In this century, most photography is just ones and zeroes floating around between phones and computers. If you're willing to spend the money, though, it's still possible to practice the original alchemy: the wonder of mixing light with chemicals behind a little trap door to produce a physical artifact. Not just with old-school camera film, but movie film, too. A lot of people are surprised to learn that you can still buy and process Super 8 film, but it's true.
Human subjects subjected to the photographic process react to the same light and chemistry in markedly different ways. If degrees of photogenic could be represented as a periodic table, on one side you would have the oxygens and hydrogens of the world who combine thoroughly, promiscuously, with light and chemistry and the very atmosphere to produce images in which they always look at home, always just like themselves. At the opposite edge of the table would be the noble gases: those human heliums and neons who do not readily combine with other elements and never seem to look like themselves in pictures.
I can't prove it, but I'm convinced this is the case: Some people simply cannot be captured in single images. As in life, they need a context of movement to be recognizable. My wife is one of the noble-gas types. She never looks like herself in regular photos — but isolate any two sequential frames of Super 8 home movie film and the slight stereoscopic effect instantly reveals her full loveliness and no small part of her personality. If a picture is worth a thousand words, put two together in sequence and they increase in value by several orders of magnitude.
It's not just people, either. The very earliest photographs of Missoula are instantly recognizable, in 2017, as Missoula. The river, the flat valley floor, the barely-changing background of hills and mountains — the viewer instantly has his or her bearings. In the end, though, the engrossing photographs do not budge; it is only the imagination that moves the antique cars and smartly-dressed people forward or backward.
But here's the same thing again: two shots in sequence from an antique home movie bring the same scene quite extraordinarily to life. The rattletrap cars belch smoke, skirts bustle on the sidewalk, the image flickers, and a light drizzle of scratches and dust flecks gives the scene a lively artificial weather. It's only an illusion — persistence of vision and all that — but it's a beguiling one. With just two frames of an old Missoula movie in front of you, it's like having access to the (old) "Blade Runner" camera that allows you to move around behind walls and corners in the picture.
For the past two years this is exactly what I have been doing: searching every nook and cranny of the city to find these rare Missoula moving images —taken over almost a century by keen amateur cinematographers — and then trying to move around inside them. I am making a documentary, called "A Place (Sort Of)", that will be composed mainly from a century of home movies, along with ancient promotional films, newsreel footage, and other bits of serendipitous film evidence. The oldest footage I've found so far dates from 1924 or so.
I say serendipitous because people making home movies tend to focus on what's in the foreground: kids, pets, barbecue guests and other living subjects. In the background of these scratchy scenes, though, are buildings that no longer exist, skylines that no longer exist, open spaces that no longer exist, long-gone schools and playgrounds and corner stores — which makes these amateur film outings valuable historical documents as well as deeply affecting probes into our oldest Missoula memories, and indeed our earliest sense(s) of place(s) in the world.
As in "Blade Runner," these antique moving images can sometimes solve mysteries, if not actual crimes, when presented in sequence. It takes the motion of two frames rubbing together, as it were, to register the title of the magazine students are reading around the Oval in footage from a 1938 Aber Day. It's called Campus Rakings, which wouldn't be a terribly exciting catch, except the only other thing on the cover is a giant swastika. Which somehow seems significant.
Old films can leads to a new mysteries: There's someone running around the same Aber Day in a homemade Klan uniform. Also hamburgers and baked beans! To say that this documentary evidence sends a fairly complicated signal from Missoula's past would be a bit of an understatement — but here, now let me show you this minstrel show in full blackface from a 1920s employee picnic, or this family shooting rifles at bald eagles.
There's no doubt that these films have value, not least because each is literally one of a kind — in most cases the only copy. Some rest safely (but not yet digitized) in public archives, but many more are out there in shoeboxes and steamer trunks; I've heard it all about how old home movies are lost to fire, flood, estrangement and death. I feel like this is happening all the time, which lends my crusade to find these film documents while there is still time a certain evangelical fervor. An archivist collaborator and I recently exchanged gallows-humor grins when a postal employee asked us to state the “replacement value” of a dozen reels of 90-year-old film we were shipping to a lab in Seattle. One might as well assess the “replacement value” of a lifetime's memories, of which these family films represent but a tiny glimpse.
The column you have been reading is the first installment of an ongoing series that will documents my efforts to finish the documentary I set out to make two years ago. If the topic of piecing together a history of Missoula from 8mm and 16mm home movies interests you, please keep reading — and please get involved. There will be surprise interviews, contests, prizes, even special bounties on certain kinds of anecdote and information. There are literally hundreds of things you can do to help make this movie, from stuffing fistfuls of Krugerrand through my mail slot to helping me re-locate interesting things I vaguely recall seeing imprinted in cement. Those toddler-sized patent leather shoe prints from a hundred years ago ... now where was that sidewalk?
Do you have anything imprinted in your sidewalk or driveway? Seen any other interesting messages from the past scratched with a stick into wet cement? Can you help Andy find his way back to the footprints of the ancient toddler? Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Filmmaker Andy Smetanka is a former arts editor of the Missoula Independent. He is currently at work on a feature-length “found footage” documentary called "A Place (Sort Of)".