A Dinosaur That Came Before Digital
Only Purists Need Apply
Ventured to boy-room where my first 8mm "theatre" saw fruition, and names like Castle and Blackhawk were synonym for enchantment. There is no Back To Basic like return to 8mm. I was reminded how a small and steady hand is best to thread that narrowest of gauge. Plus a pair of young eyes. Everything about 8mm is scaled-down, the projector, film, its image as projected. Here was a format best enjoyed by children (age ten was start for me). For this last round, I needed two pair of specs on hand, one for close work, a second to view results. Thread process was like putting string through a needle minus its eye. Patience is a must when handling film, delay and frustration the bane of most screenings. A forty-year old projector I used had dubious benefit of self-threading, which means film chatters madly till you feed it in just so. Focus varied throughout, never what we, spoiled by digital, would call sharp. In fact, focus is no issue at all today, a concept gone as adjusting your tuner to pull in distant TV channels.
There is much on 8mm that you won't see anyplace else. Blackhawk used to offer reels that would go out of print like certain DVD's do now. If anybody cared, they'd be collector items. As it is, you have to work for your fun where it comes to 8mm. I got out two subjects for the hour remembrance of how things were, and won't be again. First was a Ken Film, one-time distributor of home movies for United Artists, then-owner of pre-49 Warner inventory. This 8mm spool was called The Swashbucklers, and ran about eight minutes. Every blurry foot was action, all but brief intro featuring Errol Flynn. Glimpse of Doug Fairbanks plus John Barrymore (from Don Juan) lead in, then it's Flynn for the rest, him referred to in "Superimposed Titles" as Greatest Of All Swashbucklers, a point to brook no argument then or now. I contemplated how this was once the only way you'd own footage of Flynn sinking ships, wielding swords, or leading a charge, barest souvenir of shows then less accessible on TV (fewer markets used them after the mid-60's, and by the 70's, mostly UHF). Theatres, save revival housing in NY or LA, had largely bowed out (a
The Blackhawk box read Melodrama Rides The Rails, which could be anything of course, but sounded like more excerpts, maybe from serials or thrill-stuff done on runaway engines. BH chief Kent D. Eastin was a lifelong train buff, so catalogues were loaded with railroad reels, which I guess sold during days when collectors better remembered iron horses rumbling through town, or riding passenger on same. The fifteen minutes here was culled from ancient scraps --- a crash between steam engines staged for a county fair shortly after turn of the 20th century (explanatory titles said this was often a feature at public gatherings as obsolete trains were fazed out --- so why not exit them with a bang?) --- then there was A Rail Tragedy, where a robber on board cleans a woman's purse, then hurls her off the moving train. She survives, he's captured, so tragedy ends up a relative term, other than my own for not being able to keep the picture steady or get it in focus. Why didn't we 8mm collectors give this headache up and go play basketball like normal youth?
Highlight of Melodrama Rides The Rails was a 1911 Vitagraph short called A Mother's Devotion, or The Firing Of The Patchwork Quilt. High concept in a nutshell: Mother sees son off to engineer duty, later realizes a trestle is out, warns him by setting her patchwork quilt ablaze, laying it across rails as way to give warning. Vitagraph knew how to wring suspense from single reels, and there's fine glimpse of the big hoss chugging toward what might be disaster. My question, then: Once an 8mm collector bought Melodrama Rides The Rails, how many times would he watch? (notice I said "he" --- girls had better sense than to mess with this stuff) I enjoyed Melodrama Rides The Rails, but likely as not, won't go back. "Specialized Interest" is summed up by this very definition of toys you play with alone. Hard to imagine other members of a collector's household sitting in. Who knows but what love entails such, or greater, sacrifice? Many stand guilty of inflicting film passion on others less passionate, 8mm an outer edge of trivia's pursuit (and not a practical one --- where will I find a replacement when this lamp burns out?). Best then, to travel solo down that memory lane, annoying no one save GPS readers with relics and rumination arising therefrom.