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This oblique approach reanimates the past more vividly than the museum-display aesthetic of most historical films (Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar being a successful recent example of this nonetheless compromised mode), and Berliner’s careful juxtapositions of sound and image further expand on the material. In a characteristic edit, Berliner pairs a woman reminiscing about a family pet (“...she was as close to a human being as a dog could be...”) with images of different dogs from two separate home movies. This has the effect of rendering a specific memory universal, as Berliner encourages the enterprising viewer to complete the montage with his or her own memories of dogs.
Pretty much every minute of The Family Album contains a juxtaposition as evocative this one, which means it’s easy to miss the film’s grand structure on a first viewing. (In an interview included on the DVD, Berliner claims to have made it at the rate of one edit per day, which might give you a sense of the movie’s overall density.) But the movie forges a fluid passage from birth to death, practically beginning with shots of newborns and concluding with end-of-life confessions. And Berliner checkers the film with the inevitable revelations that determine everyone’s psychological development.
Consider this passage that arrives roughly 10 minutes into the work, which pungently conveys a child’s first realization of death. Over a shot of two little girls playing in a sandbox, we hear an answering machine message from a man saying that his daughter has been rushed to the hospital for an appendectomy. From there, Berliner cuts to a shot of a somewhat older girl watering a garden and a recording of a woman describing what it was like to lose her mother at the age of nine (note that Berliner mirrors the transition from potential death to real death with the replacement of an older for a younger girl). As the woman’s story continues with a description of seeing her father cry for the first time (“...it made me feel like my whole foundation was shaken...”), we see images of loving fathers riding on seesaws and posing for portraits. Yet these shots are complicated by the sudden recognition that daddies can display weakness too.
The shock of death strips these images of their quaintness, leaving them open to skepticism. Berliner scores the next shot of a father and child on a sled with an older woman saying, with audible displeasure, “Organization. That you get from daddy.” This gives way to the punchline of the scene (one of many in this often witty film): a shot of a man spanking a boy he’s thrown over his shoulder, the spankings timed perfectly to the sound of a boy counting idly into a tape recorder (“ninety-three, ninety-four, ninety-five...”). The weary woman’s voice then returns, implicitly casting doubt on Berliner’s entire project: “You’re trying to show a very good light of your father... but I’d say he was bordering on being a dictator.” Not even the sight of adults horsing around a dinner table, to which Berliner sets the cue, can remove the sting of this confession. The sweet and sour associations must coexist, as they do in any memory.
I’ve described roughly two and a half minutes of The Family Album—at one hour, the film’s accumulation of detail feels epic. Berliner even accomplishes a flashback within a flashback: about halfway into the film, he cuts from a boy scout parade circa 1950 to a college homecoming parade from 1930 (a banner lets us know of the exact date) and devotes several minutes of the soundtrack to anecdotes about courtship in this period. This section creates a fascinating parallel with the death passage from earlier on: here, the discovery is of one’s origins rather than one’s end, though the revelation is no less shocking. But staying true to the movie’s therapeutic bent, Berliner quickly reverts from the metaphysical by filling the soundtrack with a man describing what it was like to first overhear his parents have sex.
Much of the movie evokes an air of innocence, thanks to the very nature of the footage: prior to the 1960s, home movies were hardly commonplace, and even adults regarded them as a marvel. (As one of The Family Album’s anonymous commentators puts it, “On Saturday nights [presumably in the 50s], my parents would ask my brother and me what we wanted to do. We’d say ‘the movies,’ and everyone would know what we were talking about. We weren’t talking about Donald Duck cartoons, we were talking about the movies...”) Since the pleasure of recording took precedence over what was being recorded, the images of first-generation home movies convey a naive enthusiasm that no pitiful confession can puncture.
The German essayist Walter Benjamin once attempted to evoke an uncorrupted past in his quasi-memoir Berlin Childhood Around 1900, a work I often thought of while watching The Family Album. Both minimize the primacy of a particular narrator to heighten the physicality of a collective past, and at their most affecting, both suggest an encounter with a ghost. Ironically, The Family Album feels most uncanny when the details are most ordinary. “You have a choice of prime rib, Chicken Valentine, or brook trout,” we hear a bored-sounding waiter intone over some postwar-era wedding footage: it’s a reminder that social conventions never exist in a vacuum, that they’re upheld by a lot of smaller conventions we often take for granted.