Not long ago, the Atlantic Monthly published a “Personal File” commentary by David Owen. They called it “Moments Not to Remember: At least not on videotape.” Mr. Owen here expresses a mild contempt for the camcorder and its users.
Mr. Owen sets out mocking a camcorder user he finds dowdy. He describes a woman who taped, hummed, ate a cookie, slept with her mouth all the way open and taped again while she sat next to him on a plane. It remains unclear why he writes of this woman at all, but let us surmise that she represents for him the typical camcorder user. Camcorder users, then, must not have a real life outside their moments of taping.
Before nodding in silent recognition of the cam-geek stereotype, might we pose a question to Mr. Owen? Who or what reduced the personality of this woman to a series of homely acts–the camcorder, the woman herself, or a writer?
He moves on to complain about the dullness of home videos and of those who watch them. He tells of folks watching a tape of a wedding reception while the reception is still going on. They see shots of people defending themselves from the camera either by aversion or by wooden self-conscious wittiness. He finds this tape “agonizingly dull,” with the telltale exception of “the parts featuring oneself.” Mr. Owen implies that camcorders disturb the natural flow between people speaking spontaneously. He also implicitly imputes dullness to the people who view such tapes.
Before chastising the camcorder for the spell of artifice it casts upon crowds, before reprimanding the dim tape-watchers, might we pause to consider that one telltale exception? What are we to learn from those perennially engaging shots “of oneself”? Might we say that, in the battle between the passions, vanity always ousts ennui?
Further, if vanity alone can liven up an otherwise boring home video, might not nostalgia, curiosity, self-reflection or the desire for historical information also add luster to a poorly made tape? This doesn’t excuse poor videomaking: how much of the boredom lies in the eye of the beholder?
Right after giving this example of people viewing a tape as soon as it was shot, Mr. Owen asks whether people actually watch the tapes they make. Setting this faux pas aside, we should note that people often watch home videos with remote control in hand, one finger poised above the fast-forward button. They view those shots they find interesting; they fast-forward through the rest.
Toward the end of his piece, Mr. Owen tries to lay bare the root of the camcorder fascination: “Somehow people have gotten the idea that they won’t mind being old so much if they can turn on the TV and see what they were like when they were young.” He counters this by saying he prefers a memory which can fail; the merciless tape, he implies, shows things the way they really were. This paints young people with a concern about their future nostalgia that few young people have ever shown. And, though we all indulge ourselves in illusions of one kind or another, few prefer, deep down, delusion about our pasts over the truth. Besides, who’s to say that the camera’s perspective shows the way things really were? Can anything short of omniscience provide that?
Mr. Owen says that “a tape that takes two hours to film (sic) requires another two hours to watch, and no one whose life is worth taping has that much free time.” Here he vents his spleen on those dullards who allow others to tape them, but he also gives us the real key to his disenchantment with the camcorder. Note that this statement is simply false if someone has edited the tapes. Perhaps the author has viewed too many unedited tapes. No one could blame Mr. Owen for this, because too many home videomakers do not edit. A few well-edited tapes might change his perspective on this whole activity.
If Mr. Owen’s video experience ends with making a few shots of his golf swing and watching the unedited tapes of others, he’s hardly experienced videomaking at all. If he had stopped reading after he read only some shopping lists of the semi-literate and stopped writing after scribbling his first sentence, how well equipped would he be to judge literature or those who engage in it?
Mr. Owen might himself enjoy the process of making videos if he put even a fraction of the care into that activity that he devotes to his writing. If he tries video editing, he’ll start to feel the same control over that medium which he now enjoys over the pen.
The making of videos is, after all, an art. To grasp it, one might start with the notion that the people involved in it really do live, think and feel. Then one might inquire into the ins and outs of the craft. In skilled hands, a camcorder, like a pen, can reveal fascinating facets of a person who at first seems ordinary, or reduce a vibrant personality to a random sequence of dull behaviors: taping, humming, chewing, snoring, taping…
Stephen Muratore is Videomaker‘s Editor in Chief.