My girlfriend surprised me with an early Christmas present the other day: a vintage Kodak Instamatic M2 movie camera from the mid-60s. The estate sale she’d bought it from included a similarly vintage indoor lighting kit and a projector for home viewing after you’d gotten the super 8 cartridge processed at a photo lab. I’d once shot in 16 mm on a Bolex back when I was a film student, but I’d never shot on super 8 before even though I’d always wanted to. I mentioned it in passing once, and she remembered. Just a really, really good gift.
Inside the box the camera and assorted gear came in, there was a small metal box. I guess the estate sale people didn’t notice it, because they never mentioned it to my girlfriend, and she didn’t even know it was in there until I started rooting around and found it under the projector.
Inside the small metal box were a collection of film spools. Picking one up and holding it to the light, I could tell it was already processed, but it was hard to make out what was on the film. I found a YouTube instructional on that model of film projector, managed to locate a pdf scan of the original manual. I spooled the old super 8 film on the projector and set it against the wall for my girlfriend and I to watch.
It was scratchy at first, blown out in spots, but I chalked that up to the film’s age. But it kept happening, over and over. Almost like a pattern. Clear, vivid shots of blue sky sliced by cirrus, wispy, curling, like ethereal hair, then darkness, scratched film, and color flickering by one frame at a time, accumulating shape and weight like painted cells from a bygone era where color film was hand-colored. And I realized that that’s what this was. We were watching the work of a visual artist.
Miasmas of color gave way to eruptions of pitted black, simulated static from strategic distortions of celluloid. Then figures, maybe human, definitely moving, almost imperceptibly slow, but then with sudden, sped-up writhing, close-ups of grotesques and detailed makeup that seemed almost anachronistic for how vivid and real it seemed to be, how modern. This film had to be decades old, but it seemed fresh–hard-edged. There were elaborate stagings of musicals kept silent in the film, then abrupt cuts to sidewalks and streets, the camera sometimes placed on the ground perilously close to passing tires as cars rolled by and over it. Frenetic hyper-fast cuts of neighborhoods as they looked 60 years ago, the passersby and their fashions, the cars they drove the only giveaway that this film was made that long ago.
I dug around for his name, or for titles scrawled on film tins, but there was nothing. This was some of the best experimental work I’d seen on film, and by all accounts, its filmmaker lived without ever finding much recognition, if any. A lifetime of work, relegated to a cardboard box that can be sold after you die.
I started cataloguing as I waited for the new film cartridge I’d ordered to come in. I tried finding his name out later, but everything turned up a blank. So, for the time being, I catalogued the work under the name John Doe.
In time, I had over a dozen short films catalogued with runtimes, brief summaries, and considerations of artistic merit. I suggested titles where appropriate and went ahead and paid a company to make digital copies for posterity. I wanted to have a positive ID on the guy before I started sharing his work on the internet, but I never did find out his name. Either way, his work found a footing early on, the older folks considering him a peer of Stan Brakhage, and younger people noting the logical progression from work like his to people like David Firth and Jack Stauber. It was incredible to see the explosion of interest, the way this thing seemed to take on a life of its own.
I didn’t know what I wanted to do–I mean what I really wanted do with my life there for a while. But when that package came in and I opened it, when I loaded that fresh, first film cartridge into my Instamatic, I knew.