Taking a Roll of 22-Year-Old Film Across America

In late July, I drove from Florida to Michigan. On the way through the Florida panhandle, I stopped through the one-stoplight town of Mayo, where I’ve paid a visit every five years since I wound up there during a filming trip in 2010. I stopped into a thrift store which used to be the town’s thriving pharmacy, striking up a conversation with Vi, the elderly woman who owns the building and runs the shop. I didn’t find any tapes, records, or books that I felt the need to own (save for a cool-looking yet too-water-damaged book on Sacco and Vanzetti), but I did find one of those old K-Mart one-time-use cameras. Vi asked me for one dollar, which I gladly paid for yet another analog experiment.

The camera itself was sealed inside a silver polypropylene bag inside a cardboard package, though one corner of the camera’s cardboard casing was beginning to disintegrate. The packaging suggested bringing it to my local K-Mart for the professionals there to develop once I took all 27 exposures, ideally by the latter part of 1999. As one might expect, I took this as a challenge. I made sure to keep the camera inside the poly bag to protect it from sunlight and (as much as possible) excessive heat in my car.

Over the course of my drive, I took most of the exposures, finishing the camera-roll when I was back in Central Michigan. The mechanism appeared to work fine, and I heard a definitive “CLICK” whenever I wound and then hit the shutter button. I tried to charge the flash to test the outside chance that it would work, but alas, whatever self-contained mechanism these disposable cameras use to generate a flash had withered over the two decades it spent sitting in the Dust Catcher).

Anyway, I contacted my colleagues in the CMU Photography department, who regretfully were unable to help me out, between workloads and COVID-related restrictions to darkroom use for people not registered in the program. I didn’t blame them, since I don’t recall being in a darkroom since around the time when my 35mm Disposable Camera was manufactured. However, they did direct me to Express Photo in Livonia, one of few (if any) labs in the state who still routinely develop consumer-grade 35mm film. I called them up, and they had me ship them the camera along with a very simple form to request processing and prints.

Within a few days, I got an envelope from them in my mailbox. I expected them to call me up and tell me that the film was too faded to be worth printing, but that was not the case. Here’s a sample of what turned out.

The Mayo Watertower, Mayo, FL. July 2020.
A table outside of a cafe in downtown Marianna, FL. July 2020. One example of a more washed-out image from the roll.
The worst Days Inn in America (which is truly saying something), outside of Birmingham, AL. July 2020.
Now they have food! Lansing, MI, August 2020.
Downtown Sanford, MI, three months after the flood. August 2020.

I scanned these photos using my extremely frustrating EPSON XP-400, which I wouldn’t recommend unless you are given one (which I was). I did not color-correct or contrast-correct any of the pictures. Of course, no LCD screen is capable of fully recreating the original, no matter how high-resolution, but hopefully these images give you a good impression of just how rich the film remained over twenty years in the can.

I imagine that, had the one-time-use camera not been sealed in its poly bag, the whole thing would have been dust. Not to knock on K-Mart, but I don’t associate them (or anybody in the one-time-use camera market) with enduring quality built to last decades in a high-humidity area. I’ve found similar blogs that shoot and develop film that had sat somewhere cool and dry for 10-15 years, but shooting a roll of consumer film manufactured in the late-90’s was on the whole next level. Thankfully, I’ve always had a healthy skepticism of expiration dates on consumer goods, especially those which were marketed during the run-n-gun, waste-waste-waste late-20th century.

Also, despite my professed love of retroactive archives of 20th century culture like Scene In-Between and Dirty Old Boston (thanks to one of my GEO 350: United States & Canada students for the latter), I’m usually squeamish about scanning analog media and posting them haphazardly on the internet, which is why I’m only sharing a handful of the pictures. They’re nothing terribly personal, at any rate. I hope this may influence somebody to take a chance on a similar roll of film and not let it just go to waste, especially not throwing it into a landfill.

Recommended Reading: ‘The Revenge of Analog’ by David Sax

512bolgqtoilWhen I was visiting DC in November, my friend and I were preemptively reminiscing about how we’ll remember the 2010’s. I said, from where I sit, it seems like where the 2000’s were the decade of us spelunking into the technical possibilities of the digital century, and the 2010’s were the decade of humans reckoning with affiliated dangers (some more evident than others) and escaping the vortex when they could. Resistance, when it boiled down, was so much more than just a buzz word related to people upset at the actions of an administration or particular politicians. To me, it’s about resilience and breaking punching through the wall of a near-Orwellian dynamic of cultural conformity – the kind of society where I got ridiculed for (get this) paying for music in 2005, or daring to use an iPhone 4 in 2016.

Of course, it’s hard to see these trends in action. They’re only observable in terms of, for example, physical book and turntable/vinyl sales, which are still both arguably niche markets. But their meaning and importance transcend those niches, and then some. The process of digital detox is an intensely individual, private phenomenon. One cannot easily observe people cancelling their Facebook or Twitter accounts, and (let’s be honest) the ones who post publicly about plans to do so are usually back around in a week or two.

I just finished David Sax’s 2016 book The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Not only is Sax a very (very, very) good writer and journalist, but at least once every few pages, he made a point that hit me like a ton of bricks. This paragraph did, in particular, considering the wastelands of digital detritus I’ve spent much of the past month sifting through to find some old photos across at least 4 different hard drives:

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Writing this out now, I think one of the greatest victories of Sax’ book is how it helps me realize how easy it is to just take stock of all the great analog businesses in my life and realize that I’m not alone.

By the way, to paraphrase Sideshow Bob, I’m aware of the irony of taking a digital picture of a block of text in an analog book to post on the internet in order to prove a point, so don’t bother pointing that out.

Just Another Sonic Sunday (03.01.20) – VHS and Vintage Games

And just like that, it’s March already.

  • Cool Maps on Instagram
    I haven’t really taken time to express how many fun maps I’ve seen on Instagram (and really, why would I?), but it’s definitely a fun-map-lover’s dream over there. Here is one particularly head-turning one for those of us who haven’t visited South Asia.
  • Shudder to Podcast
    Craig Wedren, who spent his teens through mid-twenties helming Shudder to Think and much of the past two decades scoring almost every show on television, is starting a meditation/ambient music podcast that sounds just as interesting as everything else he does. You can read about it here.
  • Bad Brains and Defiance
    Speaking of DC punk veterans, The Root published a great little piece on how defiance crafted Bad Brains in honor of Black History Month.
  • The Wild World of VHS Digitization
    A piece of non-journalism on VICE (which I’ve already RT’d; they don’t need any more exposure) clued me into The VHS Vault. Everything from the extremely copyrighted to the mundane. Further verification of my opinion on just how much data and media exists outside of the internet, especially given the way the home video market blew up in the 1980’s. What a time to be alive.

While we’re on the topic of the weird early-80’s techno-glut, I had the rare opportunity recently to visit a friend in Ohio who is a brilliant archivist, coder, and trader of vintage video game equipment. It was remarkable, given the legendary Video Game Crash of 1983 (Wikipedia), to be able to play some of the flopped systems and realize, “Oh…that’s why it happened.”

Here are a few of the digital antiques.

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A fluffball named Lucky poses with a pair of early Apple Computers. If I’m not mistaken, the one on the right was the model I used in elementary school in 1988.

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The Timex Sinclaire 1000. This thing was just the worst.

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A floppy disk with games coded for an old Commodore system.

Sonic Sunday Clips (02.02.20: My First Talk in Canada, and Bruce Springsteen at the CMU FilmFest)

Happy February, everyone. This is shaping up to be quite a busy month for me, if this week is any indication. I’ve actually got two talks in two different countries planned for this weekend, both of which are about musical geography.

  • Friday, I will be paying a visit to the University of Windsor over the river in Ontario to talk about Capitals of Punk with students at the School of Creative Arts, in the Armouries. The talk starts at noon.

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  • Saturday (6pm) and Sunday (12:30pm), I’ll be speaking about the Boss for a bit following CMU Film Festival screenings of his performance film ‘Western Stars.’ The Saturday screening will be at the CMU Main Library, and the Sunday screening will be at the Broadway Theater, downtown.

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Have a great week, everyone! I’ll be back with some more clips, announcements, and randomly chosen videos next week.

‘The Last Scene’ Documentary Interview Filming

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Kyle Kilday checking levels before our interview for ‘The Last Scene,’ 12/30/19 Burbank, CA. This accidentally looks a bit like an emo album cover. 

Recently in LA, I sat down with Kyle Kilday, the director of the forthcoming documentary The Last Scene. Kyle invited me to talk about the turn-of-the-millennium burst of mainstream interest in pop-punk, hardcore, emo, and “emo.” We had a great conversation, and I’m looking forward to seeing the final product. If you’d like to support or learn more about the project, you can do so at the official website, here.

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Kyle Kilday, which you can’t spell without DIY.

Nick Huinker (Central Cinema) Pays a Visit to the Geography of Popular Culture

My friend Nick Huinker, a co-founder of Central Cinema, came by my American Popular Culture class (AMST/GEOG 423) yesterday. We had a great discussion about how independent theaters have been reintroducing a distinct local flavor and sense of ownership to the moviegoing experience. As you can tell from how companies like Regal have been adopting practices held for generations by locally owned theaters (alcohol, personalization, fundraising events, screenings by homegrown directors and producers, etc.), it’s a pretty great idea.

As I’ve often discussed in the class, art-house theaters have been purposefully resetting film to its classic context, in many respects: produced for a communal, interactive experience. For the first half-century of film, it was considered a low-brow art, something that true thespians would never touch. In other words, it was a wonderful cauldron of innovative, thought-provoking, and genre-transcending/defining art. Unfortunately, a lot of this has been lost to history. Central Cinema and theaters of their ilk are doing great work in bringing it all back to the nickelodeon era (as well as the Nickelodeon era, screening Good Burger soon).

Thanks again to Nick for taking the time to come through! Stay tuned to this blog for more updates on new projects in the Geography of American Popular Culture, and if you haven’t yet, take a dive into the wonderful rabbit hole that is Cinema Treasures. You’ll be glad you did.

What You Swattin’ At!? (GEOG423 Returning this Spring)

I’m excited to announce that I will officially be teaching GEOG 423: American Popular Culture again this Spring. Now let’s celebrate with some shots of Uncle Jemima’s Pure Mash Liquor!

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Not only is this brief sketch one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on television, it provides a perfect encapsulation of (1) what a national treasure Tracy Morgan is, and (2) how baked-in racism and racist caricatures are in American popular culture. When I first did my lecture on the thick undercurrent of the Minstrel Show in pop culture, I realized how little context I had to understand how brilliant this sketch was when it first aired in 2000 (or so).

I was only vaguely aware of Song of the South, as much as Disney was still largely capable of keeping it under-rug-swept at the time, a few years before streaming video and user-side online reference became the norm. I don’t remember if I had yet connected the dots between Splash Mountain, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” other relics of the post-War/pre-Civil Rights era with the beautifully modulated satire here.  Then and now, it was an exceptional use of television as a medium for sketch comedy and one of my favorite moments in SNL’s decades-long, peaks-and-valleys history.

I had an absolute blast teaching 423 (cross-listed with American Studies) for the first time this past Spring, and my department has rewarded me by adding a section during what would otherwise have been an off-year. A colleague has invited me to present this as a guest-lecture in a course on race and racism next month. I also hope to incorporate this into my discussion on symbolic gentrification at Relix Mic Nite on November 8th. It’s all coming together…slowly.

‘The Last Scene’ Trailer & Campaign

I’m appearing in a new documentary called The Last Scene, which covers pop-punk’s millennial epoch and surprising transition. The director, Kyle Kilday, approached me with questions about scene dynamics and the social role of rock music, and I show up (briefly) in his sizzle reel, embedded here:

It’s always weird seeing myself on camera – particularly as a talking-head “expert” in a documentary. As someone whose love of bands like The Get Up Kids and Hot Rod Circuit helped him endure the end of high school, I can’t wait to see where the project goes. I’ve already been invited to (production pending) re-film an extended interview in LA this Fall.

Kilday has set up this IndieGoGo page for those interested in contributing!

The Pancreatic Philosophy of Oswald Bates

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Growing up watching In Living Color spoiled me. For one thing, it made it impossible for me to enjoy MAD TV  when it hit the air in 1995, one year after ILC ended. From what I recall, Saturday Night Live was at its nadir (it had yet to be resurrected by Will Ferrell and Molly Shannon, the latter having appeared in ILC). Like Saturday Night Live before it, the writers of In Living Color leveraged recurring characters to keep viewers invested in the show and to keep writers able to fill weekly half-hour time blocks with limited ideas. Some early-90’s sketch comedy, like The State, lampooned this top-down pressure to use and overuse characters. When FOX first aired MAD TV in 1995, it enjoyed the typical “Wild West” phase of wierdness while it was getting its feet under it (Kato Kaelin featured prominently on the first two episodes), then quickly reverted unapologetically into character-based humor. The problem for me was that, even Will Sasso’s hilarious (though increasingly plot-shredding) Kenny Rogers send-up, none of these recurring characters said anything. They were shameless gimmicks, and their audience devoured it.

To say that I owe most of my pre-college knowledge of African-American culture to the writers and producers of In Living Color (many of whom, I acknowledge, were white) is probably the finest critique of the education I received growing up. I don’t recall any of my teachers discussing the 1992 riots in Los Angeles with my classmates and I, most likely because (1) bringing any kind of radical politics into white suburban classrooms was taboo, (2) they were successfully convinced to sympathize with the LAPD, or (3) they didn’t think it really affected us. We were on the other side of the country and the riots were framed as a “black” issue. To any of my teachers who did mention it in a current events discussion, I apologize, but the longest-lasting allegorical lessons about the riots came via David Alan Grier, Jim Carrey, and their cast-mates.

The greatest strengths of In Living Color, other than the obvious re-elevation of African-American culture within the overwhelmingly white medium of sketch comedy, were the socio-political statements that their recurring characters made. Some, like Lil’ Magic (Kim Wayans), an overzealous little girl from the projects pining for her big break, no matter how humiliating, were sold so well they became sad. Only one or two of the show’s recurring characters (Fire Marshall Bill and Vera DeMilo, both played by Jim Carrey and, like most of the recurring characters, excruciatingly quotable) skirted sociopolitical statements in honor of flat-out absurdist humor. This was important, though, tilling each half-hour episode with eclectic writing and themes. It worked, too, since I’ve seen almost every episode of the show, and I could count on one hand the number of episodes that didn’t have at least one good sketch.

One of the show’s most impressive feats is, considering how long ago it ended and how admittedly-dated some of the humor can come across in 2018, just how prolifically In Living Color has been a gift that’s kept on giving. Throughout my time as a teaching assistant in introductory Geography courses at Long Beach State, I would routinely share particular sketches that remained relevant well into the 2010’s as companions to the lecture topics. “Using sketch comedy to teach cultural geography” could easily become the title of a future journal article, considering how long I’ve been doing it and how much I’ve thought about the idea. I managed to bookend a lecture on minstrelsy in popular culture with two different Tracy Morgan sketches, both of which fit the themes like a glove.

Yesterday, I led a discussion on mass incarceration for my Geography of Human Rights class, and my favorite of the ILC recurring character stable, Oswald Bates (Damon Wayans), came to mind. I didn’t plunge my class down that rabbit hole too far, but I couldn’t shake one particular sketch from my mind. Barbara Bush (Kelly Coffield) pays a visit to some prisoners who have learned to read thanks to her ambitious literacy program. You can watch it below:

The Bates character had already been well established by this season (as evidenced by the crowd cheering at his appearance – a FOX TV hallmark). I’m unsure as to how much freedom Wayans had to ad-lib, but he sold this character beautifully from Season One. Despite how his mouth has gotten him in understandable trouble in recent years, seeing these sketches is a reminder of what a talented performer Wayans was at the time. Only once or twice in my memory did he ever crack, despite spewing increasingly profane (yet still air-able) psychobabble that would put even the most obscurantist academic in stitches. Although I’m sure the show got criticized for taking potshots at erstwhile illiterate prisoners, Oswald always appeared fully in control of his position, and even more remarkably, he was actually understandable. Here is one of my favorite Oswald Bates moments, where he applies for parole and the incongruity of his reading comprehension forms a graceful punchline in the middle:

Oswald Bates spoke to one great contradiction within our prison system: the liberal appeal to humanitarian treatment (which is good) without addressing the factors that put him in prison. They addressed a few facets of his past, including that he has a son who is just as confused as him. He is also clearly the product of a sub-par literacy program; he reads at a post-graduate level (albeit, sex-ed pamphlets and such) but has no context for what any of it means.

Did I immediately recognize all of the layers as to why this was so funny when I first saw it over twenty years ago?  Of course not. I did, however, understand the message almost immediately, and even more impressive on the part of Wayans and the writers, they still make me laugh today and continuously pop into my head when discussing topics as serious and bleak as mass incarceration. Considering how often American film and television go to lengths to romanticize (and in doing so, trivialize) prison and prisoners, Oswald Bates and the In Living Color producers contributed to the conversation about their underlying humanity and ambition. Most of their recurring characters did.