Transcript

225:

Home Movies
Transcript

Originally aired 11.08.2002

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

OK, you know the rules. No smoking in here. Cell phones off. No talking during the show. Ready? OK, let's roll the film. This is a home movie, and it looks like any other home movie. People at a summer resort. White cottages with screened-in porches and red roofs. There's a woman with an 18-month-old girl running around.

Kathy Alexander

There I am. Aren't I cute? Look at that. Chubby. Some things just don't change.

Ira Glass

Kathy Alexander is the 18-month-old in the film, now all grown up. What interests her in this film is the woman. Kathy is adopted, and she thinks that this woman, whose name she does not know, might be her real mother. The woman's face is mostly obscured because they're in the shade. It's fuzzy. The film's old, and Kathy strains to see the resemblance.

Kathy Alexander

Oh, here she is. See, almost right in here, you could see her face. And if I could just get that lightened-- some point right here-- see, what happens is, it's lighter, and again, there's my profile. And then right here, this right here, is my posture. Just looking at that looks like I'm looking at myself on one of my other home videos. And here-- if you could take a look, if I can even just show you that thigh. I mean, nobody's got thighs like that. Those are mine. That's a hereditary feature because I could see my daughter has, just like I did.

Ira Glass

She watches this minute of film over and over. She gives copies of it to friends the way that other people hand out pictures of their kids. It's one of the most important things she owns. But to look at it, you'd never know because all home movies look alike. When they mean anything, it's small and it's private. The pictures themselves don't tell much. You know what I'm talking about.

Alan Berliner

Birthday parties, weddings, rites of passage. First steps. Babies in bassinets.

Ira Glass

Alan Berliner spent six years of his life going around finding old home movies and watching them and collecting them and finally condensing them into this amazing film that he called Family Album.

Alan Berliner

There's invariably the baby that they put on the back of the family dog.

Ira Glass

That's a standard shot? You've seen that a lot?

Alan Berliner

I've seen several of that. Yes. The beach is also big, big.

Ira Glass

Big.

Alan Berliner

Big time beach. Summer beach.

Ira Glass

The beach figures bigger into our home movies than into our lives.

Alan Berliner

Yeah, I would say. Swimming is a big thing that Earthlings do, according to home movies. Life on earth is a life of leisure without struggle that, again, mostly takes place in the summer, in the water, at beaches, or around pools. Home movies are also primarily about children. Perhaps 60%, 70% percent of home movies contain images of children, I would say up to about the age of 12 or so. And then it stops.

In fact, I've seen many, many collections of home movies, and they'll be-- for argument's sake, imagine a girl named Adrian. The cans will be labeled, "Adrian, Age 1," "Adrian, Age 2," "Age 3," "Age 4." And at about age 11 or 12, it stops. There's no more Adrian until, perhaps, she gets married. And that's because puberty happens, adolescence happens, and you suddenly have a kind of tension within the family in terms of the relation between parent and child.

Ira Glass

So when there are kids in the films, they're cute and they're little and they're happy.

Alan Berliner

All the time. All the time.

Ira Glass

Home movies are a family's way of preserving, forever, the thought, we were a nice family. We loved each other. Any feeling, any fact, about the family besides that fact, generally does not make it into the films. And that's as true, Alan Berliner says, of the black and white films that he's watched from the 1920s as the videos taken last month at his niece's birthday party.

Because all the images in everybody's home movies are the same, because the pictures are all the same, all the meaning comes from things that are not in the pictures, which makes them, I have to say, the perfect subject for a radio show. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, Home Movies, what they say in spite of themselves. We bring you five movies for radio in five acts, including stories from David Sedaris and Jonathan Goldstein, a look at the cinematic output of 12-year-old auteurs, and what the producers of America's Funniest Home Videos know about America that you don't. Stay with us.

Act One. The Big Night.

Ira Glass

Act One, The Big Night. We thought that we should begin today's program with one of the classic, typical kinds of home movies, a video of a holiday meal, a family meal. All the relatives sitting around the table. I'm sure that you have seen these at some point from Thanksgivings or Christmases. There are not many videos from the Jewish New Year dinner, Rosh Hashanah, a big family event, one of the big Jewish holidays, partly because Jewish law prohibits using a video camera or any other machine on that holy day. That did not stop Jonathan Goldstein's family from filming one.

Jonathan Goldstein

When I was a teenager, the Rosh Hashanah tape was the first thing I'd show any new girlfriend. It was a primer on my family that I felt they would need to see in order to best understand me. In showing them the tape, it was like I wanted to make them understand that no matter how messed up I was, all things considered, I really could have been a lot worse. It's been about 10 years since I've looked at the tape.

Father

Are you filming me?

Jonathan Goldstein

Yeah.

Mother

Johnny, put that away, come on.

Jonathan Goldstein

The night begins with a feeling of expectation, everyone preparing for the big night. My mother clears stacks of laundry off the dining room table. With a great show of ceremony, she and my father moved the plastic-covered red velvet couch away from the wall and pull out the extra dining room table leaves from behind it. We'd only use the table twice a year.

Father

All the way?

Mother

Yes.

Jonathan Goldstein

Later in the evening, people start to arrive. When I'd show this to girlfriends, I would freeze-frame on each of the cast and explain a bit about them. This is my uncle Lou, I'd say. On the night of his mother's death, he ate an entire brisket, so great was his grief.

Uncle Lou

Hi, kid. Say hi.

Mother

Don't give me a close-up because my eyes are too ugly for close-ups.

Jonathan Goldstein

Placing the camera up to my eye and squinting into it like that felt good, the way it covered up my face like a mask and stuffed the whole Yiddish circus of my family into a tidy, manageable, little frame that I could fade in and out at will.

Father

That camera has everything on it, everything.

Male Relative 1

Has it got a stand too?

Father

You named the one thing it doesn't have.

Jonathan Goldstein

Early on in the night, I filmed my mother in the kitchen.

Mother

[SINGING]

Jonathan Goldstein

She dances around and sings for the camera while preparing dinner. My grandmother walks in at one point and asks her where the Kleenex is, and my mother tells her to use toilet paper.

Mother

No, go use toilet paper. [SINGING]

Jonathan Goldstein

In our house, whether you were blowing your nose, mopping up spilled pea soup, or bandaging a head injury, it was toilet paper. As a kid, I was embarrassed by this. Toilet paper. It sounded so personal. And pulling it out of my lunch bag to use as a napkin in the high school cafeteria brought just enough of my family bathroom to the table to make those around me lose their appetite.

My mother singing and dancing around the house was another point of embarrassment for me as a kid. I felt like watching her sing "Let's Get Physical" while cooking pancakes was a mild form of child abuse. Watching her now on the tape, I realize she was singing, not because she was crazy, but because she was actually happy. Both her parents were still alive, so she'd let herself act like someone's little kid sometimes. I haven't seen her sing like that in years.

The presence of the video camera puts my great-aunt Simi in a time capsule-y kind of mood. She decides to tell this story about her son for posterity, so my father helps her shout the table down.

Father

Let Simi talk.

Aunt Simi

When Jeffrey was four years old, we went downtown. And we were caught in the rain waiting for the bus. So there was a Reichmann's store on St. Lawrence and St. Catherine, with a little hallway, so we went in to wait. And there was a display in the windows of lady's lingerie and everything. He looks in the window, and there's men and women shielding themselves from the rain. "Mommy, what's that?"

I take a look, and I give his hand a jerk. I say, "Nothing." "Oh, you know. You know. You have it in your drawer." Guess what it was? A pair of falsies.

Male Relative 2

Oh, is that something else?

Jonathan Goldstein

When I was a teenager, right here is where I'd pause the tape. I would freeze-frame the image of my great-aunt Simi, mouth open, just about to pop in an olive. With that as my backdrop, I would tell the story of how, when I was a child, Simi would command me to pinch her buttocks. "You can't pinch it," she'd cry, "and that is because it is too tight. Go ahead." "Keep trying. Keep trying," she'd continue, her face all clenched like a fist, all determined to make her buttocks as hard as a cantaloupe. In her slippery, skin-tight polyester slacks, trying to get a piece of my aunt's ass was as elusive as pinching a helium-filled balloon. Now, watching the tape with friends a half-generation later, I'm not going to lie to you, that story still kills.

Incidentally, I should also say that Simi was the first person who ever really felt me up. Bored at my uncle Harry's Shiva house, she decided to check and see what was in the front pockets of my pants. She uncovered gum wrappers, old movie stubs, and a surprising amount of toilet paper, which she emptied out onto the kitchen table in three glorious scoops that I later referred to as my real bar mitzvah.

Female Relative 1

Who made this marble cake?

Mother

Steve and Lisa's brother-in-law's [UNINTELLIGIBLE].

Male Relative 3

This is excellent.

Jonathan Goldstein

I should probably also tell you that the entire Rosh Hashanah meal is consumed in 15 minutes flat. I mean the whole thing, the gefilte fish entree, the salad, the handmade coleslaw, the bean and barley soup, and the main course. 15 minutes. I remember the TV was on in the basement, and Jeopardy had just started. By the time it was Double Jeopardy, we were eating dessert. But then, paradoxically, dessert was something that lingered on and on.

Male Relative 4

What are these? Moon cookies? Who made these moon cookies? They're out of this world.

Jonathan Goldstein

My grandfather ate dessert alone in the basement, so he could watch baseball. My grandfather was of the mind that no one up there listened to him anyway, so he pretty much stopped trying. He spoke through his actions, random outrageous incomprehensible actions. Like if he was tired and wanted you to get out of his house, he would come out wearing just his boxer shorts and sit right down beside you on the couch. You would collect your things, and you would leave.

This next part of the tape, of him and me in the basement, I never made jokes about. I was so embarrassed by my inability to make simple man-to-man chitchat with my grandfather that when screening the tape I would often just fast-forward through the whole scene because it pained me so. It was just around the whole Pete Rose gambling scandal.

Jonathan Goldstein

They showed him on the cover of Time, crying.

Grandfather

That's what they call it? Crying?

Jonathan Goldstein

Well, whatever it is. I'm sure he's very disappointed actually.

This is what most of our conversations were like at the time. He would stare at the TV, and I would get all sweaty, trying my hardest to talk about anything I could think of that had to do with sports. Since I never watched them, nor did I play them, my talk revolved around the girlier aspects of sports, the scandals, the exorbitant pay raises, the poem I might have seen Muhammad Ali recite on The Mike Douglas Show. And all the while, my grandfather just sat there.

Jonathan Goldstein

He was a legend.

Grandfather

Hall-of-Famer.

Jonathan Goldstein

Well, they can't omit him from that. That's up to the critics, I think.

I have no idea what the hell I'm talking about. Watching the video all these years later, actually 13 years after my grandfather's death, I realize in retrospect that this was around the time he was diagnosed with leukemia. No wonder he didn't want to talk. No wonder he went to the basement. At the time, except for my grandmother, he had told no one. Those kinds of personal things weren't ever talked about in the open. When we all got together, we argued about where the best place to buy a roast chicken was or what was on TV.

Male Relative 2

Well, did you see her today, Oprah, about them?

Female Relative 2

No, they don't get big.

Male Relative 2

This guy had a big one, and that guy has a small one.

Jonathan Goldstein

No one gets to finish a story. Conversation is like this verbal game of murderball, back and forth, everybody shouting over everybody else, nobody really listening to anybody. But it goes further than even that. Here's my mother and her aunt Simi sitting side by side on the living room couch with my grandmother, all of them kind of staring off into space after the huge dinner. Then suddenly, apropos to nothing, one of them starts singing "White Christmas." Then the other one, as though sitting on a different couch in a different universe, as if the thought had just arrived from out of the blue, pipes up with the exact same song, never looking at the other, never acknowledging she's there.

Aunt Simi

[SINGING] I'm dreaming of a white Christmas--

Mother

[SINGING] I'm dreaming of a white Christmas--

Aunt Simi

[SINGING] --just like the ones--

Mother

[SINGING] --just like the ones we used to know.

Aunt Simi

[SINGING] --I used to know.

Jonathan Goldstein

Let's not even get into the fact that, one, they're singing a Christmas carol in the middle of September, and two, it also happens to be the holiest night on the Jewish calendar.

What all this chaos leads to, the logical climax in consequence of the entire evening, is when, in the middle of dinner, my father gets it into his head that right now, at that very instant, he was going to fix the loose knob on the front door. The doorknob had been loose for years at this point, and why he decided to fix it just then, to this day, he cannot say. So my father goes downstairs into the garage to get his toolbox, which, to be fair, isn't actually a literal toolbox, but a plastic lunch pail which contains a wrench, a pair of rusty pliers, a plastic 12-inch ruler, and a screwdriver. The camera casually pans past a wall of neatly-stacked spare toilet paper on the garage shelves. My uncle Lou decides to help.

Father

These screwdrivers are [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. No, that isn't the one I want.

Uncle Lou

Well, tighten the thing here.

Jonathan Goldstein

Now, let me make this as clear as I can. When my father and Lou first started working on the doorknob, the time code in the corner of the video screen reads 6:27. They would only finish two and a half hours later, and almost all of which time my father spent on his knees turning the doorknob screw around and around, for the most part, in the same continuous direction.

Father

Just a minute.

Uncle Lou

He's taking pictures with the thing.

Father

I'm going to go down and get-- Johnny, please, excuse me.

Jonathan Goldstein

The other guests sing more songs, try on clothes, exchange recipes, take third and fourth helpings of dessert. And through all of it, my dad turning and turning like a Jewish Lady Macbeth, one who's abandoned murder for home repair. At some point, people start to funnel out the door to go home.

Female Relative 3

Lou, good night.

Female Relative 4

Good night.

Female Relative 3

Buzz, take care.

Buzz

OK, take care.

Jonathan Goldstein

They shuffle around his kneeling body and say goodbye, like none of this is at all strange.

Buzz

Good night.

Mother

Bye-bye sweetheart.

Jonathan Goldstein

My father does not look up, still hypnotized by the turning of the screw. When I try to tear him away from the job, he tells me he can't help it. It's an emergency.

Father

Is that turning? That's OK. That's turning.

Jonathan Goldstein

Is that turning?

Father

That's turning.

Jonathan Goldstein

So I thought this was the end of the whole thing. But having not seen the tape in over 10 years, I've forgotten that I also videoed the second night of Rosh Hashanah. So I keep watching, and then I see something that I have absolutely no memory of whatsoever. Sitting at the dining room table, sandwiched between my sister and grandmother, is this entire British family.

British Mother

Do you brush it after you wash it?

Mother

I brush it, and I put in big, big rollers.

Jonathan Goldstein

There's an older Englishman, well-groomed and proper, sitting there sipping wine and actually sporting an ascot. There's his wife, an animated woman who chain smokes Virginia Slims, and their daughter, a woman who actually tells anecdotes about current events and expresses genuine interest in my video making.

British Daughter

Well, I know my father, what he did was he had a lot of eight-millimeter old movies from where I was growing up.

Jonathan Goldstein

It's like they wandered off the set of a different home movie and into ours. And the strangest part of the whole thing is that everyone's acting like nothing unusual is going on.

Female Relative 5

Do you drink tea or coffee?

Jonathan Goldstein

Tea. As well as drinking tea, we drink amaretto, and everyone is bumming cigarettes off the old British woman. All of a sudden, we're all having a grand time. Even my grandfather is. Instead of sitting in the basement, he's asking genial questions like:

Grandfather

Who made this beautiful apple cake?

Jonathan Goldstein

It turns out the British family were my Uncle Melvin's in-laws, who were in from out of town. The evening plays out like that old Disney movie, Song of the South. The British are what appear to be real normal people, and my family are like the cartoon bluebirds fluttering around them, trying in earnest to keep them entertained.

Female Relative 5

I use one [? schmuck ?] per week. Last year, I used to use 10 a day.

Jonathan Goldstein

I don't remember filming this, but I'm certain I identified with the normal people, not with the cartoon birds. I remember looking through the camera at my family and feeling like I was a million miles away, like I was looking into the large end of a telescope. It made me feel like less a part of them, like more of just an observer. But then there's one moment near the end of the night, where I hand the video camera over to my grandmother, a total old-country technophobe, so she could film me.

Jonathan Goldstein

Now you're filming me, right now. You see?

Grandmother

I have to close--

Jonathan Goldstein

And when you want to stop it, you press the red button again.

Grandmother

OK. Go-- yeah, move around a bit.

Jonathan Goldstein

And there I am, moving around with my tapered pants, jelly bracelets, and long moussed-up '80s hair, which, in retrospect, actually looked a lot like my mother's perm. Watching the video, I see the way my grandfather gritted his teeth when he stretched, or how he did this thing with his shoulders when he drank something that was too hot, and it's just the way I do it. Here I am, comparing wrist size with my father.

Jonathan Goldstein

Look at this. It runs in the family maybe. Oh, no, you've got a very thick wrist. That's a thick wrist. I think on Mommy's side of the family, we have thin wrists. I told you, I've got very thin wrists.

Posed against the British family or any other family since, there's no question as to what family I belong to.

Jonathan Goldstein

He's funny, Jackie Mason. I'm not nuts about the show though. Me neither.

Father

Chicken soup? Oh yeah, it's good.

Female Relative 5

I got news for you.

Father

But he's not Jackie Mason.

Female Relative 5

I don't like him and--

Father

Jackie Mason is--

Ira Glass

Jonathan Goldstein is the host of the radio show Wiretap on the CBC and the author of the book Ladies And Gentlemen, The Bible!

[MUSIC - "YOU TALK TO MUCH" BY RUN-DMC]

Act Two. The Kids Stay In The Picture.

Ira Glass

Act Two, The Kids Stay In The Picture. If children ran Hollywood, what sort of films would they make? Well, because of video cameras, we can actually answer that question. There are 11-year-old auteurs. When he was a little kid, Darren Stein organized the kids on a little suburban cul-de-sac where he lived in Encino, California to make movies. They made dozens of films. They shot all the time, over the course of years. Darren says that he remembers wanting to get control of the video camera and make a movie from the moment that his dad first brought a camera home. He was seven years old, and he quickly invented a film for everyone to do.

Darren Stein

It was called Crazy News. And it was basically a newscast that was supposed to be crazy. And my dad was filming it, because at the time, I was seven or eight years old. So I wasn't allowed, nor could I probably hold the camera.

Ira Glass

And you're in a rec room or something.

Darren Stein

Yeah. We're in the den of the house. We're sitting on the couches. I had my neighborhood kids in a thing. It was me, and my next-door neighbor, Justin Satinover, and his sister, Lisa Satinover. My brother, Evan. Evan was probably five. He's three years younger than me. He's this tiny little kid wearing a little Batman shirt. And it begins with the camera on my brother, and he says:

Evan Stein

[GIGGLING] Hello, ladies and gentlemen.

Young Darren Stein

Stop. Stop.

Darren Stein

And first of all, Evan couldn't get his line right, so that took seven or eight times, which was incredibly frustrating to me. Because I was very serious about these things.

Evan Stein

[GIGGLING] Hello, ladies and gentlemen. This-- I forgot.

Darren Stein

I was so frustrated.

Young Darren Stein

Forget it. Stop it.

Justin Satinover

Now say it, Evan.

Young Darren Stein

No. I don't want this, daddy.

Evan Stein

Hello, everybody. This is Crazy News. And now weather.

Darren Stein

And then it goes to me. And finally, I'm thrilled because I get to talk.

Young Darren Stein

Hello, my name is Darren Stein from Crazy News. Now, in Arizona, it is so cold, it is snowing. Can you believe that? It's hot in Arizona.

Darren Stein

So I was going on and on And I was saying this and that, and then the camera drifts away from me to this girl, Lisa. And she's sort of staring at the camera, looking at herself on TV, happy in that moment to have it on her. And I just flipped out because it wasn't the way I had planned it.

Young Darren Stein

I'm not doing it. Forget it, God dang it.

Justin Satinover

Come on.

Lisa Satinover

Do it over.

Young Darren Stein

No.

Darren Stein

I should have said the weather and the camera stayed on me for my whole spiel. And then I would have announced either Lisa or Justin, and the camera would have gone to them. And Justin would do sports, and Lisa would do entertainment, like a real newscast.

Ira Glass

When you watch this as an adult, whose side are you on? Because I have to say, everybody else in the room is just trying to have fun, and there you are, baby Cecil B. DeMille.

Darren Stein

I feel bad for my parents, more than anything. And the other kids. A little embarrassing too.

Ira Glass

So at some point, you actually get your hands on the movie camera, when you're 10 or 11. And you start filming all the time, right?

Darren Stein

Yeah, just filming stuff. When my parents would go out, we were trapped on this cul-de-sac in the hills of Encino. So we were sort of shipwrecked up there. And we had nothing else to do. It was sort of like, what do we do now? Let's make a movie. Mark Entous's backyard was this big, verdant, green lawn. And we'd go back there for the jungle films or for the adventure, Indiana Jones-type movies. Michael's house-- or in front of it, there was this canyon that was really dry. So we'd use that for the Vietnam movies.

Male Child 1

Hold your breath, guys. It's a mine.

Male Child 2

Oh, my God.

Ira Glass

They did a Holocaust film when he was 11. They did a film about the day after a nuclear war. In these early films, the high concepts were just excuses so that the main characters can run around and try to kill each other. There are a lot of gratuitous ninja moves. There's the prerequisite ketchup-as-gore. Because Darren was three years older than anybody on the street, it was easy for him to call the shots.

Adam Schell

Darren always seemed very powerful.

Ira Glass

This is Adam Schell, who lived on the cul-de-sac and appears in lots of the movies.

Adam Schell

Darren was always the one that everybody looked up to. Basically, whatever Darren said, went.

Young Darren Stein

Action. Camera rolling. Cut.

Ira Glass

And what would it mean to be in one of these films? What would it mean to get a big part in one of these films?

Adam Schell

To me, it was the world. To me, it meant everything. It was the most exciting, the most cool thing that we did as kids.

Ira Glass

And would kids vie for parts in the films?

Darren Stein

Totally. I would actually offer the part to one kid, and then decide I didn't want him anymore, offer it to somebody else, and create little dramas behind the scenes.

Adam Schell

As we got older, I think when Darren was in high school and he made a couple of films through his high school drama program, there was more of an auditioning process. The first film he made there was Song From Below. I remember auditioning for that. And I remember Darren giving me the part for that film. And I remember I just felt so cool. And then I remember when he took it away from me, and he gave it to Michael. And I don't remember what his reasoning for it was. In fact, I think he didn't have a specific reasoning. I think he was just like, oh, I'm just going to take it away from you and give it to Michael because I can. And I remember going home and sitting on my bed and crying. It was just utter, crushing defeat.

Ira Glass

You know what it's like, though? It's like, a little kid decides to become a director. And then, not only do they have films to show for it, but their personality becomes like a movie director gone power crazy.

Adam Schell

Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. And it was a total miniature Hollywood. That's what it was like on our street. And Darren loved that power, and he maintained it the entire time. And he had the power to make you a star, and he had the power to crush you. And the fact that we wanted it so bad, as well--

Ira Glass

--is also so like the real Hollywood.

Adam Schell

Exactly. It's just like the real Hollywood.

Ira Glass

When you look back on that, do you feel a little embarrassed?

Darren Stein

I feel totally embarrassed about that. It was just, I guess, my way of controlling the situation and having fun. And kids are cruel. It was part of that power thing.

Adam Schell

As soon as that camera came out, everybody just crumbled in front of it and did whatever Darren behind the camera ordered us to do. There's some really intense videos that we made as kids.

Ira Glass

What are you thinking about?

Adam Schell

Well, I mean, I think there's some-- like the Gay as a Whistle film, for example, where Darren puts Allen, who is now openly gay, but at the time, Allen probably knew somewhere in his head, but he wasn't admitting it to the world. And Darren sees this thing in Allen, and maybe it's because they had some sort of underlying communication between the two of them. But he takes that, and he makes a movie about it, and he exploits this thing about Allen that he didn't want anybody in the world to know.

Darren Stein

I think I was 12 years old when I made that film. Gay as a Whistle is about a gay guy who has a coin in this little jewelry case. And when he shows you the coin, you turn gay basically. And this is back in the '80s when aerobics was big, and so our moms all wore leotards. And I thought, how cool would it be to put Allen in a leotard?

Ira Glass

Right. So he's wearing this leotard with lip marks all over it.

Darren Stein

Exactly. And the film starts out with him sitting in a rocking chair, looking very gay, rocking back and forth. And the camera is right on him. And he turns in to the camera and goes, "Hi, my name is Ramon. And I've got a little secret for you. I'm as gay as a whistle."

Allen

Hi, my name is Ramon. And I've got a little secret for you. I'm as gay as a whistle. I've got this coin here that will make anyone gay when they look at it. Here comes the football team.

Male Child 3

Hey, great scrimmage, wasn't that?

Darren Stein

And basically, we have the football team coming up, and the baseball coach coming up. And at first, they see the gay guy, and they're like, ew, it's the gay guy. Let's beat him up. And then he opens the coin. And they're like, "Ooh, I'm gay."

Male Child 3

Oh, it's the gay guy. Shouldn't we beat him up?

Male Child 4

Yeah, come on.

Allen

Wait. Look at my coin.

Male Child 3

Oh my God. Roses, bouquets, flowers. Oh, my God. Roses.

Ira Glass

One of the things I think is so funny about Gay as a Whistle is that as soon as the boys are turned into gay, the way that they express it is that they yell the words, "Roses."

Darren Stein

Gay is about roses, for some reason.

Ira Glass

And did you feel like the film was about you? Or was it even that conscious?

Darren Stein

It was not that conscious.

Ira Glass

Did you think of yourself as gay back then?

Darren Stein

No, I wouldn't admit that I was. But I think I knew I was. But I would never, ever admit it to anyone.

Male Child 5

Is this the end of the world? What would happen if this happened to the president? Will the world turn out gay? Stay tuned next week when Darren Stein Productions present:

Children

Gay as a Whistle.

Ira Glass

What weird about it is that it's simultaneously gay-loving and homophobic at the same time.

Darren Stein

Well, because that's how kids are. I think that's how young gay kids are because you love yourself, but you hate yourself at the same time. What better way not to be gay than to make fun of them and to demonize them?

Adam Schell

I remember-- it's actually funny. If you watch it, at the very end, Evan and I come up. We're on the football team. And Allen turns us gay with the thing, and then we skip off together. And I remember you see me grab Evan and hug him. And I remember everybody else teasing me about that constantly, being like, oh, you must be gay because look what you did there. Look what you did.

And to me, I was like, I'm playing the part. That's what I was supposed to do.

Ira Glass

I am an actor.

Adam Schell

Exactly. I'm an actor. I'm playing the part. I'm getting into this role. And I don't think there was ever a moment when somebody wasn't being picked on, whether it was Michael, me, Evan, Mark.

Ira Glass

I noticed you don't list Darren in that little list.

Adam Schell

Darren was never picked on. Darren was always the one doing the picking. Because if he started picking on somebody else, then he was safe.

Ira Glass

You also made a musical called I Have No Friends.

Darren Stein

Yeah. I went to an all boys junior high/high school. And these kids just did not know what to make of me. And I got made fun of a lot.

Ira Glass

And you had no friends?

Darren Stein

You have to understand something. When I was in sixth grade at this public school, I was president of my class. I was just used to being really loved by people and popular. And so suddenly, I wasn't anymore.

Ira Glass

Right, and everybody hit adolescence. And you're the gay-seeming kid.

Darren Stein

Yeah, and I was completely gay and awkward and chunky and acne, and it was the whole-- and so the street was completely my escape from that all. It was my insulated world where I called the shots. But I Have No Friends was never consciously about me when I made that.

Male Child 6

[SINGING] I have no friends. Every day at school I sit alone at lunch. I have no friends.

Adam Schell

Darren didn't have friends. I think, as long as I can remember, Darren maybe had three or four friends throughout most of high school and junior high.

Ira Glass

Outside the group, you mean.

Adam Schell

Yeah, outside the group.

Male Child 6

[SINGING] I have no friends. I have no friends.

Ira Glass

You've, as an adult, made two feature films, one called Jawbreaker, one called Sparkler. Did you feel that you had more freedom to express yourself when you were 11 and 12 making movies?

Darren Stein

Unquestionably. When you're a kid, it comes straight from your id onto the film.

Ira Glass

Darren Stein and Adam Schell have collected their own movies and created a documentary about them called Put the Camera On Me. It's available on DVD.

Coming up, when America just leaves the camera running, what does it see? And a Hollywood teen movie plot comes to a home movie. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Three. A Half-million Home Videos Can't Be Wrong.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, home movies and the stories they tell, intentionally and unintentionally. We've arrived at Act Three of our program.

Back when home movies were actually movies, real movies on real film, they were expensive to make. The cameras were hard to use. You actually had to know how to work a camera pretty well. You'd run out of film in just three minutes. So most people really did restrict themselves to filming celebrations, babies, and vacations. But now that video cameras and videotape are so cheap, relatively speaking, people just leave the camera running for hours. And nobody knows this better than the producers of America's Funniest Home Videos, which has an archive of half a million video clips.

Todd Thicke is the co-executive producer of the show. Trace Beaulieu and Mike Palleschi have been writers on the program. They each watch hundreds of home video clips each week. They say that they have seen video where people just set up a tripod and film themselves watching TV. They have no idea why.

Todd Thicke

A lot of kids on stage.

Mike Palleschi

People golfing because they want to get their swing down. So that's why we have a million people losing their drivers. And we also see a Little League baseball game. We get a lot of the kid walking off the field saying, I gotta go pee, Mommy, and stuff like that.

Todd Thicke

Then kids sleeping on toilets. Parents universally think their child sleeping on the toilet is funny.

Ira Glass

And when somebody has a video of, for example-- I've seen videos on the show of somebody trying to change a lightbulb and then a mishap happening. How do you explain the fact that they're filming the changing of a light bulb?

Todd Thicke

They don't lead very interesting lives? That's a highlight? Trace, why did they tape themselves changing a lightbulb?

Trace Beaulieu

Because they don't have kids and their cat is boring.

Todd Thicke

And they got a camera.

Ira Glass

And is it your impression that there are a lot of people out there filming all the time?

Todd Thicke

I think that that is fairly prevalent out there. I think if people have cameras, they're shooting stuff. We sometimes say, what are they shooting here? What did they have the camera set up for?

Trace Beaulieu

Sometimes we've seen people videotaping their sheetrocking. It's like, why are they taping this? And then someone will fall through a ceiling. But you see one, and you go, OK, that's an anomaly. And then you see 20 guys taping themselves sheetrocking.

Todd Thicke

I think you tape what you got. If that's your life and that's what you do-- if you're Cameron Diaz, you're at a premier. And if you're sheetrocking--

Mike Palleschi

There was a guy, yesterday, pulling his cactus out alongside of the pool. And then he fell into the pool. We thought, did he set that up?

Todd Thicke

Set up.

Mike Palleschi

Or did they really say, we've got to go film Dad taking the cactus out?

Todd Thicke

It was a set up. We can spot the setups all the time.

Ira Glass

Aha. Now, that's very interesting. What's the tip off that it's a set up? What are the tricks? How can you tell?

Trace Beaulieu

Camera placement is a big tip off. They have the shot. Normally, they don't get the shot. The camera's moving around, and they miss the birthday cake burning someone.

Todd Thicke

Yeah. Usually when the moment happens, when you're taping something and something happens, you drop the camera, just for a split second or something, or you take your eye off it, and the shot jerks away. But if you hold that shot steady, there was no surprise to you.

Ira Glass

I never would have thought of that.

Trace Beaulieu

I think it's an involuntary reaction. But not enough to help anyone.

Ira Glass

Does everybody's family seem the same, when you watch one of these videos after another?

Mike Palleschi

Yes and no. I mean, you see at the weddings when they pass the camera around and the microphone, and people say things into the camera, we find rich, poor, black, or white, there's always the person who puts the microphone up to their ear like a telephone. Or we had an old lady take the microphone and said, I'll have the chicken. It seems like, no matter what you are, there's always that person at your wedding.

Ira Glass

Who will make that joke.

Mike Palleschi

And every wedding has that one guy who really can't dance.

Todd Thicke

But around the kitchen and the den when they're hanging out with the kids playing on the floor, everybody seems like, it's a nice country out there. Doesn't most of it seem-- in people's homes?

Ira Glass

Do you guys shoot home videos?

Mike Palleschi

I don't. But I did just get engaged. And I've seen more weddings, I think, than anybody. And my fiance couldn't understand why I was so nervous. And I had to explain to her, well, after two years of watching people catch on fire, throw up at the altar, pass out, and all these horrible things, people letting the doves go, and they poop on the bride, I was little squeamish about a wedding in general.

Ira Glass

Right. A wedding just seems like a series of possible accidents waiting to happen.

Mike Palleschi

Well, I've learned you don't to have open flame near the veils.

Todd Thicke

The father's pants.

Mike Palleschi

Yes, all the old men must have their belts securely fastened around their waists. And no comedy at the altar. We've seen a lot of guys who-- oh, I can't find the ring. And then the UPS guy will run in the front. They've made the most special moment of their life into a Lucy skit.

Ira Glass

Mike Palleschi, Todd Thicke, and Trace Beaulieu of America's Funniest Home Videos. You can watch that TV show on the ABC television network Sunday nights at 7:00, 6:00 Central. That was such an official-sounding thing to say on the radio. I've never said anything like that in my life.

Act Four. The Cinema Of Upward Mobility.

Ira Glass

Well, Act Four. The Cinema Of Upward Mobility. The plot line of a home movie is usually more home than movie. These are not usually, as you may gather, the most cinematic stories being told. When she was a teenager, Susan Burton tried to do something that you see many teenagers attempt in teen movies, and she actually pulled it off. As luck would have it, the effort was caught on video, and we offer it here as a kind of alternative to the Hollywood version of the story. Her family's videos, I should say, begin inauspiciously enough.

Susan Burton

My dad videotaped a lot of things, all the typical stuff. My little sister Betsy's preschool dance recital.

Children

[SINGING] Rubber ducky, you're the one.

Susan Burton

My solo in the fourth grade spring choral concert.

Susan Burton

[SINGING] The hills are alive with the sound of music.

Birthday dinners.

Father

[SINGING] Happy birthday dear Susan. Happy birthday to you.

Susan Burton

Holidays like Easter Sunday, when we hunted for eggs the Bunny hid on the first floor of our house.

Betsy Burton

I found one in the bathroom. You know what? I found one in the bathroom.

Father

Was it in the toilet?

Betsy Burton

No.

Father

I just wanted to make sure you found an egg.

Susan Burton

I found an egg.

Until two weeks ago, I hadn't watched these videos for years. When I put them in the VCR, I couldn't believe that the world could exist like this again, that it could just pop up like a stage set, my parents still married, all of us together in our old house.

Mother

OK, why don't you guys all get next to Daddy? It's probably not good for me to be out in the dark, is it?

Father

No, it's fine.

Susan Burton

When I was little and planning on becoming famous, I always used to imagine that my house would be turned into a museum of my life, an exact reproduction of my seat at the dining room table, the order of the dolls in a row on my cedar chest, the Ramona book marked at the place I'd stopped before going to bed. Having these videos is like buying a ticket and opening our yellow front door and taking the tour.

When so much of your childhood is documented, there are going to be moments you wish had been left out. For me, that moment is an entire era, middle school. It begins with a hike up Baxter Mountain.

Father

OK, you guys ready for another Baxter Mountain trip?

Children

Yeah.

Father

OK.

Susan Burton

Every summer, my mom, my dad, Betsy, and I climbed Baxter together. Baxter's a good hike for children.

Mother

It's 1.1 miles.

Susan Burton

In this video, Betsy's seven years old. She's adorable. She skips up the trail. She searches the trees for the soft, white semicircles of fungus we break off and take home as souvenirs of the hike. She throws up her tiny arms and beams at my father with giant, brown eyes. She pipes up with little observations about nature.

Betsy Burton

Oh, these are roots. They go down into the ground. Let me see if I can find the taproot.

Father

What is it called, Betsy?

Betsy Burton

The taproot.

Father

Taproot?

Betsy Burton

Mm-hmm.

Susan Burton

When the camera pans to me, it's a different story. Allow me to describe myself. I'm 11, almost 12. I'm wearing a rubber snake around my neck. My t-shirt has a row of teddy bears across the front. Each bear holds a balloon with a letter on it, and together they spell the word "stickers." It is difficult to see my eyes, which are masked by enormous round glasses. I look like an owl, like something from science. I look like what I was at the time, which is a nerd. I regale my family with nuggets from my repository of random nerd facts. When my sister wonders if there are killer bees on Baxter Mountain, I'm ready with the answer.

Betsy Burton

Are there killer bees around here?

Susan Burton

Not last summer, but the summer before, I checked out a book at the library. And it was all about these killer bees who were killing people. And then when I got back home to Grand Rapids, I read a story in the paper, and it said that there's killer bees in South America, and they should be coming up here in about five years or something. And then it was 1983. So they should be coming up about 1988.

Not long after the hike up Baxter, I started seventh grade at a new school in my Michigan hometown, Central Middle School. I'd gone to my old school since I was three and loved it, and now that I was at Central Middle, I missed it like crazy. Longings for it would well up inside me every Thursday night, when the "Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name" song played before Cheers. But it wasn't long before everybody knew my name at Central Middle.

Around Halloween, we received our first report cards in homeroom. My homeroom teacher was Mr. Bixler. He taught earth science and had a fondness for puns. He liked to add fake names to the attendance slip, like Eileen Dover or Justin Case. Mr. Bixler shuffled through the pile of report cards on his desk. Suddenly he held one up to the light, as if verifying its authenticity. "Susie Burton," he said. "Five A's and two A pluses."

The boy in our homeroom with Tourette's Syndrome let out a series of profanities and yelps. I wanted to flee, but my desk was surrounded. Kids were actually coming over to see my report card. "She even got an A in gym," one boy exclaimed.

I'd gotten off on the wrong foot at Central Middle. I had blind enthusiasm for spelling bees, book bowls, and science olympiads. I was the only girl in architectural drafting. My other elective was called brain teasers. I did the wrong things, and I looked the wrong way too. I had a short curly perm that hadn't come out the way it was supposed to, braces on my top and bottom teeth, and weird clothes like culottes. Everyone else at my school wore jeans and Reeboks. I wasn't allowed to wear either.

I'd had one pair of jeans in my life. I was permitted to get them for a school play. It was a one-act about a Michael Jackson concert, authored by a sixth grader at my old school. At the store, my mother pulled out dark blue Lee jeans with pinstripes. She said that my father might like this pair. They resembled business suit pants.

My parents didn't understand. My father said that the boys in architectural drafting teased me because they liked me, all 27 of them. My mother said middle school didn't matter, that college was where you met your real friends. I needed to improve. I needed a manual. So I got a subscription to Seventeen magazine. Seventeen gave advice on a lot of things, like fresh face makeup that would let me shine through, and what I should do if I was better looking than my best friend. But before I could apply any of it at Central Middle, my parents got divorced. My grandfather said it was because we all read at the dinner table. I disagreed, but it didn't matter. We were selling our house, and my mom and Betsy and I were moving to Boulder, Colorado.

My mother told me that she liked the idea of the west, of the frontier, of going there to make a fresh start. I liked the idea too. In the west, I would be popular. I would reinvent myself. Nobody would know that back in Michigan, I'd been a nerd. And best yet, I would attend Fairview High School, where a junior named Holly had just won the Seventeen cover model contest. I had the issue upstairs in my room, carefully filed in a little library of teendom.

By now, I'd been a student of popularity for two years. I did this with the intensity and seriousness with which I'd learned the migratory patterns of the killer bee. I had cassettes full of songs I'd taped off the radio. I'd accumulated the right clothes. I applied the scientific method to wardrobe selection. I typed up a list of my outfits on the Macintosh and posted it inside my closet. The list only applied to weekdays, and I did not deviate from the order. There were 16 outfits, so that there would always be an irregular beat built in, so that I wouldn't always wear Benetton rugby shirt on Mondays or the Guess overalls on Tuesday. The amazing thing is, the plan worked. We moved. I was popular. It was the fresh start any nerd dreams of. It was better than any article that had ever been in Seventeen.

I had a group of friends. We all sat together every day at lunch on our jean jackets in a circle in the front courtyard. We French braided each other's hair. We traded clothes. We had slumber parties. On weekdays, we'd often ride bikes until just before dark. One time, we were riding to the grocery store to get ingredients for chocolate chip cookies, and my shoe fell off in the crosswalk. It became a famous story. There was a famous story about me. The littlest things, things that probably didn't matter to anyone else, made me so happy. I saved any note anyone ever wrote to me in class. There was a girl in the house behind me named Shannon, and one night, we yelled to each other from our windows before we turned off our lights and went to bed. It had only happened that once, but I thought about it a lot. It was like something from a movie, like a dream life. And there's video documentation of this too.

Susan Burton

Susie? Hi. What should we do?

This is me on the telephone in Colorado.

Susan Burton

Well, I don't know. I heard a lot of people were going there, but remember what happened last night? OK, well, should we do that? Well, I don't know. OK, it's only, like, 7:30. So why don't we wait until, like, 8:00? And then we'll figure out something, OK? OK, should I call Lisa?

In this video, I have long, straight, shiny blond hair. I have lip gloss, contact lenses, and perfect braceless teeth. I talk on the phone so much my mother has subscribed to call waiting.

Susan Burton

And then-- hold on a sec. Hello? Hello? Oh, gosh, my call waiting signal just messed up. OK, but anyway, you can come over, and we'll braid my hair. OK? And then we'll go down to Pearl Street, OK? OK, bye.

The rules of being popular seemed easy to me. Anybody could have done it. The main ones were, smile a lot. Wear good clothes. Giggle. Be a little ditzy. I started remembering to forget my lunch. But the main number one rule of being popular was, don't let anyone know you're smart. On US Government quizzes, I answered questions wrong on purpose.

But the notes we passed in language arts provided me with a real opportunity to shine. If my friend Joanna wrote, "Antigone sucks, and it's so cold. I wish we didn't have to walk home today," I would write back, "I know. I should of worn a sweater today." But I would spell "should've" like "should" and then the word "of," instead of the contraction for "should have." I'd continue, "Ms. C is totally on the rag today. She's bothering me alot." That's "alot," spelled as one word, no space.

Things were happening so naturally that I could almost convince myself that my life had always been this way. One Saturday night, a group of us went to see the movie, Can't Buy Me Love. The movie's about a nerd who decides that his senior year of high school, he's going to become popular at last. He pays the most beautiful girl in school to go out with him. It didn't even cross my mind to identify with the nerd. I was in so deep that I identified with the pretty blonde cheerleader.

Susan Burton

Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives. I'm Susan Burton and

Betsy Burton

Betsy Burton.

Susan Burton

And these are

Betsy Burton

The days of our lives.

Susan Burton

These last two weeks, watching video of myself from those days, I saw something that wasn't clear to me at the time. Here's a tape Betsy and I made for our dad for Father's Day, two years after we moved to Boulder.

Susan Burton

We just wanted to make this video for you for Father's Day because we didn't want to get you a book, because we always do that. And this way you can look at us whenever you want to.

I look exactly right, studiously plain hair, silver bracelets, pretty clothes. But I'm still a nerd. Here I am, explaining the music of the young people to my dad.

Young Susan Burton

And then, oh, Depeche Mode. Here's some Depeche Mode.

Susan Burton

I can't resist translating the name of the band.

Young Susan Burton

Depeche means "hurried." Mode means "fashion." Hurried fashion. Or dispatch fashion. Yeah, it's dispatch. Because it's not sous depeche.

Susan Burton

In this video, what I see now is how hard I'm trying. I've blowdried my hair and matched my socks to my shorts, even though it's a summer morning and we're just staying home. I'm sarcastic in a way I know is meant to mimic two of my friends from school. I make a show of talking about driver's permits, even though I was terrified of the day I'd eventually get behind the wheel. The popular girl is in this video. There's proof that she exists. But it's clear that the killer bee girl is right inside her.

Young Susan Burton

OK, I think that'll end my instructional video. As you can see, [UNINTELLIGIBLE] are better.

Susan Burton

I didn't change that much.

Ira Glass

Susan Burton is a writer in New York City.

[MUSIC - "NEW LIFE" BY DEPECHE MODE]

Act Five.

Ira Glass

Act Five, Just Shoot Me. We end our program today with this story from David Sedaris, a story asking the simple question, why even bother to make home movies?

David Sedaris

It was the day before Thanksgiving, and my mother and I were at the Raleigh airport waiting for my sister Gretchen to return from Rhode Island. You could still smoke then, and so we sat beside the ashtray, passing the time as the plane rolled up to the gate. A young woman took a seat not far away, and when she pulled a camcorder from her knapsack, my mother groaned and prodded me with her elbow. "Oh, God, here we go."

The camera was new and sleek, and as she aimed it towards a doorway, my mother covered the side of her face. "They shouldn't allow people to walk around with things like that," she said. "I mean, really. There should be a law." Had the young woman been carrying a loaded rifle, my mother might have brushed it off. But she hated having her picture taken. "Whoever she's waiting for might have it coming, but what about us poor nobodies caught in the crossfire? I don't want to be in some stranger's piss-poor movie," she said. "I don't even want to be in my own."

The young woman overheard and looked our way with an expression reading, "Who would want to videotape you?" I smiled, and she left her seat to stand against a column.

"Why do people need to get everything on film?" my mother asked. "Are they that afraid they're going to forget something? And why do it here? Can't it at least wait for the parking lot?" The exit door opened, and passengers stepped out into the terminal. The young woman started filming, and my mother scowled as complete strangers waved into the camera. We were well out of range, but still she kept her hand to the side of her face, looking as though she were talking about the person seated next to her.

"Now, this is just ridiculous," she said. "I mean, what? Do you honestly think anyone's going to watch a thing like this? What's the point in making a movie when all anyone is doing is stepping off a damn airplane? It's not like it hasn't been done. It's not like there are any surprises here, so why bother with the $800 camera?"

My sister Gretchen stepped into the terminal and wondered why her mother was covering her face. "Do you have a toothache?" she asked. "Did somebody slap you?"

There were more video cameras awaiting us at the baggage claim. A grown man filmed a toddler pounding against the side of a suitcase. A teenage boy shot his father hoisting a golf bag. "I've got to get out of here," my mother said. And then she went outside to wait in the car.

Once, while at the beach, my father borrowed a movie camera and spent the afternoon following us around. We were young then and excited by the thought of watching ourselves projected onto a bed sheet. He shot us swimming and eating and piling on top of our mother who had tried in vain to escape. "This is going to be good," he said. "Come on, now. Pin her down, so I can get a good shot of her face."

My sister Lisa would later suggest that there had been no film in the camera, but I don't think our father had it in him to be that cruel. Most likely, he set it aside, meaning to have it developed, but never quite finding the time. Either that or our mother got to it first. She was good at destroying film.

After she died, we took turns holding her various belongings to our noses. Mom's coat, Mom's washcloth, Mom's pillow. This is what people do when they're left with such paltry iconography. They smell things, continuing long after the scent has faded, and it feels silly to stand in the living room sniffing your mother's hairbrush. She'd been dead for three years when my aunt sent a home movie she'd transferred to videotape. This was film shot in the mid-'70s, when she and my uncle had gone with our parents to the Virgin Islands.

My sisters and I put the tape into the VCR and watched as my father silently pleaded with a locked door. We witnessed our aunt and uncle strolling white beaches and merrily waving from the deck of a boat. It wasn't until the end that we finally saw our mother and then only briefly. Whoever shot the footage had caught her unaware, walking out the door of a restaurant and slowly moving into the sun. It was such a small thing, our mother snapping shut her purse and putting one foot in front of the other, but it seemed to us like a miracle, like the way the movies must have seemed when they were very first invented.

On seeing the camera, she covered her eyes and ran back inside. "Get lost," we imagined her saying. But this was the beauty of video. Our mother retreated into the restaurant, and, against her better wishes, we hit the rewind button, drawing her back out. She was ours now. And we sat there for hours, none of us speaking except to say, "Do it again."

Ira Glass

David Sedaris is the author of several books. His most recent is When You Are Engulfed in Flames.

[MUSIC - "PEOPLE TAKE PICTURES OF EACH OTHER" BY THE KINKS]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our website, thisamericanlife.org, where you can download our podcast or listen to any of our old shows for free. Also, we have all kinds of merch in our online store. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

WBEZ management oversight for our show by Torey Malatia, whose original idea for This American Life could be described this way.

Darren Stein

It was called Crazy News, and it was basically a newscast that was supposed to be crazy.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week.

Male Child 5

Stay tuned next week when Darren Stein Productions present:

Children

Gay as a Whistle.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.