Philly film collector finds the weird and wonderful in old 16 mm home movies

    It has never been digitized. It has never been seen on the Internet. It does not exist in a world of electronic samples and .mov files. It’s hard to know to what world it belongs.

    The film sampled on this page – about five minutes’ worth – was taken from a projection of a much longer 16mm film reel that was shot sometime in the mid-1960s.

    It has never been digitized. It has never been seen on the Internet. It does not exist in a world of electronic samples and .mov files.

    It’s hard to know to what world it belongs.

    John McInerney bought the untitled reel at an estate sale sometime in the 1990s, he’s not sure. He does not know who shot it or why. McInerney used to spend a lot of time at estate sales blindly buying reels of film, having no idea what was on them until he took them home and threaded them into a projector.

    “I was on a tear at one point. I had a lot of films, picking up quite a bit and going to a lot of sales,” said McInerney, who waited about a year after buying this film before looking at it. “It wasn’t until I got a good 16 mm projector that I put it in and was, like, wow — this is pretty cool.”

    The whole reel is almost an hour of footage from a circus, showing mostly performers during moments when they are not performing: clowns putting on makeup; acrobats hanging out behind the tent; the high-wire walker hamming for the camera; a ring master having a smoke.

    It has the hyper-saturated colors typical of Kodachrome stock from the mid-century. At the time, amateur home movies were usually shot on 8 mm or Super 8. This unnamed filmmaker was shooting with relatively luxurious 16 mm, and he seems to know how to handle a camera.

    “This guy was clearly obsessed with the circus, and also women. He clearly likes the ladies,” said McInerney. “They’re beautiful and quite talented, some of the footage is amazing, the stuff they do.

    The circus reel is paired with another reel, which gets weirder. Called “Heady” (it actually has a title sequence), it is roughly an hour of footage of a woman mugging in a series of about 50 different outfits, with wigs and props. The outfits are gaudy even by ’60s polyester standards, even by drag-queen standards.

    Did this auteur know anything about Andy Warhol and his “Screen Test” films at the Factory? Was this meant to be an actual screen test for this budding, slightly aged starlet? Was it a kinky personal project between filmmaker and model – one in which the filmmaker invested significant resources?

    McInerney has no answers.

    “This one tends to disturb people more than clowns, because it’s so odd,” said McInerney. “It’s one thing to watch circus folks. It’s another to watch a woman modeling and just stare at you, with not-great acting skills.”

    McInerney screened both films last week at the art collective Vox Populi (319 N. 11th St., Philadelphia), where he is vice president.  The films were accompanied with live music by Michael Lenert, aka Lettuce Prey, who can be heard in this video.

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