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Home Movies on the Big Screen

Home Movies on the Big Screen

Home movies have a very distinct style; think of the shaky camera, off-kilter framing, and in-camera edits. None of these things would be considered ‘good’ film making techniques but amateur videos still have a profound effect on us as an audience. So much so that some filmmakers use this to their advantage, recreating home-videos in their films.

When it comes to amateur video, a personal favourite of mine is a selection of videos of John Daniel, an ape raised as a boy in Gloucestershire, available on the BFI website.

This footage has something very innocent about it. The images of a monkey drinking cider in a quaint English village would be totally unbelievable were it not for the shaking camera and the filmmaker’s untrained eye. Watch this footage and imagine the same scene filmed like a big-budget production, the high-quality video would take away the charm of the subject and make it impossible to believe that what we’re seeing happened in real life.

The Charm of Home Movies

When thinking about the use of home-movie style video in big productions it’s hard not to immediately look to the super 8 footage in Paris, Texas (Wenders, 1984). In these videos we see Travis and his family happy together, and the clumsy camera movements only add to the feeling of intimacy conveyed. Rather than a clinical capture of the moment, it feels like we’re watching a scene from the family archives.

It’s strange though, because even as we watch, at the back of our minds we must know this scene is just as constructed as the rest. The use of this style of filmmaking is an encouragement from the filmmaker to suspend our disbelief and enter into the private lives of their characters, believing the presentation of truth fully.

The same goes for another whole genre of film that exploits the home movie: found-footage horror. Films like The Blair Witch Project (Myrick, Sánchez, 1999) feel more real to us because they aren’t seamless movies that follow all the rules. Instead, they feel like first-hand accounts of a paranormal experience.

My interest in amateur videos – and one of the reasons I think they’re recreated again and again in big budget productions – lies in the possibilities created when we get to see what people film when no one has told them what to film. 

In many ways I think this is similar to the principle of Outsider Art. Outsider Art is art by people outside of society, the homeless, the bed-ridden, or institutionalised. The term can also be used to refer to art by anyone who hasn’t had any formal training in art. Some famous faces of this genre include Sister Moses, DuBuffet and even artists as influential as Picasso and Frida Kahlo.

“It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”

Pablo Picasso

Picasso said that by 18 he could paint anything to look exactly like it should and then spent the rest of his career trying to unlearn all of this training. His goal was to paint with the innocence of a child. This is the same kind of innocence I notice when describing the footage of John Daniels. I believe that this quality is what holds the appeal for this style of filmmaking; it hits us closer to home because it’s driven by genuine passion for the subject or the act of filming rather than by the desire to make a ‘good’ movie.

Unveiling a New Art Form?

There has been a trend in British rural films of the past few years which has peaked interest in terms of the effectiveness of home-movie style techniques. In films like For Those in Peril (Wright, 2013) and Bait (Jenkins, 2019), the camera twitches, the frames jump, and images are shown in a seemingly random order.

These movies are well constructed narrative features with the appearance throughout (rather than just in a few scenes) of a home-movie. The results feel very intimate and leave a profound personal impression upon the audience.

For instance, there’s a scene in For Those in Peril where the protagonist is alone on the beach feeling distraught. The camera stops and starts, with the character awkwardly jumping form one position to the next as if the edit were done on the camera itself. This sequence not only gives the impression of time passing, but in its uneven way tells us a lot about the state of mind of the character.

I think that, like Picasso, these filmmakers are trying to unlearn and deconstruct the rules in an effort to reinvent the current definition of filmmaking. With accessibility to camera forever growing, anyone can make a movie in their own home. But in reaction to this we’ve tried to place film on an even higher pedestal.

Even on arguably accessible platforms like YouTube, we expect clean, perfectly constructed, Hollywood-level films every time. Because of this, real low-budget cinema is being pushed further and further into the shadows.

In an interview, Francis Ford Coppola said “Some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart…and make a beautiful film with her father’s camcorder, and for once the so- called professionalism about movies will be destroyed, forever, and it will really become an art form.”

But it’s going to take more than just making trashy movies to destroy professionalism, we’re actually going to have to watch some trashy movies too.


Written by Ed Murden.

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