The Super 8 camera was originally my grandfather’s. It was inside its vinyl carrying case in my closet on August 2, 1997, the day my apartment burned down. Days later, when firefighters escorted me into the building, we waded through ash-strewn water flooding the lobby. My sixth-floor apartment now opened to the sky. The pressed metal ceiling hung half-collapsed, the metal twisted, scorched and brutally sharp. What was once the floor was now an uneven field of rubble, of building materials, wet books, all my precious things. Everything, I presumed, was gone.
But it wasn’t. Despite the conflagration, the high-pressure water hoses, the collapsed ceiling and roof, quite a few things survived. Inside the closet, inside a box, the vinyl carry case was heat scorched, but fine. The camera seemed okay. There were two films I’d made inside, one half-exposed. In the years that followed, I moved from New York to San Francisco to Cleveland to Melbourne. Each time, I’d pack my grandfather’s camera and think about how I ought have the exposed films processed, just in case there was anything salvageable on them.
Film Rescue International specializes in processing discontinued still and movie films. Housed in an old bank building in Indian Head, Saskatchewan, Canada, they receive approximately 150 rolls of film a week, 70% of which are films discovered after a person’s death and sent in for processing by family members. “It’s not the kind of job you choose,” says Greg Miller, who established the business in 1999 after years running a lab processing movie film. “You fall into it.”
During his time in the movie film lab, Greg discovered that a noxious formaldehyde hardener used in movie film processing could be used to process discontinued color still films. He stockpiled the chemical when Kodak discontinued manufacturing it in the early 2000s and only uses it when it’s of utmost importance that a film be developed in color. Mostly, Film Rescue International process color film as black and white using proprietary chemistry developed and refined by the company in order to preserve images at the highest quality possible. In conversation, on the company’s website, and on social media, it’s clear that Greg and his staff revel in the constant discoveries they make processing old film (“revelers of lost and found treasure”) and in the joy these found images bring to clients.
Finally, in January this year on a new year’s-inspired organization jag, I sent my two films to Canada, with only scant hope that there’d be anything visible on the films, both sixteen years past expiry and survivors of a fire in which the heat was so intense a pewter tea set melted to the wall.
When the package from FRI arrived at my work, I told everyone what was inside. Except I didn’t really know what that was, exactly – I had no memory of what I’d shot. It was a week before I watched the DVD.
A reel of Super 8 film lasts 3 minutes 20 seconds at 18 frames per second. My film opens with a grainy, out-of-focus shot of a row of stones on a windowsill. The shot widens to take in the fire escape, and in the background, the George Washington Bridge. I pan slowly around the apartment. The film is dim, with an intermittent green flash along the right edge of the frame. Out the bathroom window, a train heads south along the elevated track along Broadway above 125th Street. Two figures appear on the futon couch – my parents, visiting from Australia. What I’m watching, I quickly realize, is the beginning of a road trip movie.
From the rental car, I shot the King Charles Meat Warehouse on 125th Street, the Cotton Club, and the chaos inside Fairway. We slow long enough for a clear shot of the New Jersey Turnpike tollbooth; other signs pass by in an unfocussed blur. There are unintentional moments of beauty – the windshield wipers moving back and forth in the foreground, a blurry, unreadable sign behind.
In a mid-century furniture shop in Nashville, my father demonstrates the action of a chrome waffle iron. My mother holds a small bag aloft as she exits an unidentified store and smiles broadly. A boxed pair of shoes is displayed. There is a high, wide shot of my mother entering a Lowe’s hardware. The last shot is of an exit sign to Chattanooga, taken from the moving car. The film ends suddenly with a blank white frame.
I’d returned to New York with a persistent crick in my neck, caused by long stretches looking out the side window of the car, quietly seething with resentment as we sped by flea markets that, according to my father, we didn’t have time to stop at. A year later, the waffle iron was lost in the fire. My father regularly mused over the fate of a television antenna he’d installed on the roof above my apartment during their visit. Ungratefully, I’d react with disproportionate annoyance every time he reminisced about its installation. I’d lost so much. I didn’t care about his antenna.
When asked which material possession they’d try to save from their burning home, many answer: photographs. The Burning House is a Tumblr that elevates this question to performance art, with participants shooting beautifully arranged still lives of their chosen objects. None of these people, I’d wager, have actually had their home burn down – would anyone prioritize their AeroPress in an actual conflagration? In my case, I had my cat, the dress I was wearing and a pair of sandals.
Photographs and films externalize our memories. To retrieve a memory thought lost or forgotten is a near-miraculous thing. It feels right to me now that the memory of this trip is not in seamless color but in black and white, the film scratched, heat-damaged, out-of-focus, herky-jerky. The feelings it evokes are familiar chords that have scored my whole life, but the detail – the neon Fresh Bagels sign, the play of light across the surface of a motel swimming pool, my mother hamming it up for the camera – these were gone until Film Rescue International brought them back. When I play the film for my parents, my mother cannot quite believe what’s she’s seeing. My father notes that he still owns the striped polo shirt he’s wearing in the film. Then he wonders again about his antenna: whatever happened to it?