Mainely Magnificent: Cave of Wonders


Wunderkammer – Alternatively known as a kunstkammer, a cabinet of curiosity or wonder, a collection of objects intended to delight, unsettle, and explain. A controlled, curated menagerie that, in theory, captures some corner of the natural world in a microcosm.

For the fourth year running, Northeast Historic Film’s annual summer symposium ran under the title of “Wunderkino.” It’s a useful theme, perhaps not so much as a description of the symposium’s content – all cinema, really, is in a sense, “wonder-cinema,” a collection of moving images intended to fascinate and educate – but as a perspective. As an organization dedicated specifically to the preservation of amateur film, NHF’s entire existence is based on a re-examination of the quotidian, on finding value in cinematic objects that for years were cast aside as crude, unexceptional, and lacking any kind of broad audience appeal. Bringing participants to this gathering in the spirit of the wunderkammer is as much a challenge as it is an invitation: can you look at a piece of film as if with new eyes? Can you allow a movie you might otherwise have dismissed to truly startle you?

Of course, as this is, in essence, an academic conference, “Wunderkino IV” must have a subtitle. “Visions of House and Home” gets more to the heart of what, in fact, the forty-plus symposium attendees would end up seeing, tucked away in the dark of NHF’s historic Alamo Theater. Scenes of domesticity are generally familiar, safe images; the most difficult, and thus perhaps (as Viktor Shklovksy might have it) the most imperative to make strange. One by one, over the course of two days, each presenter put forth some notion of “home” – be it in an art film, documentary, or raw footage, on film, video or DCP – slowly building this mural of domesticity at once both utterly recognizable and utterly alien.

A young man from Glasgow speaks of cross-cultural exchange between amateur cinema organizations in the US and Great Britain in the 1950’s. Curiously snippy and dismissive assessments of each other’s work bounced across the Atlantic; on the screen a cameraman, originally intending to film a student rally at Harvard, seemed curiously focused on a fellow camera crew, resulting in a reflexive navel-gazing exercise in which each camera stared only at the other and seemed to miss the rest of the world around them.

The producers of the recent documentary “Our Nixon” displays footage from one of the President’s visits to the great state of Maine. Images of Presidential aides (and later Watergate villains) H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman tanning themselves and chasing squirrels separated reverent long shots of Nixon himself, always taken at a distance, whether at a massive public rally or meeting heads of state in intimate, private surroundings. Some of these films, shaky and peering through an overgrown forest, suggest more the opening of a “Friday the 13th” installment than an innocent home movie.

The director of the Harvard Film Archive assembles clips from the “Five-Year Diary” of Anne Charlotte Robertson, a sixteen-year project originally intended to document the artist’s attempts to lose weight. Layers of everyday fear and discomfiting mental illness crash into each other as Robertson combines voiceover with wild sound and manic editing with in-camera tricks; somehow in the space of a minute Robertson’s bed feels like both the safest place in the world and a flowing, enveloping mass looking to swallow her whole.

From the comfort of 2014 we go back to the summer of 1967, where pseudo-hermit and diarist Richard “Dick” Proenneke builds a log cabin in the Alaskan wilderness with his own hands, the better to re-enact his own personal Walden. A voiceover, reading from Proenneke’s extensive personal journal, accompanies footage of sawing, shifting, shooting – but the voice does not belong to Proenneke himself. Nor does this assembled film, either; a close friend, who inherited Proenneke’s reels, has spliced them together into a documentary himself, and protectively rebuffs most requests to see Proenneke’s original footage. Terraformed in this manner, Proenneke’s vision remains, despite the best efforts of this friend to present a comprehensive “portrait” of the man, elusive.

A police training film from the 1970’s attempts to instruct both officers and civilians alike on methods to prevent burglary in the suburban South. Outdated notions of crime and criminals make the messages, needless to say, problematic. But perhaps not nearly as problematic as the film’s entire concept of personal space, which is rather unconvincing when the community-theater trained cast dutifully strains as if they under the spotlight on stage rather than at home in their own living room.

A post-WWII State Department-endorsed film intended to support the Marshall Plan fails, despite their best efforts, to persuade us that the residents of a striking cave village in southern Italy are better off in cold, sterile, modern apartment buildings. Too squeamish to show us the actual filth that surely made this relocation project necessary, the filmmakers instead present ominous music cues over quaint and beautiful images of rural life; just listening to the soundtrack, you might think that a young boy playing in the street is about to be run over by a train, but instead he is just playing with a toy model, perfectly content.

Finally, Dino Everett, archivist at the Hugh Hefner Archive at the University of Southern California and all-around rock star* makes an impassioned plea on behalf of amateur preservation efforts: he has brought a couple from Chicago who have, with equipment gathered in their own apartment, performed their own restoration of a long-long-forgotten musical short. The home is not just an object to be put in the archive – it can, and often does, also serve as one.

There was all that and more at Wunderkino IV. Within the confines of the Alamo’s single screen, we went around the globe and came back, both a little more and a little less knowledgeable than we were before – because for every moment of familiarity and connection in these funny little films, there was another question, a spark of curiosity. We think we understand so much, especially when it comes to impressions of our own lives, but there are always new discoveries to be made. Who knew there were wonders such as Polavision in this world?

*As an aside, despite all the informative talks and wonderful footage presented at Wunderkino IV, the personal highlight of the summer symposium had to be making fun of a particularly awful local cover band with Dino during Bucksport’s concurrent town festival. They did not, in fact, play “867-5309” on a loop for forty-five minutes, but that’s about what it felt like.

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