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11 Layers of Vision in Amateur Film Mark Neumann and Janna Jones Since the early decades of the twentieth century, amateur filmmakers have worked in the shadows of a commercial film industry that has both inspired and frustrated them. Fearful of being regarded as clumsy and incompetent in comparison to professional filmmakers, amateurs have looked to cinema clubs, amateur movie making magazines, and guidebooks for advice and techniques. Such efforts have only highlighted the ways that amateur filmmakers have been viewed as second rate. During much of the twentieth century, the distance between amateur films and commercial ones seemed insurmountable. Amateur films are at once wild and uncontained by the conventions of cinema and, at the same time, aspire to mimic those conventions. The term “amateur” surely distinguishes such films from commercial films, but it is not a difference that tends to get us very far in trying to make sense of them. When we keep our focus only on the ways that amateur filmmakers do not measure up to their professional counterparts, their rich cultural, social, and psychological meanings are easily overlooked. In fact, amateur films are a significant cultural resource that document both the constraints and possibilities of social and cultural life, past and present. They also have the potential to reveal the amateur filmmaker’s personal flashes of imagination and creativity. To make sense of some of the tensions between the lived realities that serve as the basis of experience for making films and the cinematic dreams constructed by amateur filmmakers, this essay focuses on scenes from two collections of family films that are part of the Northeast Historic Film archives. These films are historical documents that reveal the impact of various cultural and aesthetic forces, as well as traces of an idealized and imaginary sense of life and experience. The transformations wrought in America by increasing industrialization and urbanization in the late decades of the nineteenth century and early decades of the twentieth century prompted many Americans to seek out the world of nature as an aesthetic and redemptive experience. In No Place of Grace, Jackson Lears notes that Americans facing the “marriage of material and spiritual progress” in modern America, particularly eastern cities, experienced a moral void of culture that “lost sight of the larger frameworks of meaning.” Many members of an educated bourgeoisie expressed an antimodern spirit that left them longing for a life 254 | Mark Neumann and Janna Jones in places that felt authentic. Many turned to leisure and aesthetic experiences that oriented them toward nature and rustic modes of life as a source of leisure and aesthetic experience.1 In this essay, we specifically examine films made by Elizabeth Woodman Wright and Thomas Archibald (“Archie”) Stewart.2 Wright and Stewart both began making amateur films in the 1920s, and their films capture numerous scenes of family life, culture, and travel. We focus our attention on the films by Wright and Stewart that concern themselves with rural life and nature as leisure experience. The Wright family lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Stewart family lived in Newburgh, New York. As both filmmakers resided in urban areas, the films they made about their excursions into rural life and nature offer a number of ways to consider various dimensions of amateur filmmaking. Given the period in which these films were made, they have historic value in that they document ways of life, objects, dress, landscapes, and technologies from the 1920s. In this way, the films offer an experience of “time travel” that shows us how places and people were directly recorded by the camera decades ago. They offer moving images of other times documented with an immediacy that opens a window to the past, an inherent value of nearly any amateur film. On another level, however, their films reveal how amateur filmmaking provided a mode for documenting life that illuminated, in part, the contradictory dimensions of modern experience. As the larger forces of modernization and progress began to overthrow traditions and usher in new technologies as well as new forms of social structure and experience, they also spawned a sense of loss and longing. As Marshall Berman notes, the forces of modernization are characterized by a dialectic of destruction and renewal, and it is in the experience of modernity that we find people “striving to make a place for themselves in the modern world, a place where they can feel at home.”3 In part, this sense of “feeling at home” meant leaving one’s...


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