Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Making movies

It was 1947, the year Air Force test pilot Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in a rocket plane.
My mom and dad, married three years earlier, were living in the newly constructed Stuyvesant Town housing complex on Manhattan's East Side, just blocks from where he had been born. My dad had recently finished his Stateside service in the Army during World War II in military intelligence, covert domestic operations and interrogation of German prisoners of war.
He and my mom were ready to enjoy the fruits of postwar prosperity.

My dad, circa 1942

My eldest sister was a year old, and my dad wanted to create a record of her childhood. So he bought a palm-size Filmo Sportster 8mm movie camera made by Bell & Howell.
That little Filmo went on to chronicle in shaky home movies the childhoods of my brother, born in 1950, my older sister, born in 1952, and me, born in 1962.

It also preserved my mom's parents, now both deceased, on celluloid, and also my dad's mother, whose husband had died before the Filmo could be brought to bear on him. I know my maternal grandfather, who died five years before I was born, only through the fleeting images of him captured by the Filmo and through the stories my mom and siblings tell of him.

My dad's mother died when I was 4. She was senile and playing with a Raggedy Ann doll in her nursing home bed in the only vivid memory I have of her. But in the movies created by the Filmo, she is as vibrant and full of spice as she is in the many stories I have heard about her.

Magazine ads for the Filmo Sportster, circa 1947

The last time the camera was used must have been in 1963 or '64, trying to capture me whirling like a little dervish across the basement floor of our house on Long Island, where my parents moved to enjoy the blessings of suburbia.
I still vaguely recall my dad filming me, camera in one hand and set of small movie floodlights in the other, trying to keep the lights trained on me so that I wouldn't fade into the shadows.
I could move pretty fast in those days.

My dad's Filmo Sportster

On Tuesday, I drove out to Long Island to visit my mom, who still lives in the house in which her children were raised.
I was rooting around in that same basement, trodding on the same linoleum floor over which I scooted as my dad filmed.
In a closet, I found the Filmo, still in its original box with instruction booklet, warranty card, film guide and pack of lens-cleaning tissue. It had somehow survived the rough-and-tumble years during which I used it as a toy, pretending to make movies like my dad.
Its leather case was still supple, its gray pebble-finish metal body still unscratched and nearly brand-new.
And it still worked, its motor emitting a soft whir as the shutter button was pushed.

So many gossamer memories almost transparent with age are trapped inside that old camera.


YourFireAnt said...

What an interesting post. I especially liked what you wrote about the earlier versions of people you knew only later in their lives, how you got to see some of the young vibrant grandmother who was an old woman holding a raggedy ann doll in a nursing home by the time you knew her. Very evocative.


Michael said...

Thanks, FA.

This camera is very valuable to me (priceless, actually) for a number of reasons. It's like a stick that prevents a window on the past from closing completely.

Brotha Buck said...

What a treasure you have in having your dads camera. Very cool.

Michael said...

Yes ...

We had more than our fair share of differences while he was alive, and we were estranged for years, too.

When I was younger, I couldn't see eye to eye with my dad. Now that I'm older, I'm amazed by how dead-on some of his views turned out to be.