November 1999
s m u g
smoking jacket
by Gregory Alkaitis-Carafelli

Get Real.

Begun in 1990, the ABC television show "America's Funniest Home Videos" was the first network series to exploit the lucrative lowbrow market for amateur home movies. Since the early 1980ís when the portable video recorder -- "no, wait," she said, as I was reading that back to her, "not even low brow, below brow. There's something to be said for America's appetite for ball shots and babies throwing up."

Stating the obvious, yes, but we had just sated an above brow version of that same appetite, watching two hours of people getting married, a corpse being exhumed, jerkey travel footage, a family picnic, drugged pets, babies keeping it real, and lots of trees -- just trees -- at Other People's Home Movies, a project of Philadelphia's Secret Cinema which successfully subverted the lecherous voyeurism that birthed America's Funniest to make engaging entertainment. The Secret Cinema screening featured original 16 mm home movie footage taken between 1925 and 1969, projected unedited, with a soundtrack specifically composed and then performed live by a collection of indie rock musicians. "Film is inherently much hardier stuff than even professional video formats," Secret Cinema curator Jay Schwartz notes, "and millions of feet of home movies await discovery to tell the tails of their previous owners."

But what stories do these anachronistic home movies have that can possibly match the caliber of the disposable seemingly endless video moments culled for commercial broadcast? The competition is fierce. In a typical America's Funniest episode, a wacky malfunctioning dishwasher causes trouble for Dad the Repair Man, there are some golf swings gone horribly wrong, cats do crazy funny things, optionally with or around a small child, and a newlywed couple falls over into their wedding cake. The humor inherent in these situations is given an extra clarifying boost by the addition of unrelated sound effects and studio narration, the broadcast version of what chef Emiril Lagrasse does to food a few channels over on cable when he "kicks it up a few notches." The effect is remarkably similar: what was at first only mildly unpalatable is now totally repulsive, the combined result a program of private embarrassments magnified ten-fold to be screened for an audience whose lives are so vapid that they have to fuel up from a tank of other people's misfortune.

In contrast, the silent 16 mm world of the Secret Cinema program was inviting without being invasive; wry, disturbing, funny, boring -- varied enough to be utterly fascinating, yet -- with the exception of the exhumation -- composed of quotidian events. The five-member musical ensemble provided the screening with an immediacy that will never be wrung from broadcast entertainment, with a striking score both erie and fitting.

People are married, dad swims in the ocean, the New York theatre district slides by, lit up for 1932; picnics and cruises, intrigue and excitement (a disinterment sandwiched between travel footage from Quebec, complete, as the program notes, "with press, police, and a brief underlit look inside the coffin"). Broadcast television simply cannot compete -- nor should it even try.

"I think you should write the beginning over," she said, in between bites on a bagel. Begun in 1990, the ABC television show "America's Funniest Home Videos" was the first network series to exploit the lucrative lowbrow market for amateur home movies. Hopefully if the Secret Cinema screening is any indication, the market is at last correcting itself for the better.

*

gregory@smug.com

*

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