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6 “All the Wonderful Possibilities of Motion Pictures”: Hiram Percy Maxim and the Aesthetics of Amateur Filmmaking Charles Tepperman We amateur cinematographers see ourselves as a growing band of artisans who have been furnished with a new and wonderful tool with unplumbed possibilities. And yet, we only dimly sense these, as we grope about in the darkness of these early years, but we are deeply impressed by the potential possibilities of this new thing which can see, record and repeat what no words can, no matter how exquisitely chosen, what no printed page can, no matter how perfectly prepared, what no painting can, no matter how inspired and what no sculpture can, no matter how artistically executed. Can we be blamed for being thrilled over working out the destiny of amateur cinematography! —Hiram Percy Maxim, “The Sixth Year,” Movie Makers, December 1931 During the 1920s and 1930s, movie making proliferated far beyond Hollywood ’s production studios and movie theaters as amateurs took up 16mm and 8mm equipment to make their own movies. In 1926, shortly after the introduction of 16mm film in 1923, a group of ambitious amateurs banded together to form the Amateur Cinema League (ACL). This group was the brainchild of Hiram Percy Maxim, an inventor and avid radio and film amateur. At the heart of this effort was a set of utopian ideals that saw amateur cinema as a new art form and a new mode of communication that could connect people around the world, providing them with opportunities for self-expression not permitted by the commercial film industry. Over the course of the next decade, Hiram Percy Maxim spearheaded the ACL’s investigation of the amateur medium’s possibilities by articulating—in both his writing and film practice—the issues of film technique, form, and presentation that would set amateur film apart from commercial cinema, on the one hand, and mere home movies, on the other. 126 | Charles Tepperman As Maxim’s remarks above attest, this period involved “working out the destiny of amateur cinematography,” and much of this was done in written form.1 The Amateur Cinema League published a monthly magazine, Amateur Movie Makers (simply Movie Makers after 1928), that was rich in instructional content and encouragement. As the founder and first president of the ACL, Maxim was a regular contributor to the publication and played a significant role in shaping its mission. Maxim’s writings (under his own name, and his pseudonym “Dr. Kinema”) treated a range of issues in amateur cinema, from its broad artistic significance, to pragmatic approaches to solving technical issues in filmmaking . While advice for amateurs concerning film style and technique has often been understood as efforts to make their films conform to commercial cinema’s rules and conventions, Maxim’s articles demonstrate that there were other aesthetic options available to amateurs.2 While a primary goal was simply to elevate the technical quality of amateur works above the rough, “snapshot” aesthetic of home movies, Maxim’s advice encourages development of new methods for shaping narrative, nonfiction, and poetic materials. In some ways indebted to commercial film conventions, these approaches were pragmatic in their development and influenced by modernist aesthetics as well. Advanced amateurs were also exploring the “destiny” of amateur cinema through their filmmaking. Maxim often reflected on his own films, and films by other amateurs, as a way of articulating the potential of the amateur field. He advocated for the improved and expanded circulation of amateur movies so that others could learn from exciting new works as well. Starting in 1930, Movie Makers held an annual competition for the “Ten Best” amateur movies of the year to reward such efforts. As the Ten Best competitions grew rapidly in scope and prestige, drawing film submissions from around the world, the ACL established a library of award-winning films that they circulated to amateur movie clubs around North America.3 This library supported a growing culture of noncommercial film exhibition that sought out a space for film consumption between the domestic sphere of home movies and the commercial domain of Hollywood cinema. As president of the ACL, Maxim was excluded from the Movie Makers competitions, but his own films won prizes elsewhere and were circulated as part of the ACL library. Focusing on Hiram Percy Maxim’s own writings and films, this essay traces a leading amateur’s articulation of the terrain of artistic filmmaking . Maxim’s writings and films demonstrate that the pathways for amateur cinema’s aesthetic...


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