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The Agent

January 10, 2012

Are any of you the kind of people who have actually purchased a movie camera (or asked for one as a gift), and remember to take it to events and record things? If so, you can answer my burning question: who watches these movies, and when?

Seeing parents with their movie cameras out always makes me think of Tristram Shandy, the 18th-century comic novel in which the narrator has trouble getting anywhere with the story of his life because he’s trying to start at the beginning and tell about every moment. If you’re recording every moment, when do you have time to do anything in the next one, much less record and then read about–or watch–all those subsequent moments?

My ineptitude with cameras has frustrated one of my friends who once offered to drive four hours just to set the time/date stamp on my camera, which is never on the right date and often appears to take photos from the future. It irritates my family sometimes, although I will always treasure the one-minute movie of my daughter that I took on my phone because my camera’s battery was dead, in which she impatiently admonishes me to “just finish taking the picture, Mom” while waving and smiling in a manner that makes us call it my “Hogwarts Photo.”

Back when taking a picture meant getting a print, I put my prints into photo albums and captioned them with bits cut out of the newspaper comics. That’s certainly an archaic art now!

All of these pictures went through my head when I read this poem by Rae Armantrout:

The Agent

The time travel paradox:
each passing thought
is the thinker.

Security cameras
record each moment, but
nobody can bear to watch.

We are now convinced
that the past is populated
by automatons.

The time-traveler
is the one free agent.

When the present
goes on record,

she is thinking,
“This feels wrong!”

It’s not a particularly deep poem, nor is it very interesting about time travel. It makes me think of YA science fiction novels like Scott Westerfeld’s So Yesterday, in which the narrator tries to predict trends even as they whiz by her in the manner of the deadlines for which Douglas Adams so memorably declared his love. Also M.T. Anderson’s Feed, in which the kids have “nostalgia feedback” for a moment which isn’t even entirely past yet, freezing them in place.

What I like about the poem is that, at least for me, its brevity makes it funny. It’s about as funny as imagining the parents who bring their video camera to every soccer game sitting their kids down at the end of the day and telling them, like a coach, what they did right and wrong, in order to prepare them for the next day, the next game, the very next step.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. freshhell permalink
    January 10, 2012 9:27 am

    I’ve never had a video camera but I can take videos on my camera and have. A few of Red are on YouTube. But the technology (and lack of synching from one to another) are frustrating. So, I leave all that up to Dusty now. Kid loves to take videos. There are a few movies – on actual film – of me as a little child. Not sure where they are now. My dad had a movie projector and a screen once upon a time and we did watch the home movies and a few cartoons he had.

    • January 11, 2012 7:28 am

      Youtube is a good example of how we watch those movies. In less-than-seven-minute clips.

  2. January 10, 2012 10:16 am

    My parents sent my brothers and me a dvd of some old home movies they found in a box. They attempted to organize them in chronological order, but every now and then there’s a clip of our first dog, Spanky, followed by a clip of the second dog, Smokey, whom my parents bought on the same day Spanky got run over by a car because they couldn’t stand to see how griefstruck we were. Then there are a couple more clips of Spanky, who is suddenly resurrected. There are also long segments of film that show someone’s finger over the lens.

    My oldest brother (the actor and filmmaker) and I were laughing about attempting to watch these clips as a single, long narrative. He said, “It encapsulated so much of what childhood felt like: It’s choppy, people are bossing you around, it’s not always in focus, things aren’t happening the way you think they’re supposed to happen, you’re looking at what someone else’s idea of ‘memorable’ is, and you have motion sickness for most of it.”

    • January 11, 2012 7:29 am

      Brilliant. Especially that you’re watching “what someone else’s idea of ‘memorable’ is.”

  3. January 10, 2012 3:06 pm

    Joy, please hug your brother for me. That’s brilliant.

  4. January 10, 2012 8:08 pm

    As parents who have documented much too much of their son’s life, the key is really EDITING! Out of 40 minutes of footage, you really only need 1 minute or so to capture a moment worth keeping. But, as my husband says, you need to make sure you get that minute so you end up recording 40 minutes!

    And this is the second time today I’ve thought about reading Tristam Shandy. Have you read it? I’m intrigued by it but I’m worried that it would be too difficult of a read. Any advice?

    • January 11, 2012 7:31 am

      Editing…yes, my brother, who used to be a professional photographer, said you had to take a lot of photos to get one really good one.

      I read Tristram Shandy a couple of times, starting when I was immersed in 18th-century literature (it was my graduate school specialty). I think it’s one of the most brilliant novels ever written. It’s very funny. If it starts seeming less funny, put it down, and then pick it back up and read another short bit. It should be consistently hysterical all the way through.

  5. January 10, 2012 8:12 pm

    We never had a video camera when I was a kid, so I can’t speak to the use of filming those videos. However, I certainly did watch a few home videos of my ex-boyfriend’s childhood when we were dating, and they were damn adorable. And my family has watched the small amount of extant footage of my sisters and me as children.

    On the other hand, I recall a friend telling me in high school that her mother had discovered a cache of videos of past Christmases, so they sat down and watching the videos of their little selves unwrapping gifts, and the whole time they were watching they were going “HA! I TOLD you that was mine!”

    • January 11, 2012 7:35 am

      Ah! Two more uses for the video footage! To show to future boyfriends/girlfriends and to prove what belongs to which kid.

  6. January 16, 2012 8:46 pm

    Jenners is exactly right about editing. A book on photographing your kids puts it well (I’m paraphrasing): If, from all the pictures you take of your children from birth to when they leave for college, you have one fantastic picture per year, you will not have enough wall space to show them all.

    • January 18, 2012 8:41 am

      So true. And we tend to avoid having photos of ourselves up on the wall. Old photos–certainly babies–are okay, but it’s seems strange and unnecessarily narcissistic to have photos of us as we look now up on our own walls where we see them all the time.

  7. January 17, 2012 3:32 pm

    We just spent the weekend (when we weren’t with you, Jeanne) watching little clips my father-in-law took which my brother-in-law has transferred to something watchable on an ipad. Nora was very very small. She had a bath. I cannot believe she was ever so small and helpless.

    • January 18, 2012 8:42 am

      See, that’s what I suspected. When they leave home, you finally have time to watch the videos someone took when they were babies.

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