A Game of Millimeters

Rather odd, these streaks of donations. Call it coincidence or call it synchronicity, but there are weeks when everybody is donating the same thing. On Monday I priced seven copies of Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex. I hope the people setting up literature next July think I put them all in the same box on purpose. I can use all the credit I can get.

About ten days ago, somebody dropped off a couple of 1950s issues of a magazine called Verve. Verve was a magazine which included original lithographs by the artist it was featuring. Both issues were featuring cubist Georges Braque. Tuesday, a box turned up an issue of Verve. What artist did it feature? Georges Braque.

And in the past week, I have actually had three films donated, something that hasn’t happened in a couple of years.

You say you saw dozens of films for sale at the last Book Fair? Did not. You may have seen videocassettes and DVDs. We have three actual reels of film, two of them 8 mm and one Super 8.

8 mm film is film that is 8 millimeters wide. You guessed that? Okay, smartyboots, how wide is Super 8? Well, yes, you got that one, too. It is also 8 millimeters wide. They came out with it in 1965, and called it Super 8 because it allowed for a larger frame, meaning an improved picture. For years, these two formats were the mainstay of home movie watching. (The movies you see in the theater are generally 35 mm, unless some producer is experimenting with 70 mm. The bigger the film, the better the image. A lot of schools and some home movie buffs used 16 mm movies, but 8 mm. was convenient and cheap.)

By “home movie watching”, I mean not only the movies people shot on their cameras for birthdays and weddings and graduations. A number of companies specializing in issuing 8 mm versions of cartoons and motion pictures which had already played the big time. The vast majority of these were short—three or four minutes—and silent, since sound equipment and sound movies added a lot to the price. Having plenty of cheap product was not so very difficult: traditionally, movie studios took very little interest in back stock. Plenty of chopped-up silent comedies were available, providing material for future theater magnates and future movie buffs.

Some companies pieced together original material, too. Castle Films, one of the giants of the industry, issued an annual newsreel. (Not unreasonable, since its founder, Eugene W. Castle, had worked in newsreels before setting up his own shop.) One of the films we’ve been given, still in its original box, is their newsreel for 1946. Not many people had a television yet in 1946, and being able to show movies at home was magic. The smell of the projector bulb, the clatter of the projector, the profane remarks of the projector owner when he realized the take-up reel wasn’t turning, so forty feet of film was tangled on the floor…it was an experience not to be duplicated elsewhere.

All gone now, of course: who would spend time threading, showing, and rewinding a three-minute film when hours of entertainment can be set in motion by dropping a disc into a tray, or just clicking your way to YouTube? But since the donors of the two Castle Films also donated an 8 mm movie viewer, maybe this weekend I’ll close the curtains and settle in for a good six minutes of old-fashioned excitement.

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