When I was a kid my grandfather saved up his S&H Green Stamps to buy a Super 8 camera. With this new toy, and a smelly cigar clamped in the side of his mouth, Grandpa became our family documentarian. Because of his efforts, I have a box of films in my closet that tell the story of our Italian immigrant family. Each of the tiny plastic reels stored in that box provides a brief, tantalizing peek into the past.
The earliest movies in the box are 8 mm, taken in Brooklyn, New York in the 1950’s. There’s my mom and her sister, newly arrived from Italy, walking down the street in their red lipstick and pill box hats. In the mid 50’s, the family moved to Chicago and Grandpa’s camera continued to roll. Thanks to him, me and my cousins can see our childhoods captured in two-to-three minute flickering image segments. In reel after reel, we grow from toddlers to teenagers. Whenever Grandpa turned on the movielight, I was there, jumping up and down in front of the camera, waving my arms.
Grandpa wasn’t willy-nilly about what he shot. Film was expensive. It cost money to have it developed. He only rolled the camera when something was important. Birthdays, Christmases, First Communions, trips to Brookfield Zoo, fishing on Lake Michigan. He’d roll just long enough to capture a few moments of us decorating the tree or blowing out the candles or eating. Lots of eating. And there was no instant gratification. You had to wait a week until Grandpa picked up the film from the drug store before you could see what you looked like and remember how it was.
A few times a year, when the family was together, my dad would get out the projector and unfold the movie screen. We’d wait impatiently while he spooled the celluloid film through the spindles. Then we’d sit together in the dark, with the click of the projector providing the soundtrack, and relive these precious memories over and over. The jerky images would remind us of things we used to do and of the people we used to be. The films were always too short and they always left us wanting more.
By the time I had my own family, video tape had come along. We bought a camera so we could take pictures of our babies. But video isn’t the same. Video is cheap. You turn the camera on and you let it roll. There’s sound so you hear the background noise and people yelling at the camera. You end up with hours and hours of footage. It’s no longer just quick peeks into rare moments from the past, but family life lived in real time. Unless you make the effort to edit it all down and get rid of the boring stuff, it’s impossible to sit through. We don’t have family viewings the way we used to. Video doesn’t have the same impact because there’s too much of it. With digital cameras, it’s even worse. Every device can take pictures. Everyone is a documentarian.
The digital age brings this same cheapness and expendability to the exchange of ideas. YouTube is filled with people creating their own statements, spouting their opinions. Music can be downloaded for free. Anyone can have a blog like this one and say what they want. We have Kindle and Nook and e-books. At 99 cents per book, you can easily buy as many books as you want and carry them everywhere you go.
I appreciate that this accessibility gives individual authors the ability to self publish their work. Writers can control the distribution and keep a greater portion of the profits. Digital publishing opens doors into innovative formats and interactivity. I understand that e-books are our future. But with everyone self-publishing and with so much material out there, the value of individual books and ideas are sure to suffer. I hate to see that happen to the stories I love.
What do you think? Does your family have home video nights? Do you think the digital age will be a boom or bust for the written word?