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At MoMA, Home Movies That Reveal the World

A 1927 film from the industrialist Wise family of Cleveland shows Samuel Wise and his friends comically “roughing it” on a lake in Canada. The silent-film actress Colleen Moore looks to have been a cutup on her own time, posing with a St. Bernard in a convertible. In a film from about 1928 of a garden party hosted by the German screen star Conrad Veidt the actor Emil Jannings has the presence to the enter the frame with a dog under each arm, and Greta Garbo smiles (she doesn’t quite laugh) while playing with a child. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and his wife, Mary, as Hollywood royalty, were able to add titles and intertitles to “A Personal Production,” a film of their baby — one of relatively few movies here shot in the decidedly non-home format of 35 millimeter.

As you walk through the exhibition, lines between professionalism and dabbling seem to dissolve. Are we watching editing or simply a camera being started and stopped? Are these superimpositions deliberate or accidental? Does it matter?

Because the works have different running times, they are bound to align in different ways for different visitors. But catch two clips in your eye at just the right moment, and bits of happenstance emerge. Trucks depart museums simultaneously in 1937 and 1954. The 1942 Ice Follies filmed by Russ Meyer — who knew the king of the nudies (“Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”) shot wholesome home movies? — are met with a response from Sesame Street characters figure-skating in another part of the room (in a film of a “dream trip” by an unidentified filmmaker).

The possibilities

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