GHOSTS ... a journey back in time

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1940s... home movies... home recordings...

This movie was an exercise in capturing a mood -- no, two moods. As World War II was ending the mood was boisterous and giddy. But there was also that undercurrent of sadness. So many boys were lost.

Visuals. Converted from 8 mm. home movie film, edited with Adobe Premiere.

Voices. Converted from homemade 78 rpm records, edited with Sony MediaSoundForge.

Music. Composed with Sony Media Acid, using royalty-free loops.

Label. Red Lipstick Productions.

Influences. Even though we evoke the 1940s, the style is definitely "MTV," where the feeling state takes precedence over plot.


I'm looking into the past. My aunt owned a movie camera and filmed some parties. The 8-mm film lasted into the video era and my cousin George put it on tape along with miles of Christmas morning and amusement park footage. The minute I saw it I was hooked.

It was after the War in St. Louis -- 1946ish -- a time of sadness for too many boys lost, but also a time of joyous pairing off. My father told me that, in those days, the young men in his generation were ambitious for nothing more than marriage and babies. Enough with death and heroism.

My mother's family lived in a large apartment over their grocery store. In the basement, they had a tavern. I don't know how long the tavern was a commercial venture but it was a huge space with a long bar, slot machines, player piano. Tack some twisted crepe paper to the rafters and it was party central.*

By the time I was around, party central was a clubhouse in the country and my grandmother's basement was a dark, ghostly place.

Maybe that's part of what intrigues me about this film -- how the vitality of these ghosts from the past fill that underground space.

The other thing that fascinates me is that I know almost everyone there. My future mother -- the toothsome blond babe -- is shadowed by my future father, all smiles and adoring gazes. Her family. His family. A couple generations of friends.

As a rule, it is my mother's people who are jumping around full of antics. My father's people are quieter, though thoroughly amused as they hoist their drinks.

father's familyThe party is a metaphor that way. My father's family is big-hearted, soft-spoken, full of song and story. My mother's family is sharp, argumentative, impassioned, with no use for fools. Once I could articulate that difference, I saw the confluence of their personalities in myself. Some days I'm my father's child. Some days I'm my mother's child.

The original movie, of course, has no sound. I turned it into a music video by chopping my favorite scenes into 1-second cuts. The music was composed from Acid loops -- an original Susan Mix, for better or for worse. The voices and laughter were taken from home-made 78s, also from the forties. Contributors:

"Here we are...": my mother

"Nobody loves me...": my uncle -- the one jumping around.

"Oh boy, I'm good": same uncle.

"Mary, are you a bicycle Irishman?... Sure, I'm a pain in the ass": my mother and her sister.

"That's all": my mother

The original version was one-minute long and showed the zany side of my folks. The fun was in scoring the movie to reinforce that sense of abandon.

And yet, watching each little clip a thousand times is a haunting experience. It is so long ago and so far away. World War II was barely over and my mother's family had lost 5 young men, including her fun-loving brother.

This gave me a challenge: if I can make them laugh, can I make them cry? Could I use the same footage and change the mood completely? So... I added "part 2." The first minute is the same. In the second minute, the movie runs backward and the score "turns minor."

Additional voices:

"Danny Boy": my grandmother and mother

"Old Mill Stream": my grandfather and his pal Joe Foley

I may not yet be a master Spielberg-like manipulator of emotions, but it works for me. What gives me a chill each time is my grandmother's voice -- her cackle when the tune goes sour is so real to me. And then there is that beautifully phrased ending... 

"Danny Boy" was Her Song and she often sang it at the end of long family parties. I know now that it had become the song about her dear lost son, but in my memory it is always a song sung with that cackle of laughter because she was one of those great dames who learned how not to be defeated by life's sorrows. 


*9.1.02 Update: The building where the parties were held is in north St. Louis -- an African-American neighborhood now, one that has seen tough times in the past few decades. Recently, my mother read in the newspaper that the site of the family party hall has now become a community center -- the party lives on.


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