Star Search

In the limbo before adulthood, home videos were a means of reflecting back to ourselves a life worthy of being witnessed

In 1985, when it was brand new, I suspect our family video camera qualified as “state of the art.” It at least endured admirably, dutiful for over a decade under trials of escalating carelessness. For most of my childhood, it was tasked only with recording for hours from a tripod. At first because my mother treated it like a security camera, to be set up in a corner and trained on one spot — the dining room during Thanksgiving; a near-permanently supine baby — then later because it was too heavy and cumbersome for my friends and I to hold steady while we filmed fashion parades, fake commercials, imitation game shows, and Oprah-style interviews. It didn’t know motion until I began to bring it out at night while I ran wild with the friends I made halfway through high school.

At parties, it was impossible for a possession to remain exclusively your own; everything was shared (drinks, crushes, cars, clothing). I brought the camera to see what it could catch — I wanted evidence of these people, something more concrete than my memories — so I surrendered the device to any eager hands, trusting the others would get something good. Footage gave away the amateur movements of the body beneath: pans too fast, zooms too fast and too tight, shaky frames, countless moments out of focus. We recorded the non-sequiturs and cutting punch lines, the intentionally ridiculous dance moves and feats of physical recklessness, the longing glances and the drunken make outs. Lights were low or off, parents gone to sleep or to their own social lives: traveling, disinterested, maybe both. Teenagers find adult-free places the way rain runs downhill.

We took pictures because we marveled at one another and our own presence among the others

The results looked much like what we saw when we picked up the pictures developed from our disposable cameras. Picture us in the playground that’s supposed to be vacant after sunset, crammed on swings for which we’re too big, the dark around us fuzzy from the flash, grainy with light like deep water, and the colors of our faded clothing even more washed out. Picture the underbite, the bucket hat, the sleeves of a fleece pulled around the hands, “bootcut” jeans worn with beat-to-hell sneakers. Picture two of us posing and one of us wheeling away in laughter. Picture the kiss on the cheek, the perch on the lap. Picture one of us caught in mid-stride, head turned over her shoulder, arms swinging like someone who either doesn’t care that they’re being watched or doesn’t know how to act when they are.

We were 15, 16, and 17 years old. We were our own celebrities, the only people in the world who mattered, the only ones worth impressing, or talking about, or watching. We didn’t take pictures because we were narcissistic. Teens negotiate a surfeit of self-awareness triggered by mounting, unsolvable anxiety in the face of the adult world’s many demands, but that preoccupation comes from recognition of others, fascination with them — not from turning inward. We took pictures because we marveled at one another and our own presence among the others. “We’re undone by each other,” Judith Butler writes. “And if we’re not, we’re missing something.” She links this state of undoing to both grief and desire. We had plenty of the latter, not only of the sexual variety but social in every dimension: homo, hetero, desperate for interaction beyond the rim of the place where gender matters.

Taking pictures, whether moving or still, was a stab at ascertaining information that felt like it should be attainable even as it could never be definitively grasped: Who were we — to each other, to ourselves, to ourselves when we were with each other? Filming was an attempt to interpret and further indulge in our access to unparsable personalities. Adolescence was our first confrontation with the magnetic unknowability of other humans, and we turned towards documentation in search of explication.

In third grade, when the most readily accessible options were analog, my friend and I exchanged fantasies of our lives on handwritten three-punched pages. We were always rich and unhampered by parental influence, with stables full of horses we knew how to ride. There was no aspect of Fanfic Me I could will into being or arrange training for; it was simply the idea of me, like a paper doll, plopped into a scene. The exercise wasn’t meant to impact others’ ideas of who I was, and writing’s separation from the body makes it easier to disavow; in absence of more sophisticated resources, imagination itself was a make-believe machine that took you to “another world.” But the camera was a creative tool that never left this one no matter how fanciful the conceit. Its stories were built from real homes, recognizable voices and bodies; it set memories in concrete by providing the pretext for a series of actions and then allowing you a vivid, visual reminder of what had already occurred. Filming didn’t remove you to a different place, but it helped you revise the place you were in.

Taking pictures was a stab at ascertaining information that felt like it should be attainable: Who were we — to each other, to ourselves, to ourselves with each other?

I met my high school friends through theater. Maybe they were more feral than the hopelessly sheltered and soft theater-kid stereotype because we performed in community productions, not our schools’, and our community was one of addiction, underemployment, and chicken farms. (Our violent crime rate is the fourth highest in the state; our high school sports teams were pitted against those of the adjacent beach city topping the list due to its many rapes.) One of the girls’ fathers directed the annual musical and had conscripted the boys into joining when he was desperate for Oliver! pickpockets. They should have been good at playing delinquents: They skipped school without fear, insulted adults and relatives to their faces, dented already damaged cars. The boys were forever getting naked, and exhibited the confrontational masculinity of any garden-variety straight man while never hiding the fact of how regularly they got each other off. The girls luxuriated in the subtleties of their social hierarchy, both transgressing and maintaining it through their inscrutable whims of cruelty and kindness.

Hicks, every one of us, and aging towards adulthood under the supervision of parents who’d driven drunk and fucked each other when they were enrolled in the same high schools. There’s a fatalism to life in some small communities, a sense of irrevocable closure, or worse, confinement in a space that was never open. It crept up on some of us before we’d graduated high school: a conviction that this was the town where we’d live and die, a place we could never escape because we didn’t matter, we were nobodies. But for a few years in the limbo between child and adult, we lived like we didn’t believe that. We could convince each other to forget it. The video camera was a means of reflecting back to ourselves a life as exciting, as worthy of being witnessed, as we felt it to be in every instant in each others’ company.

Self-mythologizing is a process of self-invention. Say you think of yourself as extraordinarily charismatic, a person with foolproof charm. When you smile at someone, you change them. Say you think of yourself as not smart enough to finish college, not lucky enough to keep a steady job. When you show up for interviews, with one look the person judging knows it’s a “no.” Both stories can both be true at the same time, or made true at different times. They exist by the same means: conjuring an answer for I am … But their veracity is in part determined by the person who receives the transmission. We received our own.

 Audience is everything. Your friends can worship you while college admission reviewers disdain you. We didn’t recite lines or sing or play act for the video camera, in spite of our stage experience, but we performed ourselves for the camera the way we performed ourselves for each other without it: intuitively and inelegantly, in the hope of impressing and connecting but also of seeing which self fit. We learned from each other, and by practicing on each other, not formally but with the instinct of communal animals. The footage was proof of the effort.

Filming didn’t remove you to a different place, but it helped you revise the place you were in

“Performance” indicates a gap between the real and what we usually identify as the fake, but it can be a gap between what is real and what is becoming so. Sometimes there is no gap because the performance is the realization, the execution, imagination’s actualization. Presentation of the self requires amplification and restraint; purpose, intentionality. You fake it until you make it because the faking is the making. One performs because they want to be seen; you need someone to see you. That seeing is a form of intimacy, the watching a form of care: we made ourselves with the help of each other’s attention.

Adults in the lives of most adolescents have distinct roles — teacher, father, pastor — and those roles are their definitions. Peers don’t have such assignments, which is in part why they’re the real people: so near and ostensibly similar to yourself yet permanently separate. Other. Their proximity allows their mystery more prominence because you see it in action, you notice the deviations and the consistencies and the way the two can switch. It’s like getting close enough to a pond to see all the activity inside. A camera does nothing but act as an arrow pointing to a spot on which you’re already fixated. Because video offers infinite viewing, it suggests a promise of revelation: If you watch someone enough, you will know them.

When you’re young, almost any skin you borrow could, with enough time, become your own. We donned kindness, honesty, aggression, and selfishness like cloaks, and tossed off every attitude the moment it began to constrict. My friends’ charisma was maddening. How did they come to be the ways they were, who they were? (Who were they, exactly?) Their clumsy attempts at establishing adult cohesion threw sparks, producing a spectacle more entertaining than anything we could consume that we ourselves hadn’t made. I could revel in them in a way I could never delight in myself. Watching them was like watching me, but different. They churned with the sediment of themselves; all the viewings in the world wouldn’t let me see through the opacity of that storm.

I vaguely remember scenes from our master tape, a single VHS that held all our best moments, but I don’t remember specifics about how or when we watched it together. It was too precious to be traded around much, and too volatile to risk falling into the hands of any parents who would have cared, so we surely screened it as a group only in the safest of rec rooms. I can imagine seeing it for the first time, though — our bodies crowded together to watch our bodies, the shouts of laughter and recognition layered over a steady awe. There’s never been any movie that’s better; it was the only one on earth of its kind. It featured all the faces we loved, even our own — the people we knew best when they barely knew themselves.

When my mom fixed the camera on her baby, it was an extension of her fascination with someone brand new, unprecedented. A being who had barely been. Her own eyes weren’t enough so she needed to double her gaze, to get the maximum out of looking, to make a document out of the looking, to mine looking for all it was worth. I suspect my friends’ and I recorded with a similar impulse: adoration and unslakable curiosity, and a desire to extend moments that otherwise ended before they could be understood. Other people can never be fully seen but we didn’t know that then, and even if we had, we wouldn’t have looking.

Charlotte Shane has contributed to Fusion, Hazlitt, the New Inquiry, and the New Republic. She is the author of Prostitute Laundry and N.B. and the co-founder of TigerBee Press.