The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Archiving a Dream
Traditionally, when families gather for end-of-the-year holiday events, reminiscences are shared, new photos and videos get made, and/or old snapshots, home movies, and memories resurface. And while most family narratives are revisited in intimate settings, around kitchen tables or in living rooms, a handful may reach broader audiences, through one set of circumstances or another.
Last month, I came across an obituary for Robbins Barstow, a 91-year-old Connecticut man whose mid-century home movies did just that, and in addition to reaching unprecedented audiences online, helped spark a revival of interest in the home-made documentaries. In the years before his death, Barstow achieved a certain level of celebrity when a number of his entertaining films became available on the Internet Archive, a not-for-profit project out of San Francisco that preserves texts, audio, software, web pages, and over 400,000 movies and videos. In 2008, Barstow’s 1956, 30-minute-long extravaganza, Disneyland Dream—see it below in its entirety—joined the handful of home movies (including Abraham Zapruder’s 8mm film of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963) that have been named to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, along with other classic films that have been selected for preservation because of their cultural or artistic significance.
Disneyland Dream is a sweet and cleverly shot period piece that begins as the Barstow family—which submitted multiple entries to a contest sponsored by the 3M Company, the makers of Scotch Tape—waits to find our if they’ve won an all-expense paid luxury trip to the recently opened and much publicized theme park in Anaheim, California. And when good news arrives Barstow, his wife, and their three kids—all of them charming, natural-born hams from the silent/home movie school of acting—joyfully head out West in a now-historic film that reveals quite a bit about post-World-War II culture as it chronicles one particular American dream come true.
“I first showed the home-edited version of Disneyland Dream,” Barstow said in an interview where he described the film’s genesis, “to a gathering of neighborhood families and friends, projected on a sheet attached to the side of our house in Wethersfield . . . on Labor Day weekend . . . with me providing on-the-spot narration as the film went along. It proved to be an immediate favorite and became very popular. Over the years, I received dozens of requests to show it to community groups, PTA’s, schools, church and other social groups, extending throughout the state, as well as to relatives and at family gatherings. Finally, in 1995, after nearly 40 years, I had the film transferred to VHS video, for wider distribution, and I recorded the narration on tape.”
When asked what made him decide which events he chose to film in the many short films he made, after he got his first film camera at the age of ten in the mid-1930s, Barstow replied: “Impulse, instinct, availability, time, energy, request. I have a strong sense of wanting some special events to be preserved for future recollection. I want to give certain presentations an afterlife, not just have them blossom once and be gone forever.”
Reviewing Barstow’s work and legacy from our 21st century vantage point, one could make a convincing case that short films like his were precursors to the extraordinary twelve-part PBS series, An American Family, that aired on PBS in 1973 and harbingers of today’s bizarro world of reality television, where very different perspectives on family life are revealed in shows like Jon and Kate Plus Eight, Meet the Kardashians, and Teen Mom. Keep all that in mind if you’re considering shooting some moving images of the family between now and New Year’s Eve. Who are you making those images for? What will those camcorder, smart-phone, or flip camera images look like and what sorts of comments might they generate—assuming they’re preserved and still accessible—ten, twenty, or fifty years from now?