The Secret History of Home Cinema

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The Secret History of Home Cinema  

by Greg Bottoms  

A child appears on the screen, grainy and out of focus, shimmering in dull pastels. It is the simplest of
home movies: a child outside, in a blue plastic pool, knee-deep in water. You watch the picture get

bumped onto the wall and then back onto the screen as some cousin or brother or sister adjusts the
focus, aligns the images.


You are here, in this dark and crowded living room, with your friend (soon to be your lover, but
that comes later). The boy in the film is connected to your friend, whose hand you are holding — the child
of this friend’s divorced sister who has had her problems but is now, you heard after dinner, straightening
up, getting back on track, etcetera. Your friend knows the history of this child, his idiosyncrasies, the fact
that he wets himself still, that he speaks only in fragmentary English, that his mother’s boyfriend, Robert,
who set up the film and gathered the family around, drinks too much, leads an unexamined life and is
probably the product of abuse (as your friend has said, somewhat pompously). You know — because of the
buzz of extended-family gossip — that this child was caught in kindergarten stuffing his own feces up the
bathroom spigot to make the water brown, an action that seemed, at the moment you heard about it,
replete with so many dark possibilities that it was, literally, beyond reply. So you nodded, with a straight


Your friend warned you about the family on the way here in the car, providing a brief
summary of almost everyone in the room with you now. But that kind of briefing, the
let-me-warn-you-about-my-family kind, is always either downplayed or exaggerated, placing the truth somewhere
in between extremes.


You sip your drink as Robert appears on screen with the child, and you wonder who’s holding
the camera. The mother? The child, the real child as opposed to his image on screen, is sleeping in the
grandmother’s bedroom with his mother who had a headache. Robert, the flesh and blood Robert, is
telling you how sixteen milimeter film is superior to video, how it still has the possibilities of art
contained in its make-up, although not much commercial viability. He says how he was going to go to
film school until he realized you have to eat, ha ha. And you thank God for capitalism.


[cut to: thumb, grass, water  . . . ]


The child bounces in the pool, orange floats with duck heads around his biceps, his small
stomach distended in the way of young children not yet programmed to suck in their guts, like

everyone in the room is doing after the large meal.


The cousin or brother or sister turns up the sound. You haven’t connected names to faces
yet, and you’re a little drunk and it’s too dark to see anyway. The audio sputters in sync with the
shifting images. Lines like insects appear and vanish.


The camera is a remarkable thing, you think, with its ability to transform the mundane into
an immortal moment able to travel through time, reappear days or months or years ahead of its actual
occurrence. Every second is charged. There are so many things, all laden with meaning, that escape
the unaided eye.


[cut to: darkness, bare feet, a baseball field, the child in a hat too big for his head
 . . .


—Okay, hit the ball. Give it a good one, says Robert from out of camera range, his voice
slightly higher through the filter of the machine.


The angles are crude, amateurish — wide pans, pointless close-ups, the field tilting like an
airplane wing. There is no craft at work here, no politic or sociology, no aesthetics: it’s random,
accidental, honest.


—It hurts, says the child. —Don’t want to. He is looking at the ground, hugging himself
with one arm as he chews, actually chews, on his other hand. The bat is at his feet.


—Pick up the bat and hit the ball, says Robert. —The film’s rolling. Do you want the whole
world to see you acting like a retard? Just think, millions of people out there to see how much of a
baby you are, how you won’t even try to hit a baseball.


You turn in your seat, glancing at your friend, the person who brought you here, deeper
inside these strangers’ lives than you want to be. Your friend is drinking an imported beer, leaning
back, seemingly bored by the flickering images.


[cut to: trees, sky, ground, feet  . . . ]


The boy is holding the bat now, pathetically, you think, letting it hang over the back of his



—All right all right all right, boy, knock this thing into outer space, to the next planet.


—It hurts. The child chews his hand again, looking away from the voice and the camera, as
if he were averting his eyes from you. The bat slips from his hand and hits the ground. He begins
crying, silently, or at least not loud enough to be captured on audio.


—Pick up the bat, retard, says Robert. —Your mom’s going to see this. She’ll know that you
can’t even have fun without crying.


Your friend is calm beside you, slowly sipping the beer. The same person who fascinated you
by being so aware only hours ago. The person who talks endlessly about progressive politics, who
rambles on about French deconstruction and friends’ dissertations and David Cronenberg and the
pre-postmodern self-effacing irony of Chaplin and Shepard’s dialogue in Paris, Texas and how
that film was really about human suffering, you know; the person who talks about writing a book
about you can’t remember what, but it seemed deep at the time you first heard it, at the end of your
first date/get-to-know-each-other/casual thing, as the two of you smoked a joint and later had your
first kiss and thought of making love but didn’t because you wanted it to be special, meaning
semi-sober and later, after a nice dinner and conversation and maybe discussion of the greater philosophical
questions concerning love and the soul and whether people actually had soulmates, which made you
laugh a little, even though secretly you were hopeful, wanting more than anything an easy human

connection, love, or something like love, without all the fucking work. This same friend, this
soon-to-be-lover, is motionless and stone-faced as the child cries on the screen.


Robert, leaning toward you in confidence and, you assume, a gesture of camaraderie,
says how the kid is a basket case, how his father, whom Robert calls an asshole, just took off and left
the kid and his mother. Just like that. He tells you how the kid needs discipline and hard lessons, how
the kid will adjust to a strict, yet loving, environment and be a better person for it. He tells you how he
had to do something because the mother, your friend’s sister, whom you met earlier at dinner while both
of you hit the wine a little too hard, just couldn’t handle him anymore with the copro
 . . . copra  . . . corpa  . . . playing-with-shit stuff.


You feel his breath in your ear as the child chews his hand on the screen.


[cut to: child, smiling, at home plate, holding the bat over his shoulder
 . . .


—Okay, buddy, that was good. Good hit. But hold onto the bat like I showed you, says
Robert, who must have been holding the camera to his eye as he pitched because of the soft, swaying
movement of the film, the ball appearing from the bottom of the screen.


The child repositions the bat and drops it. He stares down at the bat, then covers his face, as if
this were the worst failure one might ever know in life. And this reminds you of all the failing you’ve
done. Even a successful life, like yours, could be charted by connecting the endless stream of failures.
It might look like a nautical map, with deep blue showing the bigger losses and humiliations.


—Ate you, says the image of the child. I hate you, you decipher, I hate


For an instant, the camera moves into close-up, you think, but then you realize Robert is

walking toward the boy.


—Pick up the bat, he says.


The boy begins running. He trips. The camera keeps shooting


[cut to: feet, legs, feet, dirt  . . . ]

—Look, I haven’t got time for this. Pick up the bat  . . .


[cut to: black.]


You consider the tone of Robert’s last statement. It wasn’t malicious, exactly, or even
menacing, but really just exasperated — a man fed up with the pressures of a difficult child.


Your friend takes this break as an opportunity to escape, which the two of you will joke about
later, and says that you’ve got to get going, actually, that the two of you have got quite a long drive
back to the city.


And that’s all your friend says. No outrage. No activism.


If it were my family, you think  . . .


And here begins the breakup of the relationship you haven’t even begun. In the film of the
child. In yourself. In the coldness you now suspect in your friend. The two of you will fight in the
car on the way back to the city and it will be your first fight (you haven’t even disagreed yet), and later
you will make love for the first time. And the lovemaking will be very good because of the energy
produced from the anger and verbally-inflicted injuries, which will still be reverberating in the air like
an echo. This first lovemaking will also contain the element of regret and the intent of healing with
soft touches and flesh against flesh — which will corroborate your notion that you’re normal.


But first comes the fight. In the car, you won’t mention the film. It will seem too sad and
sick and dangerous, too obvious, to even bring up. So the fight will be under the guise of jealousy. It
will pertain to something about an ex-lover who keeps turning up in all the right or wrong places
(depending on perspective) around the city — restaurants, bookstores, bars, coffee houses —
precisely when the two of you go to these places. The fight tonight in the car on the way back to the
city will get nasty and personal, but it won’t be nearly as bad as the fights you will have later. Those
will get ugly.


The later fights will get ugly because the two of you will know that the end is coming, and
with every insult, every long cold silence and refusal to touch, will be the attitude of
let’s-just-get-it-over-with, the understanding that cruelty might speed up the process. (It will.) But even then there

will be a part of you that feels compelled to hold on, that will remember all the physical and mental and
emotional investments that connect the two of you.


And sex, of course, will be the hardest of these investments to finally give up. Because despite
everything that’s coming, the sex will, for the most part, be good on a bad day and toe-curling,
wake-up-the-neighbors great on a good day. And this wonderful and sad fucking will exacerbate the pain
(but in a way that is not entirely negative).


However, things will be great, for awhile, as they usually are in something worth calling a
relationship. And you will tell people, lots of people, how great things are, which will make the end,
the explaining and re-explaining of why it didn’t work, even more depressing and humiliating. But
first, not far from the now of this story, during the great time, you will invest yourself completely,
give yourself over to this lover’s fantasies with unencumbered trust. And vice versa. And one of these
fantasies — not yours — will involve a camcorder, a close relative to the 16mm camera that Robert is
packing up now. You will always worry about the footage of the two of you appearing somewhere,
tangled together and grunting in a way you will find unsettling, actually kind of sad and wonderful
like those last parting fucks will be. The audio of the tape will be filled with your moaning and
expletives and commands and you’ll think: Damn, do I sound like that? I don’t sound like that.


You will imagine yourself naked on television screens in hospital waiting rooms and up in the
corners of bars as tattooed men ogle you and joke about a blemish on your ass. Your heart will speed
up when you see coin-operated TVs in bus stations and when you think of the small, white screens in
the business-class section of an airplane. You will actually have a dream about watching yourself
make love on a wall of a thousand televisions in the back of a Circuit


But all of this is much, much later.


Right now you are still trying to get out of your friend’s family’s house. Everyone is standing
up, following the two of you toward the door, patting you on the back and saying how nice it was to
meet you and that they hope you will come back and visit. And you will come back and visit because
your relationship with your friend — which will begin just hours from now when you put your hand
on the soft inner part of your friend’s leg and say you’re sorry and then make a self-deprecating joke as
a prelude to the kiss that will get things rolling — will last for almost two years, if you count the last

few months as on as opposed to off, which will be up for debate.


You stand at the door after shaking hands and want desperately to say something about the
film of the child, even though there is no evidence with which to accuse anyone of anything, just
vague, poorly captured images and a sinking feeling. You want your friend to say something, stand
up for the child, because your friend, when you get right down to it, is a bit smarter than you and a lot
more articulate and able to point out not only the problem as it manifests itself in reality but also its
deeper causes.


To break the uncomfortable silence, you say it was nice meeting everyone.


Another long silence, empty looks, head-nodding, frozen smiles.


That’s it. You smile back. And you hate your smile. You are flooded with the vague energy
of disgust, which you will sweat out later tonight as you bump knees and noses trying to find a


Your soon-to-be-lover already seems distant to you — before anything even happens, before
you have even given each other pet names — like a negative of the person you’ve been wanting. You
won’t think of this moment as significant later, at the end. There will have been too many moments to
consider by then, all containing their own amount of clarity and confusion, cause and effect. It will
vanish from your consciousness like a shadow in direct light, like a spent reel of film.


The family is smiling and waving. You are turning and walking down the driveway towards
the car, holding your soon-to-be-lover’s hand. Streetlights hum and crackle above. The night is black
and cold. You stare ahead through your own breath.

G. Bottoms and