24 August 2009

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film archives

Jen VanDenBurgh

There was once an archive housed in the basement of post-WWII, Levittown-inspired, pitched roof house in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga. The street was Cortland Crescent in Applewood Acres, so named in honour of the apple orchards that were razed to build the neighbourhood. Now I draw your attention from the exterior design of the street space where everything looked the same, choreographed to keep kids playing in view of their parents, to the basement where no one but an invited guest was meant to look and I doubt that ever happened. Guests belonged upstairs. This subterranean space was for family, a museum curated by my grandparents as a monument of who they believed we collectively were and their hopes of what we would become. In this place, we would watch my grandfather’s movies.

Cool, damp and dimly lit, the habitable portion of the basement was a ‘finished’ box of acoustic tile on a dropped ceiling, speckled black and white linoleum squares, and faux wood paneling. While the rest of the basement was ‘for storage’, this room, too, stored objects in the spirit of utilitarian reverence, housing treasures from Gramps and Jeannie’s family homes, from the family they made together, and the travels they had together once their family had grown. A leather rocker and a large circular mission-style coffee table came from my grandfather’s side of the family. On the table, scented hotel soaps and restaurant matchbooks, trophies from my grandparents’ travels filled the basket and the lacquered ballerina box that my sister and I dumped and sorted and sniffed through. If my sister and I answered a geography question correctly, Gramps would dole out artifacts from the ‘secret box’, a trove of trinkets from Christmas crackers, airline freebies, and office supply relics from his time at the Red Cross and the Ministry of Education stashed in his leather studded desk beside the stairs. An L-shaped bench-style couch wrapped two of the main walls and was upholstered in black, synthetic ‘wool’-covered foam. Its size was important since it allowed my family to huddle together: me, my sister, my parents, my grandmother, and, on occasion, two cousins, and an uncle and aunt. Here, we would sit and watch my grandfather set up the awkward and threatening spring-loaded screen, and thread his 8mm projector as my father played the piano that had come into my grandmother’s family when she and her eight brothers and sisters were asked by their father whether they wanted to spend that year’s farm surplus on a piano or a car. Behind the piano hung a gilt-framed painting of a fancy Victorian woman lounging at a similar piano, done by Blair Bruce, Jeannie’s storied cousin who left Hamilton to find his fortune as a painter in Europe, and though well-thought of now, impoverished his parents by requiring patronage and having the misfortune of sinking the bulk of his work on a downed ship.

Here in this basement museum, my father’s childhood and mine existed simultaneously, separated only by a reel change. In Gramps’ films, dad jumped into Georgian Bay at the same age as I was only moments before, silently dancing all arms and legs before the camera. All of us in the family had our moment as babies wriggling on Jeannie’s white flikkati rug. In these images we were indistinguishable, even to our mothers who scrutinised and discussed our telling features. This identification was part of the tradition – ‘was this 1966 or 1968?’ — but the point, I think, was that we blended together. Watching these films was an exercise in how connected we are in the passage of time. My father instantly transformed from a child on the screen to a parent before me. I’m sure other families have identical film archives, collections of Christmases and vacations that are interchangeable with mine, but that is also the point. The archives might be the same, but the space and lived experience of every family museum has particular variances and rituals, a language of its own. My dad played the piano during the reel changes and when the film melted in the gate. This was the culmination of years of disgruntled practice that he passed down to my sister and me, music history memorised off of Gramps’ shirt cardboards because Jeannie said it was to be done. This, like the rack of hats from around the world that my sister and I would wear for these occasions, were rehearsals in the cultural capital my grandparents hoped we would represent. This museum architecture had purpose. This space that smelled of soap and damp, that felt so cool on the feet with just enough room to seat my family together, to laugh at the screen, no one for the moment preparing a meal or otherwise distracted. This was a museum where we munched on After Eights, watching the past, knowing the future was quickly rushing in. Here I learned with all my senses the feeling of being embodied in time and in a family, knowing the bittersweet truth that it would pass.

VanDenBurgh, Jen. 'Movies' On Site review, no. 20 Winter 2008
©Jen VanDenBurgh and On Site review

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