Deja Home-Movie Review

Exhibit A. Time: May 1927. Scene: Groundbreaking for a synagogue. Action: Two city managers silently mouth some presumably inspirational words to the assembled multitude -- women and baby girls in bonnets, men and boys in white shirts with ties, a (mostly) solemn troop of Boy Scouts -- after which beefy building commissioner Morris Plant proudly strides forward to turn over the first shovelful of dirt, a privilege for which he has forked over the not inconsiderable sum of $150.

Exhibit B. Time: Passover 1954. Scene: A huge extended family, stylishly dressed, seated around a monumentally long table. Action: In turn each person reads an excerpt from a prayer book, some earnestly, some a trifle embarrassed; then the party adjourns to a beachside resort, where the kids frolic aboard a carousel, minitram, ponies, and teeny motorboats.

Exhibit C. Time: Christmastime, year unknown. Scene: A family -- a boy, two girls, their dad -- decorates the holiday tree. Action: One of the girls, grinning maniacally, suddenly segues into hyperkinetic go-go dancing, relegating the others to sullen supporting roles at best.

These three filmic artifacts, plus a changing array of similar footage from as early as 1910 and as late as the 1980s, screen as part of the exhibition "Deja View: Rare and Recently Preserved Home Movies and Amateur Footage in South Florida." Culled from the collection of the Florida Moving Image Archive, the silent works -- black and white or color, and obtained from the public -- represent what archive director Steven Davidson terms "a remarkable visual record, a particularly personal perspective."

Dating primarily from the 1920s to the 1950s, the flicks range from intimate moments of anonymous families to historical glimpses such as the destruction wreaked by the hurricane of 1926, a thriving 1950s Overtown before its decimation by the construction of I-95, and the grandeur of local hotels, notably the Everglades and the Nautilus, in their heyday. Also on view: vintage home-moviemaking cameras, projectors, and related equipment. The show's opening offers screenings and a discussion with Patricia Zimmermann (professor of cinema at Ithaca College and author of Reel Families: A Social History of Amateur Film), Florida historian Paul George, and Davidson. That trio also will conduct four video bus tours, inviting passengers to contrast the current landscapes whizzing by outside with decades-old South Florida footage playing on six monitors.

Refreshingly unslick, home movies exude an innate intimacy. With no product to hawk, no agenda to pursue, their unselfconscious, turn-on-the-camera-and-shoot technique lacks the manipulativeness of Hollywood films and commercial TV programs -- even PBS documentaries. Minus a laugh track, narration, and music, the images bear the entire narrative load, freezing for posterity small social and cultural tableaux: a Chicago family's 1929 traipse through pre-Depression Miami; President Harry Truman plopped down in the Everglades in 1947; scores of women, attired in impossibly modest bathing suits, engaged in ridiculous-looking calisthenics in 1927.

"Home movies capture a part of life," explains Davidson. "They're like a time machine, and this exhibit takes them out of the living room and makes them accessible to everybody."

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Michael Yockel