perm_identity Preserving the past as best we can

by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 167 ~ April, 2011

My father was obsessed with movies, with film and videotape, and always recording events, capturing them for all time. He wasn’t just interested in the act of taking home movies when my brother, two sisters, and I were young, he actually was determined to serve as the consummate director. I remember many summer home movies starting out as just that, only to eventually evolve into staged events in which my father was telling us how we should act.

My father was a renowned psychiatrist, first setting up a private practice during the heyday of psychiatry in Manhattan during the 1950s. One of the benefits, the lucrative benefits of the time, was that my father spent the entire summer, the months of July and August, with us, his family, at a resort on a lake in Ontario, about two hours north of Toronto, before we returned with mixed emotions, but much regret at leaving our summer friends, to New Jersey on the Sunday before Labor Day.

The majority of those early home movies were taken at the lodge during the summer. But, such moments were never spontaneous or relaxed affairs, and I was always a reluctant participant, perhaps because I was the oldest kid, or maybe because I was more aware of pretense versus actuality. It wasn’t difficult to conclude my father’s home movies weren’t fun loving affairs when we were forced to undergo more than one take of a scene for my father, while he continued giving directions from behind the camera.

One particular instance comes to mind, a day when we were not having lunch in the dining room at the lodge as usual, but instead were going on a picnic to one of the islands off in the lake, in this case, Elephant Island, a long rectangular shaped spread of rocks with the far end narrowing off as if it was the trunk of such a beast.

In our family, a picnic wasn’t just a picnic, it was a glorious event, one that my father wanted to capture on film for all ages.

We, his children, were given our instructions. We were aware of our roles and what was expected.  Cardboard signs had been prepared beforehand, each sign containing one word, and each of us four children, respectively, were to appear on the dock leading out to the boat with the 45 hp Evinrude motor waiting at the end. Since I was the oldest, I was the first to start down the dock and then turn to the side, holding up my sign and facing the camera, before by my father who was standing in the shallow water. The word on my sign was a nondescript “THE” in red letters.

My sister, Wendy, a year younger than me, came next, following the same routine, turning toward my father, and the camera, with a sign with the word “ALGER” written across it. Timmy and Penny came next, with signs with the words, “FAMILY” on Tim’s and “PICNIC” on Penny’s. And that was the start of the home movie, enough said, “The Alger Family Picnic,” which was accomplished successfully with my father saying, “cut” after three or four takes. After all, smiles had to be correct, and signs held properly, so four takes wasn’t so bad.

Every summer at the lodge, Civic Holiday, the most frequently used name for a public holiday celebrated in parts of Ontario on the first Monday of August, was a big event, with all the guests competing in games, for both children and adults, stuff like three-legged races, and potato sack races, and egg catching contests, and the like. The children’s games started the festivities in the morning shortly after breakfast.  Of course, depending on one’s age, you could either end up with a significant advantage or liability depending on which age range you were grouped in. Obviously, unless one was completely uncoordinated, an eight-year-old should be the favorite competing in the five- to eight-year-old group. And if you were thirteen, the odds should be in your favor against any competitors who were nine and ten, or so one would think?

To this day, and I’m not really sure why, I hated Civic Holiday. I didn’t like the crowd, or what I perceived as people trying to have what I considered “forced” fun, and since I was a devoted baseball player and fan, none of the races particularly made sense to me, and seemed more foolish than involving any great skill.  I’d rather field a sharp grounder and throw a runner out at first than win a race where I was required to get down on all fours and push a hard boiled egg with my nose to the accompanying clapping and cheering of overexcited parents.

And, of course, though he couldn’t influence any of the events in progress, my father was here, there, and everywhere, with his camera, documenting the day’s events. He was able to switch back into director mode at various moments, such as getting Wendy to pose after winning a race, or organizing different groupings of judges, or participants, or waitresses who worked at the lodge, or whatever he thought best contributed to his documentary panorama.

That was one of my first big conflicts with my father; I was not a proponent of recorded life. I never quite understood why anyone would want to capture something on film that I didn’t even want to be part of in the first place. To my father’s credit, I think he was fascinated with human behavior, which makes sense for a psychiatrist, being obsessed with the interpretation of behavior, at times over interpretation from my perspective, and somehow this led him to want to recapture everything on film. But to me, it was pretense, none of it was genuine, so I never was intrigued by what I viewed second hand.

The Civic Holiday awards ceremony always occurred after dinner in front of the main lodge building, with the three judges, all guests, seated at a small card table. There were prizes for coming in first, second and third, with winners, respectively, receiving a red, blue, or yellow ribbon, and a quarter, dime, or nickel, depending on what place one took in any given event. As I grew older, I participated in less and less events, until by the age of twelve my only participation in Civic Holiday was to gaze and daydream about attractive eighteen-year-old waitresses whose tan legs in shorts I greatly admired.  I do know that whether I entered many events or not, over the years, I was lucky if I won two, or three ribbons at the most by the end of the day. Wendy, on the other hand, was of Olympic style caliber, every year the front of her shirt a rainbow of multiple ribbons.

I do remember collaborating on a film with my father when I was ten or so, a home movie based on one of The Hardy Boys mysteries by Franklin W. Dixon. My cousin Dave, who was two years older than me, and the son of my mother’s older brother, introduced me to The Hardy Boys, and I quickly read all the books in the series. Based on what Cousin Dave told me about the Hardy Boys’ story, The Clue Of The Broken Blade, I came up with the idea of making a movie of it. My father eagerly agreed to film it, acknowledging that it was my idea and he would follow the script as well as he could, which, of course, meant he was a responsible adult so some of my ideas, to stay true to the novel, were a practical impossibility, but then again, I was only ten.

It actually was fun making the movie, though my father and I inevitably had “artistic” differences, if it could be called that. At one point in the book, a man crashes his car into a store. My sister was playing that character and I wanted her to drive a car up gently into the side of the cottage, simulating the destruction of the building. My father didn’t think that was such a good idea. In any case, his solution was to film my sister sitting behind the steering wheel of his car, and then my mother got in and drove the car while my father took a long shot of the exterior of the vehicle, then stopped, and then took another short clip of my sister behind the steering wheel.

Okay, so we solved the problem created by having my sister driving the car, but what about the accident?  From my perspective, this is where the movie began to fall apart. We created a fake store by the side of the cottage next to the porch, using rubber mattresses as walls, and then, as my sister’s character entered the make believe store, she tripped over a flat yellow plastic, rectangular bottom of a toy boat, and as she fell, she knocked all the canned goods and soda and such off the simulated shelves of the store in a completely preposterous manner.

To say that my sister overacted, with her arms flailing wildly, hitting everything in sight, including knocking down one of the blue and red mattresses serving as a wall, would be a mild observation. At that point, all suspension of disbelief disappeared and the credibility of my idea for the execution of a movie being faithful to the Hardy Boys’ detective mystery The Clue Of The Broken Blade was shattered. But, I was still having fun, and Cousin Dave seemed to be enjoying himself, so with my father’s help, we proceeded to shoot the next scene, a climatic one in which Frank and Joe Hardy, played by Cousin Dave and myself, save another character from a poisonous snake.

I guess that was the point where I truly recognized, and accepted, that this movie was not going to be in the realistic tradition. The poisonous snake was made out of play dough — a hideous turquoise color. My father filmed the play dough snake, then stopped, and we would move it ahead a bit, and then repeat the process until at last the snake was next to the ankle of the intended victim. That’s when Cousin Dave and I, as the Hardy Boys, came to the rescue and grabbed the snake. The only problem, and one that was captured on film, was that the play dough snake broke in half and Dave and I were each left holding separate turquoise pieces, and inevitably, we started laughing at the absurdity of the situation, and that was pretty much the end of my attempt, with my father’s able assistance, of making a film about The Clue Of The Broken Blade.

The one instance of my father taking movies that stands out more than any other is his capturing me in a humiliating moment without recognizing what had happened and how I felt. It was a trivial matter, nothing of lasting significance, but I remember the embarrassed, stunned, helpless feeling I experienced at the time. It was during a lodge competition in which kids were divided up into two Indian tribes on the beach.  One tribe was defending its camp and the other was attacking. I’m not sure what the grown ups were expecting, or if any had given much thought to potential outcomes or consequences. In short, though, it started out as a charge by one tribe running into the other and an all out multiple wrestling melee ensued, one for which I wasn’t prepared. I was one of the older kids involved, and in the tribe guarding the camp, when Dan King, about my age, but much bigger, blindsided me, barreling into my side and sending me sprawling down on top of the sand beneath me.

I wasn’t hurt, but the unexpected shot, and my inability to protect myself, or measure up to an equal standoff, filled me with embarrassment, anger, and  shame, and since Dan was my friend, or so I thought, I felt betrayed. While in such a state, with ensuing conflict within, all negative, I began to cry. I picked myself up and wandered along the front of the lake down toward our cottage, my right hand raised to my tear-filled eyes, little knowing my father had shifted from filming the action between the Indian tribes and instead was concentrating on my solitary walk of defeat along the shoreline.

I have no idea where all my father’s home movies are today. I haven’t seen any of them in decades, but I do remember seeing the replay of my dejected journey away from the fray and back to our cottage. By the time, I saw it again, a recaptured moment which I wish didn’t exist, I was in my early teens and was struck more by why my father would even film that scene, oblivious to what I might be thinking. I recalled very well how I felt at the time of the incident, but had matured since then and saw it in perspective, but that didn’t come close to answering why my father would continue filming his outcast, downtrodden son trudging along the shoreline with tears freely flowing.

The summer I was eleven, I started attending camp in another part of Ontario, and my father stopped spending the entire summer at the lodge, coming up for a week in July and the last two weeks before Labor Day. That was the point where I disappeared from the home movies, and also wasn’t around when my father became fascinated with videotaping, both in his psychiatric practice with patients, as well as documenting family occasions.  The use of videotape, or perhaps I should say obsession, was a natural progression for my father.  And at times, he would videotape folks watching videotapes of themselves so he could record their respective reactions, which created a process, which, I suppose, could go on forever, the videotaping of videotaping people watching videotapes until someone saved the day by yelling, “Enough!”

The last time my entire family was together, meaning my parents and my siblings and me, was some ten years ago, at a memorial service in Ontario, just north of Toronto, for my brother-in-law who died at the age of fifty after a horrific battle with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Naturally, the memorial service was recorded on videotape, though my father didn’t film it, but did offer supervisory tips and suggestions to the guy with the camera whom he hired to preserve the event.

I was surprised, but I was the one selected by my sister, Wendy, to give the eulogy before some 200 or so people, a majority of whom were Canadian friends of my parents, with many being part of their lives since their childhoods. Everyone told me I delivered a moving talk, which I guess I did. I caught myself choking up a couple times while speaking, thinking of the enormity of the loss of a father, such as my brother-in-law, who had a son and a daughter, ages three and nine, respectively.

Extra copies of the videotape of the memorial were made, with each member of the family getting one, but I declined. There was no need or great urge for me to ever see what I had already done. My recall and memories were quite enough. The memorial service and all the resulting emotions was not an occasion I would soon forget. And when you get right down to it, I didn’t have my father’s need to analyze my non-verbal behavior while delivering the eulogy, regardless of whether the psychiatric observations were valid or not. In the end, it didn’t matter, my brother-in-law was dead, my sister was a widow, and my niece and nephew had lost their father, and a videotape would never return things to the way they were.