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  • Amateur Cinema: The Rise of North American Moviemaking 1923-1960, By Charles Tepperman
  • Whitney Strub
Amateur Cinema: The Rise of North American Moviemaking, 1923-1960, by Charles Tepperman. Berkeley, University of California Press, 2015. xii, 364 pp. $65.00 US (cloth), $34.95 US (paper or e-book).

Between the invention of 16 mm reversal film in 1923 and the 1950s, a diverse, eclectic amateur film culture thrived in North America. Ranging from teenage Tarzan movies to studious travelogues, amateur film developed into what Charles Tepperman calls "a twentieth-century vernacular aesthetic expression that developed at the intersection of popular culture, modernism, [End Page 376] and new technology" (9). In Amateur Cinema, Tepperman uses prodigious research in the archives and print culture of amateur filmmaking to mount a rousing defense of a culture too often derided by scholars for being a simple, artless offshoot of home movies. Instead, he frames amateur films as an embodiment of an American pragmatic spirit.

Tepperman breaks Amateur Cinema into two sections. The first covers the organization of amateur film culture from Hiram Percy Maxim's founding of the Amateur Cinema League (acl) in 1926 through its dissolution in the mid-1950s. In the second half, he looks closely at an abundance of amateur films from that era, attending to their production, formal qualities, distribution, and more. It is an effectively streamlined approach, if occasionally a bit arid in the first half when the reader might desire a bit more fleshing-out of the films in question. According to Tepperman, the 1930s constituted the "the heyday of amateur film culture," as acl clubs grew from thirteen in 1927 to 173 by 1930 (9). Even employees at Paramount and Columbia studios formed groups.

As technology evolved, including 8 mm in 1932 and then Kodachrome color 16 mm a few years later, amateur film provided fertile ground for experimentation unbound by the commercial imperatives of the Hollywood studio system, and such magazines as Movie Maker charted and encouraged this innovation. But ideas of amateur film as facilitating international communication and even peace were challenged by the Great Depression and World War II; as 16 mm film was increasingly enlisted in various aspects of the US war effort, amateur film culture began giving way to semiprofessional documentarians. By the 1950s, not even ambitious amateur experiments with widescreen and 3D could restore the cohesive optimism of earlier years; amateur filmmaking became increasingly perceived as a social rather than artistic activity, and the acl withered.

Tepperman tells a nuanced story, acknowledging that 16 mm's democratization of filmmaking remained limited to the middle class, while the acl rested on a race-neutral position that allowed local segregation to persist. He cites a Movie Maker article on "Plantation Pictures" that made casual racist reference to "pickaninnies" (184). One assumes there was further evidence of unquestioned white supremacist perspectives operative in the culture that deserve a bit more attention, but in any case, Tepperman does not elide the tacit racial politics of amateur film.

When he delves into the films themselves in the book's second half, Tepperman shows a consistently keen eye and well-chosen examples (amateur films have not been well preserved, and a filmography appendix of existing ones in archives and online is a wonderful complement to the book). He recovers and carefully analyzes such works as the teenaged F.R. "Budge" Crawley's At the Sandpits (1933), a stylistically inventive [End Page 377] depiction of a family picnic, and the married Delores and Timothy Lawler's Duck Soup (1952), in which domestic life is shown while "patriarchal order is gently mocked" (176). As Tepperman writes, "Moviemaking was understood as a habitual activity and an art form that was woven into quotidian experience" (174).

We see the intersection of recognized names with amateur film here, from experimental luminaries such as Maya Deren and the team of J.S. Watson and Melville Webber (whose landmarks Fall of the House of Usher {1928} and Lot in Sodom {1932} grew out of amateur film groups), to actor Charlton Heston, whose film debut occurred in a 1941 amateur adaptation of Peer Gynt. Yet Tepperman's focus is rightly on the unsung...


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