New York

Roger Welch

John Gibson Gallery

Dear Roger Welch, 

Your film Welch turned me from a hard-bitten, young, New Yorker into a cry baby. The freeze shot at the end of your mother’s and father’s heads smiling into the camera—your father forty-five years older than when the film started—was so powerful and poignant I felt very moved. Your Welch is not only educating, entertaining, stimulating, but above all moving. Which is saying a lot. Within a Puritan art ethic there is the mistaken notion films and videos have to be full of “art” (jumpy spots and split screens ad nauseum), devoid of emotion, and dull to be meaningful. To my cry “Thank God for Wegman,” the recent humorous saving grace of video, I can now add your name as the poignant one of film.

Welch, as your blurb tells—a 1 1/2 hour collection of vignettes taken from 50 years, 5 generations and 20 hours of home movies of your family—is not only a fascinating social document, but also interesting contemporary art. On one level, you present the chronological unfolding of changing social patterns and rituals of a middle-class family living out the American Dream. Yet is it this? Aren’t you giving the highlights of unfolding time through the eyes of your surrogate artist,—namely, the home moviemaker? (Who, by the way, must be credited with extraordinary perseverance to record so persistently for so many years,) And aren’t you, in fact, raiding the subject of anthropology not only with a post-Warhol and post-Minimalism artist’s vision, but also with an irreverence for what anthropologists would consider significant? Margaret Mead take note! And aren’t home moviemakers in their naiveté and insistence on recording things and events meaningful to them also short-circuiting a whole Malinowski view of anthropology that says if you don’t have an overview it’s like pizza without cheese? And perhaps, most important, doesn’t the amateur recorder of events often come up with more touching insights into the process of enculturation than the professional? 

Your film is full of fragmentary insights into the way culture affects people and people each other. Not in any Dostoevsky-like grandiose way but in the trite, ephemeral and passing things shown: the way people pose in front of the camera; the boy who pulls the same face as his father 30 years earlier; the rituals of recording births, weddings and holidays where the pleasure on people’s faces is real if self-conscious; the new number plate fixed to the car each year; and the endless processions of school kids who all look the same, but with one who is different. Events such as these, which change from black-and-white to color (I suppose as color film became more available in the ’30s) would be meaningless without the sound track. The comments on the film by your father, mother, brother, and yourself as a kind of metalanguage activity are what fascinated me most. The interaction between the film and your family’s reactions was most interesting—all the supposed trivia: your mother helping your father with dates, squealing with joy when she remembered certain things, or going hysterical seeing you when you were a baby. “Eeeets leeeetle Rogeeeeeer” nearly brought the house down, to your embarrassment no doubt. Contrasted to this more emotional response was your father’s incredibly dignified, near perfect, recall of names and events from over 30 years ago, 

If the film has a star it must be your father. I was amazed by his value-free statements about people and places. People were named, places located. He never criticized. Like a Robbe-Grillet of narration, he must have felt the images spoke for themselves. Perhaps the most engrossing aspect of the film, though, was the capsulizing of time, given that your father and mother are still alive and actually talking about the film. I had a similar feeling when I watched a movie sitting with the people who were in it. With Welch I felt like an intruder into private areas of family ritual and experienced similar pleasure and embarrassment. What I sensed most was a feeling of optimism, especially that of your father and mother—the Depression dismissed with a sentence. It was just so sad the optimism with the growing older. Even though I knew the optimism was in some sense a fictional one, as generally “happy moments only ”figure in home movies, or as you point out “births seem to have greater weight than deaths,” it in no way dissipated the moving effects of the film. One consequence for me is I must go back to England soon to see my mum and dad. 

James Collins