“No! Stop! Tom! Don’t sit down! Tom!”
The yells of my fellow audience members roused me from my reverie. Wedged against a wall, I’d drifted off whilst our speaker wrassled his computer and fritzing audiovisual equipment. More than 20 of us amateur genealogists had crowded into a small classroom to learn how to digitize old family photos and other media.
Tom, a graybeard of ample girth, had begun his presentation in a booming authoritative voice. “Now, if any of you inherited the cache of family movies as I did, you know that not everyone adopted the 32 mm standard at the same time. Film comes in various sizes. Same is true of other media.”
I wondered if he was going to suggest we run old family films through a scanner one frame at a time. (He didn’t.) He moved onto other subjects but soon instructional technology failed him. First to go was the overhead projector, then the scanner, then his computer. During the down time I pondered an analogy I’d heard long ago, how life is much more like a movie than an individual photograph.
Movies, of course, consist of a series of single still-frame shots presented one after another in such rapid succession that boundaries blur and we see the disparate frames as a unified whole. Wander into a film half-way through and hit the pause button or isolate a given frame, snip it out with scissors and project it onto a screen, and you’ll have trouble making sense of what you see.
Who are these people? What is their relationship? Where are they? What are they doing?
And yet we do tell every day. I do, anyway. “Damn fool!” I shout after the reckless motorist who passes me on a hill. With two words I sum up his driving ability, regard for others, value to society, dim prospects for long life here and hereafter. Or I ascribe undeserved power to troubling life circumstances: “This is it. This is who I am," I mutter. "Nothing will ever change.”
Yet I err when I take life out of context—mine or someone else’s—when I focus on a single frame and say, “this moment is the entire story.” Life is a movie. There's always more to consider, see, puzzle over. Every moment is part of a larger story. Not until it's over sometimes do I make sense of the play, movie, song, book, life. Not always then.
As I mulled these thoughts over I heard our presenter threaten to take his computer out to the sidewalk and drop it on end a few times. “It’s made me look like an ass,” he said. The scanner had stopped working the very moment he’d unveiled his pièce de résitance, an image his grandfather had captured on a Civil War-era glass plate negative. He’d meant to demonstrate how to scan such images. When he’d laid the rectangle of glass on the scanner bed he’d gotten no response from the machine. Gingerly, he removed the glass plate to his chair's seat cushion, then rattled scanner cables, pressed buttons, poked around. Next the computer quit on him. More invectives. At last he rebooted the demon and voilà, victory was his.
Triumphant, he went to take his seat, begin anew. The room erupted in warning shouts.
“Tom! Stop! No! Don’t sit down! Wait!”
He froze midair, his ample buttocks three inches and a half-second from landing on the antique glass negative.
A collective sigh of relief went up even as some wag broke the tension with a stage whisper, “that negative would have had one big crack on it.”
My crib notes from class: Watch the big picture. Don’t overlook the individual frame. Crack jokes.