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Movies of Local People

I had a dream once in which I had to answer this question on a test: What are all of Shakespeare’s plays about? And I answered without hesitation, “time passing.” And my evidence to support this answer was that all of the scenes happen in chronological order. I saw the scenes, in my dream, flashing in a vivid, inevitable succession. And when I first woke up I thought, no, that’s not right, because most things are written that way, one thing and then the other as the hours and days pass. And then I thought about how Shakespeare’s plays are so passionate and immediate. How he often wrote them from stories hundreds of years before his time and how they sometimes still feel so startlingly new and real to us hundreds of years after his time. Which doesn’t feel like time passing, it feels like time standing still, or like time passing at such a incomprehensible scale that I can’t get my head around it. And then later in the day, as I was going about my work, I thought about The Seven Stages of Man and Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, and thought maybe we all soliloquize about time passing in our quiet moments, but most of the day we’re too busy with the bright urgency of life to give it much thought. And while I was musing on this, I was introduced to Movies of Local People, a series of films made by H. Lee Waters. 

H. Lee Waters, born in North Carolina in 1902, was a studio photographer who made over 252 short films recording life in small towns throughout the south: North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. These are vernacular films, of a certain time and place, and with a certain simplicity and artlessness.They show people going about their day-to-day life, just walking down the street, mostly, or leaving work or school. The sort of in-between times when they were probably thinking about the past or the future more than about where they were at that exact minute. They’re probably thinking about time passing mostly because they’re glad that the long day is over and they’re anticipating the evening to come. The footage is beautifully relentless, streams of people in different cities leaving work and school, streams of people smiling at the camera. And the faces are so bright and beautiful, so full of life and light. So distinct, yet so strangely similar. You wonder about all the thoughts in their head. The fears and loves and worries. You wonder about their lives before and after this moment.

You worry for them. Because from our point of view, looking back through the prism of history, this is a portrait of a certain era in American history; the segregated South. Of course they knew it at the time, they were living through it, but day to day it must have just been taken for granted, it was normal. H. Lee Waters is not judging or making a statement, he’s just recording, and you feel that he regards every person he captures on film with the same affection. It’s sad to me to think that the act of giving everyone equal time, showing everyone as equally human and alive, seems like an act of defiance, but so it does, though I don’t think he meant it that way. But we know that behind the smiling faces must have been cruelty, injustice, horrible anxiety and pain. It must have been an everyday thing. Every day. It makes you wonder what we accept now that one day we will look back on with regret and horror. Some things don’t change quickly enough, which makes the passing of time seem cruelly slow. Although, of course, it’s the people, not time, who have to do the changing.

The only cinematic trickery Waters uses is to sometimes run the film backwards, so that people seem to leap backwards onto buildings or out of water and land safely high above. Time passes backwards. It’s a giddy, discombobulating feeling, that seems to define all the rest of the films.


The footage reminded me of one of the Lumiere brothers’ first films, which is one of anybody’s first films, which shows workers leaving a factory, and dogs wandering back and forth in front of them. And these faces are also full of light, and you can just feel that the filmmakers are full of wonder at this marvelous new art that makes the mundane remarkable.

Of course for Lumiere and for H. Lee Waters creating these films took time and money. They needed equipment to capture these moments, and even more equipment to share them with anybody else. The time and effort that they put into recording certain moments helped to make those moments remarkable, magical. Today, the tools to create this magic are available to anyone who can afford a phone. I adore film, real film, I love the smell of it, the feel of it, the amount of time it takes to transform it into something watchable, and the fact that all of that is literally in your hands. I love the idea of light passing through the image and projecting somewhere else, which is, frankly, so much more beautiful than a little video watched on a little screen of someone’s pocket-sized phone. I love a couple hours in the movie theater, dreaming other peoples’ dreams in flickering images in the salty, sticky, sugary communal dark. But everything about real film is insanely expensive, unwieldy and increasingly unavailable.

Maybe it’s time for me to reassess. To celebrate the creativity of kids making tiny films on their phones, and sharing them with anyone who will watch, to celebrate the fact that so many people do watch. To celebrate the tools that aren’t out of anybody’s reach. These days a kid can record a little film, a full song, a video of themselves making a drawing or a painting. At no expense to anyone, no agents or marketing directors necessary. We can all record the ordinary days and the extraordinary times of our life, and make them important by freezing time for that instant, and then make it live on by sharing it with others. It’s not so different from the work of H. Lee Waters or Lumiere or any other craftsman who collected and elevated the small moments, who tried to cheat time.

And you start to think that maybe time passes very quickly for every person, with criminal speed, but it passes slowly for humankind. And now I think that everything that anybody does: artists and writers and doctors and mothers and plumbers and waiters and scientists and teachers, young & old, it’s all about time passing, in all its beautiful poignant, painful, inevitable incomprehensibility. So tomorrow may be creeping forward in its petty pace, from day to day, but we’ll do what we can to make the mundane beautiful along the way and we’ll glow with the struggle.

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