These are just a few of the hundreds of fragments sewn together in Alan Berliner’s The Family Album (1986), a remarkable “film collage” that consists of 16 mm home-movie footage dating from the 1920s to the 1960s. The Family Album was born out of a chance occurrence: when Berliner saw a note on a bulletin board advertising home movies for sale, he bought the lot, and then continued to add to the collection. He edited clips from the films he gathered to create a sweeping portrait of American family life from birth to death. What is striking is that although the clips that make up The Family Album come from the home movies of multiple families, Berliner pieces them together to form a cohesive and immersive narrative that is alternately humorous, touching, and melancholy—at once utterly familiar and not.
The audio for the hour-long film also consists of found recordings. Berliner purchased discarded audio cassettes at garage sales and flea markets and used the material they contain to create a soundtrack that sometimes echoes the images on-screen and sometimes complicates and contradicts the visuals. For instance, the audio that accompanies the clip of the baby drinking water is the voice of an older woman who says, “Look at this ball, look at this ball of beauty.” For the tea party, a child’s voice demands, “No, you sing a song.” And then an older woman recites “Humpty Dumpty.”
As we watch footage of a festive family gathering, a woman’s voice says, “You’re trying to show a very good light of your father. He wasn’t as good as you say he was . . . I would say he was bordering on being a dictator.” Then, a male voice: “He didn’t border on it, he was a benevolent dictator.” This is followed by a clip of a cheerful father helping his children from a car. And another man’s voice says, “We were always being spanked. My oldest sister got it worst and I got it next. With the strap, and with the pants down.”