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5 Midway between Secular and Sacred: Consecrating the Home Movie as a Cultural Heritage Object Karen F. Gracy Once thought of primarily as a tool to record family life, the home movie has become rehabilitated from its prosaic origins. Only a few decades ago, these films were marginalized as pedestrian documents, devoid of value outside of the personal and familial spheres in which they were created. Archivists, cultural historians, curators, and artists now argue that they be recognized as important historical records, sociocultural documents, and works of art. For these home movie enthusiasts, such films are particularly prized for their functions as reflective documents of personal, familial, and cultural identity. Home movies serve as contextual markers for community structures and values, often serving as the material record of how filmmakers defined and interacted with their world. Despite newfound recognition and an accompanying resurgence of interest, home movies still occupy a peculiar position in the cultural heritage hierarchy— found midway between the categories of disregarded personal memento and celebrated cultural artifact. Unlike folk art or snapshots, which have been embraced by curators and the cultural elite and thereby have entered the museum sphere reborn as vernacular art, home movies have thus far trod a very different path to cultural relevance. Assessing the Home Movie Form Home movies provide critical clues to understanding how people represented themselves and their worlds in the twentieth century. Current scholarly approaches to home movies tend to privilege the personal, familial, or documentary aspects over other potential values. Given this preference for assessing home movies within a historical context, they are primarily valued as evidence of events in the lives of their creators or subjects. Other potential values can lie buried below the surface, however, concealed from most viewers or scholars by the familial or documentary contexts in which home movies are deeply embedded. 106 | Karen F. Gracy How does one fully assess the importance of these films, bringing forth and exploring their inherent multiplicity of values? While knowledge of the life of a film’s creator and the context of its creation and use provides one important approach for reading a home movie, this attention to historical value can also be a hindrance to using new critical frameworks and, because it easily produces a dominant narrative, may mask other potential readings. In order to move beyond the automatic foregrounding of historical value, scholars and archivists must first question the degree to which home movies may be used as authentic, reliable representations of people, places, and events. Ultimately , one must assess the truth-value of such films. Are they purely evidential in nature, creating genuine records of a place, time, and community long past? French film scholar Roger Odin has noted the problematic nature of using home movies and other amateur footage as truth statements: “Reading a home movie does not summon the documentarist mode of reading but the private one. . . . Home movie images function less as representations than as index inviting the family to return to a past already lived. The home movie does not communicate. Instead it invites us to use a double process of remembering.”1 Using home movies as historical evidence, therefore, risks naïveté and a lack of critical distance. Approaches from other disciplines such as art history, cultural studies, and sociology may sometimes prove to be more fruitful avenues for exploring the value of thesefilms,andcouldprovidearicher,morecompleteunderstandingofhomemovies than historical methods alone. This essay illustrates the potential of such approaches by applying relevant sociocultural theory to specific home movie case studies. First, the sociocultural value of home movies will be examined using Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of the “field of cultural production,” as well as recent theories on the social utility of vernacular photographs. Second, a critical examination of two film collections—the Archie Stewart Collection and the Sterling Collection, found in the moving image archives of Northeast Historic Film—will reveal the social utility and aesthetic values of home movies. Each of these approaches demonstrates new ways of reading and appreciating these films beyond standard interpretations of their value as domestic narratives or historical documents. Comparing the merits of exploring the evidentiary nature of home movies with the potential rewards of seeing them as tabulae rasae for new meanings and aesthetic interpretations opens up promising avenues for critical analysis. In conclusion, the essay offers suggestions for how cultural heritage communities may continue to reassess and reevaluate home movies as objects worthy of collection and interpretation. A critical approach to the analysis...


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