[For the catalogue of Toronto's small gauge film festival, Splice This!, 1999.]
Super-8 is no good for science. And not just chemistry and physics, even the marshmallowy soft sciences — the behaviour modification experiments of psychology, the endless ethnographic documentations of primitive ritual (rat mazes, pig slaughterings) — found no use for the lowly smaller gauges and stuck to 16mm or (eventually) video.
And not only science. I could continue the list and it would go on and on until it became clear that super-8 is only good for one thing: home movies. And not all of home movies either — just a few decades' worth — the boomer years — fifties, sixties, a bit of the seventies. (You are probably too young to have been a part of all that. Don't worry, though — I can fill you in on what went on.)
Home movies on 16mm are remote and vaguely nostalgic, although incapable of evoking any genuine longing. They belong to history, which they — in an inadequate manner — illustrate. They are not really real, really genuine, but merely illustrative. Even as illustrations it always seems the camera was placed awkwardly — off to the left — and the filming was ended too early. So, 16mm home movies can only be of limited interest to us because they are situated peripherally to the world.
Home movies on video are endless and noisy. They won't bore us to death, but only because boredom is rarely lethal, and a lethal dose of annoyance kicks in first. Who knew wedding celebrations and birthday parties went on for so long? They are interminable. And there is no way to edit the material down, for each moment is exactly as insipid as every other moment. (The only solution is to slow things down — make an afternoon last a week — but Bill Viola's already done that, and even Ydessa didn't buy that one.) An endless flow of banality that can only lead to despair. Isn't it bad enough that we have to live life once? (And who is capable of such camerawork? Must the camcorder always be passed between the most spastic uncle and the clumsiest cousin?)
And of course related — though of no interest to us here — is the family snapshot, which suffers from being always available. You can carry them around in your wallet, like some kind of currency. If enough time passes, they even begin to look like art — a massive appreciation in value. They take on the smell of dead things in which the rotting doesn't constitute a disintegration or dissolution, but merely the addition of extra layers of meaning: aura. And I can't quite trust anything that can be viewed so nakedly, without an intervening apparatus such as a projector or television monitor.
So not only is the essence of super-8 the home movie: real home movies — at least at this point in history — are (were) only possible on super-8. It is only appropriate that super-8 as a technical apparatus is dead, for so too is the possibility of home and nuclear family, despite the valiant rescue efforts of a small army of lesbian couples with free-floating, detached semen which they carry around in little rabbit fur amulets or (for the vegans) a little red plastic change purse which has no clasp or zipper, but opens with a little pucker.
But does the combined triumph of bio-technology and emergence of a new tribalism necessarily put an end to the home movie? Yes.
Where does that leave Splice This? I have no idea — during the festival I'll be out of town, in England — nation of all the saddest princesses.
I imagine the work featured will continue to excavate the corpse of the home movie. Luckily, home movies are an endlessly rich territory for, whatever their manifest content, their latent content always contains the moment and site of a trauma which constitutes a wound. Even if the children in these films — the generic, interchangeable children — are smiling and laughing, we can tell that a cold, cold wind is about to descend and — perhaps between the frames, the lousy 18 frames per second which can barely maintain the illusion of movement — the children are shivering, their teeth chattering from this malevolent breeze, which originates of course from the father and from some abstract sense of history, but with the tacit approval of the mother, who has given up, lost all hope, gone barren.
A few weeks ago on the usually poor television program Mad TV they featured a speculative reconstruction of the ground zero of super-8 films. And although the skit wasn't funny or audacious — it's apparent primary goals — it was — as if by accident — profound. It began with the historically accurate announcement that the American government had purchased the Zapruder film for several millions, and not just the portion of these home movies which document the Kennedy assassination, but also the more obscure scenes of the Zapruder family at home. And then it showed a few of these lesser known scenes, all of which depicted family rituals culminating in acts of violence which visually mimicked the Kennedy assassination. A birthday cake explodes (in a manner visually analogous to the way Kennedy's head exploded) and Mrs. Zapruder scrambles after one of the larger chunks and attempts to put it back, etc.
The internal logic of this skit is impeccable. It is not really a spoof of the original Zapruder film at all, but instead a demonstration of the manifest essence of all of super-8.