More than 600 reels of unmarked home movie footage sit in the Museum of Modern Art’s Manhattan archives. Among them are nearly three hours of film shot by David Jarret, a firefighter who lived in Pittsburgh’s historically African American Hill District in the 1960s.
Though years of mold and neglect have turned them kaleidoscopic, Jarret’s films reveal a mosaic of intimate family moments: children asleep in their party clothes while their parents dance around a tiny, plaid-wallpapered living room; a young woman good-naturedly hiding from the camera’s flash behind a strip of tin foil; men in hats jauntily askew sharing cigarettes on a front stoop. Like most home movies, Jarret’s reels enjoyed a few intimate viewings before they were relegated to the family attic, later passing from yard sale bin to yard sale bin before ultimately finding their way into the MoMA’s collection. “When a family dies off, their films are orphaned,” said Ron Magliozzi, the museum’s film curator and the mastermind behind this fall’s Private Lives, Public Spaces exhibition—the first institutional exploration of the home movie to date.
In a darkened Midtown gallery in simpler times, over 200 reels of home movie footage unearthed from the MoMA’s 90 year-deep archive spun a lush visual panoply of first communions, hunting expeditions, and idle family hours across more than a hundred screens. If you’d asked Magliozzi then why, more than a century after their advent, it was finally time to revisit the home movie, he would have told you that social media has so transformed our approach to sharing memories that we’ve finally attained the cultural distance to truly appreciate them. The days when a small group of family and friends gathered in darkened living rooms to share memories seemed to be long gone.
In the months since New Yorkers were ordered to stay in their homes, Magliozzi’s answer to this question may have changed. Following the closure of New York City’s cultural institutions this March, Magliozzi and his team recently brought a selection of the exhibition’s 200 reels online for virtual viewing from the comfort of the couch (via the museum’s YouTube channel). Far from dulling its impact, recent events have lent the exhibition an unprecedented resonance: the home movies in MoMA’s virtual exhibition have become a welcome respite from a maelstrom of bad news. “Home is the center of our lives again,” Magliozzi recently told me over Zoom from his fern-filled study. “This pandemic has made our families, our neighborhoods, and our personal stories particularly relevant.”
When the Spanish influenza tore through the United States a century ago, a 1918 New York Times article warned that “New York would have to content itself with ‘old’ reels” until health precautions were lifted and Hollywood film production resumed. A hundred years later, here we are again at the bitter ends of our must-watch pandemic movie lists. “People are experiencing the sensation of their own home movies sharing a screen with feature film premieres—this really levels the playing field,” said Magliozzi. “I want people to take this opportunity to watch their family’s movies the way they do Hollywood films. Look for gender attitudes, queerness, all kinds of subtexts—it’s all there.”
While the home movie may be enjoying a spirited renaissance in living rooms everywhere, the aim of Private Lives, Public Spaces, according to Magliozzi, was to convince people that these personal archives are valuable on a larger cultural scale. As the largest uncensored body of 20th century footage, home movies present the prejudices and injustices of the period from the perspectives of those who endured them—“white” and “colored” signs appear behind a family at the train station, men zoom in on the chests of unknown women against their will. “In David Jarret’s films, you see a working-class African American family lifestyle as they would never appear in any Hollywood film of the period,” says Magliozzi, “Jarret documented his affection for his experience, his street and the people who lived on it.”
MoMA was ahead of the curve in championing the amateur artist in Private Lives, Public Spaces, but a slew of cultural institutions are fast on its heels. Museums across the country are calling on Americans to donate the relics and written or recorded testimonies of their pandemic experiences (as they have in crises past); The D.C. Historical Society is combing the streets for homemade masks and the American History Museum is on the hunt for old shopping lists. As we reel from the tectonic shifts of the past few months, it is increasingly clear that the recordings we’ve been making of daily life for over a decade—our celebrations, sporting events, travels—could serve as the only visual artifacts of a declining way of life. Like the earliest home movies filmed in the wake of the 1918 Spanish flu, our recordings reveal the look and feel of a culture in the throes of total social, political and ecological upheaval.
It is for this reason that Magliozzi and his team are as intent on excavating the past through home movies as they are on preserving the future: “There’s a missionary aspect to the exhibition for us,” noted Magliozzi. “Today, people shoot everything, but they’re no better at preserving those memories than their grandparents were.” Though our photos and videos seem to live forever online, historians fear that the quick turnover of social media platforms in the digital age will in fact produce fewer artifacts for future generations to decipher. With each ignored notification to back up our devices, photos and recordings settle deeper among infinite layers of digital detritus. “Will the content that people are making today be available in 50 years if nobody takes steps to preserve it?” Magliozzi said with a shrug of his shoulders.
“Now,” Magliozzi added, leaning toward his computer monitor, “is the time.”