Abby knew, of course, that “technically” there was such a thing as European home movies. That Europe “technically” had the same access to personal film equipment as the United States. And yet, one evening at a party in the eleventh arrondissement when, somehow, through a series of drunken stream-of-consciousness meanderings, she mentioned a particularly haunting scene from a home movie she had watched recently while visiting her parents back in Minnesota, a fellow reveler cut her short by balking, “Home movies. That’s so American.” The word “American” was said in such a way as to make it sound like a slur. And that was the intention. The only thing he left out was “bourgeois” to really dig the knife in and make her feel pathetic for talking about things that, to her, seemed garden-variety. But to Sergei, evidently, they were yet another indication of how Americans lived in a self-involved bubble.
Sergei, Abby later learned (when she was the last person at the party and the host, Camille, was comforting her through her tears), was born in Moscow and lived there until he was three before his parents moved him and his brother to Kozloduy in Bulgaria. Surely, that could have accounted for the majority of his venom. Although his father had a steady job in a nuclear power plant (Abby would have made a Homer Simpson joke, but Sergei probably would have stared daggers in reply), they were often strapped for cash, and such frivolities as a video camera were not even a remote consideration. In fact, most Eastern (and Western alike) Europeans experiencing childhood when Abby was probably didn’t have a video document of it. And something like that had never really occurred to her. For some reason, she had assumed that the entire world was prone to making shoddy, droning movies centered on banal events wherein their families were the “stars.” As far as Abby could tell, home moviemaking had been going on since the 1950s, or at least that’s what an I Love Lucy episode called, what else, “Home Movies” had led her to believe.
The truth was, the equipment for “amateur filmmaking,” as it was once elegantly deemed, existed decades before then. For it was the 16mm Ciné-Kodak camera that first became available to the public in 1923. As for Ricky Ricardo (Desi Arnaz), his own home movie equipment would be fresh out of (March 1,) 1954, the air date of the episode in question, hence his enthusiasm for showing the Mertzes the same footage over and over again, this time on a new screen he’s bought to improve the quality of the projection. Ethel (Vivian Vance) tries to explain away Ricky’s annoying behavior to Fred (William Frawley) with, “It’s his first movie camera and his first picture he’s got of the baby.” Fred retorts, “Count me out. If I want to see old movies, I can stay home and watch television.”
For many subjected to the movies of others, that’s their thinking exactly. And yet, something about home movies can reveal a universality to existence. Or, at least, a certain kind of existence. Namely, those of the middle-class suburban family. To which Abby, increasingly, realized she belonged. And that she had led a life of what others would view as privilege, but that she had seen as lacking in many regards. The depiction of this particular breed of American family extended to that I Love Lucy episode. Although the Ricardos were supposed to live in New York, it was no secret the show was shot on a lot in Hollywood, which often shines through in the limited sets and lack of much in the way of “NYC grit.” Which is why scenes of Lucy (Lucille Ball) performing tedious domestic acts like dressing Little Ricky (Michael Mayer) or pushing him in his chair swing resonated among the audience that was watching at the time. Those not located in a city. Those who, instead, could relate to such images, albeit with a greater sense of outdoor space in mind. For there was nothing like the backyard milieu for a home movie in the era of nuclear family dominance in the 50s and 60s. Something that continued into the late twentieth century as well, when birthday parties and pools seemed to become a more central focus of the “at-home feature.”
When Abby had been visiting her parents for Christmas, these two things were at the front and center of so many videos they re-watched together. And it was the scene she tried to express being haunted by to Sergei that heavily featured their pool…at her tenth birthday party. Footage captured of her gross Uncle Frank pulling at her bathing suit and openly fondling her just before her friends arrived. While her parents set up the decorations right as it was happening, seemingly uncompelled to tell Frank to stop or get the fuck away from his underage relative. Abby had very deliberately blocked this memory that the camera, left out on the table with the record button on, had immortalized forever. When she watched it again with her parents, who had also conveniently blocked the memory, the result was even worse because they still feigned that nothing “untoward” had happened. They sort of glossed over it, so committed to remaining inculpable for just standing by and letting it go on that they watched the film fully without skipping over the horrid part, as though to prove some point about nothing being “off.” It sickened Abby to her stomach and, in truth, made her wish that her parents had never bothered with the creation of home movies at all. At least that way, she could have kept employing the age-old self-preservation tactic of repressed memory.
Sergei’s vitriol for her mention of home movies was as much a condemnation of white American middle-class self-importance as it was jealousy. Maybe Sergei wished he had some of his memories with his family on video. But maybe, if he did, like Abby, he would wish that the footage had never been filmed. Without a filmic monument to the past, it allows one to romanticize it more easily. To give “passes” to the family members who so clearly wronged us. Not just parents, but so many other blood relatives who tend to orbit the home movie scene. Explaining all of this to a more than slightly drunk, yet still sympathetic Camille after everyone had departed, Abby’s party host made the kind offer of one day showing Abby some of her home movies to make her feel better. Camille drank from the dregs of a champagne bottle as she insisted, “They’re atrocious. The things my father filmed, I’ll never understand why. It’s guaranteed to give you some perspective.”
Abby wiped a tear away and said, “Okay, but…is anyone being molested on camera in front of their parents in your home movies?”
Camille shrugged and sighed. “You see, this is why Europeans know better than to document everything. It’s not just self-involved, it’s bound to make someone look bad.” Taking a drag from her freshly-lit cigarette, she added, “The only American home movie I could ever have respect for is the Zapruder film. The man invented citizen journalism. All the rest of it is just self-aggrandizing pomp and circumstance.”
Abby did her best not to burst into further tears over Camille expressing what she really felt, and that it was totally in line with Sergei’s ire for the concept of Americans and their “little home movies.” Instead, she simply took her phone out of her pocket, pulled up Camille’s Instagram account and clicked on her story to show it to her. Clip after clip of inane, mundane party images from the past several hours.
Camille glared at her. “What is your point?”
“You just made your own self-aggrandizing, pomp and circumstance home movie. Just because it wasn’t filmed on a camcorder or shown on a TV screen doesn’t make it any less that. We all make home movies, you hypocritical tit.”
Camille blew smoke in Abby’s face and said stoically, “I would like you to leave now. I think I’ve indulged you enough.”
Abby scoffed and collected her things. “Happy to.”
As she walked out the door, Camille was sure to shout, “Maybe I’ll catch your molester movie on America’s Funniest Home Videos sometime. We have something like that here, too. It’s called Video Gag.”