Category Archives: Heirlooms

Eisensteins in the Attic: Rediscovering Your Own Film Treasures (Guest Blogger)

Clack…..clack…..clack…clack..clack clack/clack/clack….

We all know the sound of an old 8mm or 16mm projector throwing Kodachrome home movies up on a wall. For all too brief a moment we look into a coruscating window on a lost or fast disappearing past. Images roll in: jump cuts, lens flares, shaky camera work. We squint maybe, trying to improve the focus. Real, but also somehow surreal, those old film images; transporting and magical.

That time machine costs how much?

I think of old home movies as a kind of time machine – but a time machine that really exists. What would we pay for just such a machine if we didn’t have one?

What wouldn’t we spend to peer through a time tunnel at our old grandpa digging in his “victory garden”, or to see mother on her wedding day? Old home movies are exactly that time machine, and yet we don’t always know – or value – what we have.

Dan Streible knows a thing or two about old movies. He is a professor of film at New York University and the founder of the Orphan Film Symposium – the biennial gathering of scholars, archivists, curators, and media artists devoted to saving, screening, and studying neglected moving images.

Dan says people underestimate the value and power of home movies – “these millions of feet of rediscovered family films, the millions of feet of film shot by mothers and fathers, aunts, uncles and friends throughout the 20th century (that) now make up the best record we have of daily life as it was lived during the past two or three generations.”

Of course, he is talking about other people’s home movies. And if you are lucky enough to have some of your own? Well, chances are they would be like Eisensteins in the Attic – dusty masterpieces of their kind left unwatched and slowly disintegrating*.

Priceless images in dusty boxes

Priceless images are stowed away in shoe boxes all across America, locked up in now unplayable film formats like Super 8, 16mm and 8mm; or in early cassette formats like Video8, Hi8 and Digital 8.

And if you did take the trouble 10 years back to convert to VHS, S-VHS or VHS-C? Then you did a great thing. But VHS is now obsolete; and sadly, the quality of VHS was poor from the start. You’ll get a much better result today retransferring from the original films or video cassettes.

The good news of course is that every old film and video cassette format can now be converted to digital video. Most people get their old home movies transferred to DVD. But here’s a tip: When you go to the expense of transferring, why not create an uncompressed video master file and get that put on a hard drive. (Uncompressed video is the best quality you can achieve.) Then, use those home movie master files to create your DVD, your YouTube or iPhone video (or whatever else becomes the device de jour).

Turn home movies into a personal documentary

And best of all, you can use that home movie master file to help create your own personal or family history documentary – your “Reel Tribute”. The only thing then remaining is to dim the lights, toss in the DVD, and become transported into “a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas”. You may miss the old “clack clack clack” of the projector, but the experience will be every bit as magical.

*Sergei Eisenstein: Pioneering Soviet Russian film director and film theorist famous for his silent film Battleship Potemkin (1925). The sole copy of his unfinished Bezhin Meadow was destroyed in a WWII bombing raid (“Shoulda had it transferred...”).

Thank you to video biographer and Association of Personal Historians board member Jane Shafron for this article. In recognition of the importance of preserving our home movies, Jane has recently added video transfer services in Orange County CA to her suite of family history services. Jane was recently named one of the Top 10 Personal History Bloggers of 2011 by Dan Curtis.

What does Samuel Pepys’ diary mean to you?

Samuel Pepys (pronounced ‘Peeps’) was born in London, England on February 23, 1633. Samuel was the fifth in line of eleven children. He earned his bachelor’s degree in 1654 and married his wife, Elizabeth St. Michel in 1655. He later became Secretary to the Naval Board, a member of Parliament, and as was written of him, ‘master of an elegant household, owner of a coach and pair of black horses; a man rich enough to retire and live with comfort, if not in abundance.’

However, what probably has brought Samuel Pepys the most fame and renown is his personal diary. His diary shows his gusto for life. His interest in recounting his daily activities and very private observations comes through in this diarty.  He speaks of his work in Parliament, of counting his many pieces of gold, of lusting after certain women (particularly those of “low virtue”),  and not surprisingly, of squabbling with his jealous wife.

Pepys began his diary at the age of 26 in 1659, and concluded it on May 31, 1669 when he feared eyestrain might lead to blindness. Pepys’ daily diary entries have intrigued and educated people over the centuries. They have also provided insight on 17th Century English life, from the royalty to the mundane.

In 1665, Pepys records burying in his garden a piece of Parmesan cheese and a bottle of fine wine, in the hopes that they would both survive the Great Fire of London.  One wonders what happened to them, and if he considered burying his precious diary as well.

Pepys also writes of experiencing tremendous pain due to a kidney stone. Despite being left sterile by the surgery, he survived.  Pepys proudly kept his recovered kidney stone in a felt lined box, and was happy to show it to anyone who wanted to see it. He also covers more “highbrow” topics including the entertaining lives and public deaths of Charles I and Oliver Cromwell.

To bring this to a close, please give a little thought to this idea: think if you were related to Samuel Pepys.  Imagine all of the insight you would have into your ancestor’s life, his character, and his curious personality.

Okay, so maybe you aren’t related to Samuel Pepys. However, it’s not too late to preserve your own remarkable story so that your descendents will know about you. What have you buried in your backyard, or your heart, that may intrigue descendents hundreds of years from now? What observations do you have on the current political or social environment?  Nothing is too mundane. Just start writing; your children’s children will be happy you did.

A letter to myself on my (future) 80th birthday

Dear Me,

You have now lived a full eight decades of life.  Congratulations!   As you look back I hope that you will be able to say that it has been a good ride over these last eighty years.  I also hope that your body has continued to serve you well.  I sure hope that you have all your teeth, not too many wrinkles (except for those smile lines!) and that you still like to wear a nice fitting pair of black jeans.You will be the talk of the family if you do!

On your birthday, I’m sure you’re celebrating by remembering your long and amazing life. With the family by your side, you’ll watch the home videos we made, flip through the scrapbooks and photo albums, and talk about your favorite heirlooms from your grandparents that you still have on the mantle. You’re lucky, not only to be in good health but also to have recorded so much of your life history for the rest of the family to enjoy.

But please don’t forget – even though you are now an old lady (in body, but young in spirit), you can still continue with this legacy work.  Don’t forget to talk about your experiences, hopes, dreams, and what life has taught you along the way. Your children and grandchildren need to hear you tell your stories. They might be curious how you cherished the hippy era, living in San Francisco and that funny smelling stuff you smoked back then.  On second thought, maybe you might not want to tell them about that.

But do tell them about growing up. They will want to hear about how you felt when you became a mom for the first time.  They will be curious to know what got you through the tough times in life – through multiple miscarriages, the suicide of a close family member, and the disappointments  of rejection and failure. But most importantly, tell them how you bounced back and always kept your head up high. Life is all about learning from our hardships, and you’ve certainly done that.

Oh, before I forget, have a HAPPY BIRTHDAY and as you blow out the candles on your cake, please make a wish that you will live at least another 20 years. You still have a lot to accomplish and the energy to do it!

Photo credit: Birthday cakes blog

The perfect day to write a real letter

This Wednesday, December 7th, 2011, is a special day for me. It’s not a birthday or an anniversary. It’s a holiday that many people don’t know about: National Letter Writing Day.

When was the last time you sat down to write a letter to someone? No, not an email. A real letter. With a pen and paper.

I’m a big fan of letter writing and thankfully so was my maternal grandmother. In fact, between 1971 and the year 2000, we wrote 491 letters to each other.  I have every letter that my grandmother wrote to me. In 2002, my grandmother returned all of the letters that I had written to her.

Some letters were typed but many were handwritten.  They were written on onion skin paper of various sizes, on prepaid U.S. Postal Service areograms (now non-existent), and some on hotel stationery.

Last month, I opened the box that contained all the letters, and started reading. What a powerful experience.  The letters reminded me of many events in my life that had been long forgotten.  Special friendships, travel experiences, joys and heartaches — they were all there.  Through the thoughts and words written in those letters, I could actually see myself maturing as a young adult, married woman, and mother of two.  I’ve even shown some to my daughter, who’s learned things about her mother she never knew before reading the letters. These letters have become a priceless possession for our family.

In this age of instant communication– whether it be texting or emailing– I’d like to recommend the value of putting pen to paper and writing to loved ones and friends. Dedicate a quiet, reflective moment and write about your life experiences and the lessons you have learned.  You never know your written words may one day be deemed a precious gift for the recipient, and for future generations of eager readers.

The Thanksgiving Feast: Food, family, and the future

Thanksgiving brings back plenty of fond memories: visiting with family, watching the Macy’s Day Parade on Thanksgiving morning, and playing football in the afternoon. And of course, everyone’s favorite:  eating the meal of all meals.  We all have our favorites – whether it is a honey roasted spiral cut ham or a Butterball Turkey.  Undoubtedly there will be a myriad of other dishes on the table as well.

Some of my favorites are my mother’s creamed pearl onions. Heavenly! It just wouldn’t be Thanksgiving unless those creamed onions were there at our feast. My two daughters wouldn’t be happy unless I have made my sweet potato casserole and huge tray of stuffed deviled eggs. My husband has a favorite, too. There must be a platter of asparagus with Hollandaise sauce on his side of the Thanksgiving table.

Did your mother or grandmother have special recipes that were unique to them? Here’s a sweet-tasting thought: Thanksgiving is a great time to put together a cookbook of family heirloom recipes so that these special delights will never be missing from your family’s Thanksgiving table.

Here’s mine, Lin’s Sweet Potato Casserole:
Cut six medium sweet potatoes, cooked and peeled, in ½-inch slices. Layer potatoes in buttered  1 ½ quart casserole with ¾ cup brown sugar, 1 teaspoon salt, and ¼ cup butter, ending with sugar and butter.  Bake uncovered at 375 degrees about 30 minutes or till glazed.  Add ½ cup miniature marshmallows last five minutes; brown lightly.  Serves 6.

If you make it, let us know how it turns out.  Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at Reel Tributes!