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4 A Strange Familiarity: Alexander Forbes and the Aesthetics of Amateur Film Justin Wolff In 1915, Alexander Forbes, a thirty-three-year-old Harvard physiologist, filmed the annual sheep drive on Naushon Island, a bucolic retreat off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, that his family had owned for over seventy years. Though narrow and just seven miles long, Naushon is the largest of the Elizabeth Islands, an archipelago of sixteen ledges and landmasses in Buzzards Bay. By any measure it is an exceptionally charming and privileged island. Viewed on a dry day from Martha’s Vineyard, which lies four miles to the southeast, Naushon shows “hillsides furrowed with valleys” and a “sun-bleached concave . . . cliffs of pale yellow clay and sand.”1 Unlike its neighbors, which were denuded long ago, the island is also home to virgin beech and oak trees; the old forests stand in rolling pastures where sheep have grazed for centuries. Forbes’s film depicts a Naushon ritual almost as old as the pastures, the annual roundup of sheep for shearing. It shows men on horseback in open fields, dogs chasing sheep, and sheep trotting to and fro. On first impression, it evokes a familiar pastoralism. Wampanoag Indians hunted, fished, and planted on the Elizabeth Islands free from interference until 1602, when the English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold claimed the islands for the British Crown. In 1654 Thomas Mayhew Sr., a Puritan trader and shipbuilder, bought Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, and the right to settle on the Elizabeth Islands. His family sold Naushon in 1682 to Wait Winthrop—grandson of John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts— and then, in 1730, James Bowdoin, a wealthy Boston merchant, purchased the island.2 From the time Bowdoin acquired it to the present day, Naushon has been a “country gentleman’s demesne.” Bowdoin’s male heirs, so “that they might have a park after the manner of the nobility of England,” stocked it with deer, game birds, and prairie fowl.3 They also parceled the land into farms, which they leased to tenants who raised cattle and planted small vegetable gardens. But Naushon’s pastures, being too hilly and rocky to plow, proved best suited to the several 72 | Justin Wolff hundred sheep the Winthrops had introduced, and by 1780 the farmers’ principal business was selling lamb, mutton, and wool to ships anchored in Tarpaulin Cove. The flock was decimated during the War of 1812, but in the decades that followed, during the “merino craze” in New England, the Bowdoins restocked the island, at “huge expense,” with two thousand of the Spanish sheep.4 In 1842 John Murray Forbes and William Swain purchased Naushon from the Bowdoin family. Forbes, who later bought Swain’s share, lived in Milton, Massachusetts; he had made a fortune in the China trade and would amass even greater wealth as a railroad magnate. An avid sailor, Forbes admired the island’s “position between the mild waters of the Bay and the Sound [and] its two sheltered harbors” and judged it a “perfect summer home.” But he also noticed Naushon’s “broad breezy sheep downs” and valued it, as the Bowdoins had before him, as an estate where he and his descendants could perform the custodial duties expected of gentlemen landowners.5 * * * This essay examines the life, career, and filmmaking of John Murray Forbes’s grandson, Alexander Forbes (1882–1965), and its broadest aim is to introduce Fig. 4.1 Sheep drive on Naushon Island, Massachusetts, 1915. From 28mm film. Irving Forbes Collection, Northeast Historic Film. [Accession 1902, Reel 18] A Strange Familiarity | 73 readers to his intrepid mind and entertaining, artful films. The movies, dating from 1915 to 1953, depict his family gardening, dancing, skating, camping, horseback riding, and vacationing on Naushon and their Wyoming ranch. The collection also includes films of Forbes’s sailboat cruises and survey expeditions to the northern tip of Labrador.6 Rather than summarize every reel in the collection, this essay analyzes just a few of Forbes’s films in order to propose and ponder several approaches that contemporary viewers can take to appraise the historical and aesthetic value of his movies. Any viewer, casual or otherwise, can enjoy any of his films on their own merit, for they feature places and doings that are simply beautiful—aerial shots of Devils Tower in Wyoming, for example, or steady footage of a schooner, its rail cutting through Atlantic waves, close-hauled to the wind—and that excite in us Fig. 4.2 Alexander Forbes...


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