbled from the shelf.

Not every movie was properly labeled or in the right box, but somehow it never mattered. As kids we knew that the film on the cracked blue reel showed summer 1962 at Christmas Lake. Or the silver reel with the rubber band around it was the one where my eldest sister led a tour of our then new house--a concept inspired, I'm sure, by Jacqueline Kennedy's televised tour of the White House. We loved that one. While mom was continually making new movies, we liked the old ones best. The younger we were in a film, the more enamored we were with it.

Occasional Sundays and each of the five major holidays--Easter, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and my parents' anniversary--were designated movie nights. Those evenings unfolded with timeworn ritual. All five sisters cleaned up the kitchen while my mother was excused to transform the living room into a movie theater. She removed a fresh pack of unfiltered Pall Malls from the good-silver drawer, lighted one, and set to work. A Burt Bacharach album played on the stereo console. Exempt, as a boy, from kitchen chores ("squaw's work," my father called it), I pulled the screen from behind the coats in our front closet. Dad, in his single contribution to the preparations, helped me set it up. Shweeeeeesh: the screen snapped into place, sparkling with what looked like a surface of crushed diamonds.

My mother worked on the projector, which was famously temperamental--the complex, broken-down, and often cruel husband to the 8-millimeter camera itself. She strung together extension cords, stacked books atop the coffee table to raise the projector's height, and began experimenting with a strip of blank leader film. My father retreated to get into his bathrobe and pour another drink, while my sisters and I began sorting through reels of film. We each got to pick one.

The six of us (each just a year or two apart in age) lay on the carpet right under the screen and watched our life stories unfold in disjointed, dreamlike juxtapositions. A black-and-white reel from 1953 (mom and dad's honeymoon in Colorado Springs) might be followed by a color one from 1969 (the baby blowing out her five birthday candles) then back to an overlit movie from Christmas 1960 (my mother hugely pregnant with her fifth child, me). As one five-minute reel rewound speedily atop the projector--the lights briefly up, a Pall Mall crushed out--she pulled the next film from the waiting pile. Although we knew most of them by heart, my father provided narration above the noisy projector. My mother was too involved with keeping the film running to do more than laugh and smoke.

More often than I'd like to remember, movie nights ended all at once with an accident that emerged from the same conditions: it was late, my father had drunk too much Scotch, my mother was tired, and the projector, overheated and exhausted, began chewing up pieces of our beloved films. Everything was going along smoothly, Burt Bacharach still playing on the stereo, my little sister snoring, when suddenly the story stopped in place unnaturally--a frame knocked off the sprockets--and imploded. Faces melted ghoulishly on the screen. We could smell the film burning.

My mother immediately stopped the projector, my eldest sister turned on the lights, my father left to pour another couple fingers of Scotch, and mom pulled her tiny editing contraption from the movie hutch. Snip-snip: she cut out the damaged film and hastily spliced it back together. My father returned, lights out, my sister woke up, the film resumed. Again, it broke in the same spot.

"Goddamn it, Jean, can't you get that thing to work right?" my father demanded, as always, as if scripted. The six of us were as silent as the children on-screen had been. My father stormed out, irreconcilable with one of his invisible furies. That was the signal: it was over.

Even though my mother finally traded up for a better camera and projector, she used them less and less as we grew older. Movies document our family only up to 1983--the year I graduated from college--which is also the year that, from my parents' perspective, my life story ended. Like a single film frame thrown off the sprocket, I stopped in place at age 22: that's when I went home and told my parents that their only boy was a gay man.

In their eyes, my life imploded, broke apart--two separate pieces of film, irreparable, "before" and "after"--never to exist on one reel again.

While long sensed, I only became profoundly aware of this break when my younger sister, the final daughter, age 30, got married in Spokane last month. A few days before the wedding, my father called me to request that I not introduce my lover--the man to whom I consider myself married--to the guests. By implication, he asked that we not "act gay" at the reception (which, he pointed out, he was paying for, after all), and give away his secret of 12 years. "Do this, please," he added, "for your mother and me." I knew that it wasn't for my sisters. Unlike my parents, they had always been entirely accepting of me.

Quietly, I refused, told him to mind his own business, and promised to avoid him over the weekend. I then asked a single question--one I had never asked him before, I suppose because I dreaded hearing his reply. "What do you tell people--friends, relatives--if they ask about me?"

"Well, I don't lie," he said--my father, the Catholic--ever mindful of tallying his sins. "If someone asked outright, 'Is Bill gay?' I would say, yes, he is. But no one has ever asked. No one talks about gays here. It never comes up, so I don't say anything. If someone asks what you're doing now, I say, you left for college--so you live near there now."

"Oh. So you don't mention that I grew older since 1983, that I'm 34 now, that I have an address, that I have a partner of five years, that I have a job--whatever?"

"No. And they don't ask."

It felt like a bash to the head. Twelve years, gone, cut out of his version of my story.

I'm not a parent, I told myself once I'd hung up, and do not expect or hope to be. My relationship to fatherhood will always be as an only son. I will never fully appreciate, therefore, the value one places on memories of his young children, the expectations he had for them, and how hard it is to reconcile what he wanted them to be with who they turned out to be. Still, I couldn't deny feeling sad. I am so far ahead and my father is so old, he'll never catch up.

The wedding was as fabulously romantic and old-fashioned as my little sister always dreamed it would be. My lover and I sat side by side in the cathedral, danced at the reception (with my sisters and cousins), introduced ourselves as a couple, and smiled in family photographs, all without incident. Ironically enough, the only ones obviously "acting gay" at the reception were the bartender, the DJ, and the banquet-hall manager, all of whom were hired by my father, and all of whom, to my delight, were "brothers" to me.

When one of our movie nights ended, following dad's dramatic exit, the kids would file out in defeat and go to sleep. I remember getting up the next morning to find the living room spotlessly cleaned, the films hidden in the movie hutch, as if the night before had been erased.

But now, after the recent talk with my father, I have conjured a revised image of this scene. At 34, I wake up one morning and find my parents still in the living room of my childhood home. The curtains are drawn, the screen's up, the projector's asthmatic fan is droning. And the films, strung in disarray, look like slashing strokes of black paint on the light shag carpet. My parents have been there 12 years without leaving, but they have changed places. My father, at 70 years old, has taken over the home movies.

My mother is sitting on the couch, nursing a glass of wine, not saying a word. She is no longer smoking. And my father, who never had a feel for these things, is bent over the splicing machine trying to fix our fragile 8-millimeter films. He frantically snips apart and reedits all our home movies, one by one, as the images of his six grown children burn up and break apart, year after year. He keeps cutting them up, until there's little left but a handful of single frames and strips of blank leader film. The home-movie hutch is empty.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Will Northerner.

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