Rarely do I enjoy a scholarly journal article as much as I did Caitlin McGrath’s “’I Have Seen the Future’: Home Movies of the 1939 New York World’s Fair,” from the fall 2013 The Moving Image, which I read while traveling home last night. It’s something of an esoteric niche topic, I know, but McGrath uses the abundance of home movies shot at the fair to make very smart historical points about how these seemingly dull, often inept films can become useful in giving “a more palpable sense of what feeling swept away, overwhelmed, and dazzled by the fair looked like; stylistically, they reflect the excitement and confusion that resulted from such a visually stimulating environment.”
Now, I’m quite partial to home-movie studies, a small but fascinating academic field that grew largely out of Patricia Zimmerman’s 1995 book Reel Families, partly for idiosyncratic personal reasons (perhaps due to my own misspent youth as an amateur filmmaker, making backyard micro-epics like Chuck and Bob Fight Saddam Hussein, shot in miserable Wasilla, Alaska during the first Gulf War and reflecting some deeply internalized American triumphalism that definitely preceded my introduction to punk and Noam Chomsky; I will still vouch for Those Who Have Puked, though). But I think the genre could profitably be linked to work on early gay erotic cinema, too—I sort of missed my chance when writing about Pat Rocco’s guerilla-shot gay Los Angeles films, but maybe someone should situate Bob Mizer’s Athletic Model Guild physique films—newly available on DVD—in this context, that could be interesting.
What I really loved about McGrath’s article, though, wasn’t the astute scholarly analysis as much as the obvious (hell, obsessive really, in the best possible way) loving attention to the work of a bunch of random, ordinary midcentury people with cameras, whose collective oeuvres she takes as seriously as other film scholars do Billy Wilder or Wong Kar-wai. She looks at Robert Decker, who “exhibits a sense of experimentation and above-average talent” with his “lingering shots of unexplained dirty puddles behind fair buildings” that show less interest in the fair’s dream-reality than “the work necessary to keep the fantasy afloat and the moments of the mundane that lie just below the skin of ‘the future.’” There’s a husband and wife who shot separately in color and black-and-white, with “Mr. Walsh’s preference for filming buildings and long shots of the fairgrounds versus Mrs. Walsh’s tendency to film individuals.” There’s a director of the Maine Development Commission whose tourist-booster work informed the style of his own home movies. There’s even a recovered gay amateur filmmaker who shot both home movies and short fiction films with titles like Be Beautiful.
I could go on—I really eat this stuff up. It was perfect commute-reading too, as I rode a train from Newark to Philly, then a subway from 30th Street to City Hall, and another down Broad, all the while thinking about spatiality, mobility, and my own amateur home-movies, which I shoot on a Flip whenever I travel, though I’m often too lazy to upload them to YouTube for months (here’s a favorite, from Portland, Maine, and another from Bloomington, Indiana; Memphis has been sitting on my Flip since the summer of 2011 or ’12). So, kudos to Caitlin McGrath for an article well done.
To pull it around to films shot in Newark, it got me thinking about Sightseeing in Newark, a silent short filmed in 1926-27, about which very little information seems to exist. I first saw it on a VHS tape owned by my colleague Clement Price (just recently named official city historian of Newark, which is amazing and well deserved!), and it recently surfaced on Archive.org, but I can’t find much else about it anywhere.
When I first watched this, about a year ago, all I could really think was how uninteresting it was compared to the grand city-symphonies that were its peers, from Manhatta (1921) to Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (1927). Looking at it with the history of home movies as the guiding lens, though, it reflects a presumptively tourist visual narrative of Newark during the early years of its local commission government, beginning with title cards declaring Newark “a good place to live”—even if the filmmaker seems not to do so, since “We arrive by Hudson Tubes from New York.”
From there, we get a procession of scenery: a quick crowd scene, the above panorama from inside a skyscraper, then mostly static shots or specific locations:
I’m mostly too lazy to do then-and-now shots here, but since I used to walk by this on the way to work daily (Military Park has been fenced off since last summer for a redesign; color me skeptical about where this is headed, though I’ll be curious to see), voila: nine decades later (and from the other side):
But back to the 1920s:
We also get City Hall, Weequahic Park, and more. The whole thing runs about 11 minutes (8 online; maybe it’s a different speed? I didn’t compare). The shots of Newark are neat, but rather postcard-like; this is clearly not the work of an utter amateur.
Who was John Dunnachie? Googling around finds an issue of Business Screen magazine from 1961 listing a John Dunnachie as Vice President of the Henry Charles Motion Picture Studios in Edison, NJ, so I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that’s our filmmaker (or possibly his son). Exactly what purpose Sightseeing in Newark served, how it circulated, and under what conditions it would have been seen, I have no idea—but it sure plays like city booster material, so that’s my guess.
Because of its slick efforts to sell the city, it’s not as interesting as the home movies McGrath writes about (which can be seen here, by the way, but beware, you might get hooked)—there’s little of the charming idiosyncrasy, though there are a few brief formal experiments, including a sped-up scene of traffic and “an usual occurrence” (as we are told) of pedestrians in reverse, so it’s not totally flat. From an historical angle, probably the main point of interest is demographic—though African American migration had already begun, if slowly, Sightseeing offers an all-white Newark as far as I can tell (some shots are rather blurry), which is a little jarring, since it’s been a black-majority city for the past half-century. This is the city of Philip Roth’s parents, not of Amiri Baraka (who would be born about eight years later).
Anyway, I aspired not to go over 1000 words, and they’re quickly adding up. Sightseeing in Newark isn’t really as interesting as many genuinely amateur films, but as always, any cinematic depiction of Newark remains of interest simply because of their relative paucity.