December 11, 2013
It’s easy to think of Rick Prelinger as a jack-of-all-trades. He founded the Prelinger Archives, which grew to house a collection of over 60,000 titles—educational films, home movies, and corporate-sponsored movies—by the time it was acquired by the Library of Congress in 2002. Thousands of these titles are available online through the Internet Archive, a San Francisco-based nonprofit and digital archive, of which Prelinger is a board member. But he is perhaps most well known for the Prelinger Library, which he founded in 2004 with his wife Megan Prelinger. The Prelinger Library is a non-lending library in San Francisco, with a primary focus on “19th and 20th century historical ephemera, periodicals, maps, and books.”1 Though the library is a lean operation, with an annual budget under $30,000, it has garnered much national press and prestige in less than a decade.2
Megan Prelinger has described the Prelinger Library as “appropriation-friendly.”3 The library was designed with creators in mind, favoring materials that are within the public domain, and allows and encourages patrons to copy materials from the collection. The Prelinger Library is not content with just transmitting bits of existing knowledge; it places the creation of new knowledge, ideas, and art front and center, so much so that the archive itself nears something of a work of art. Its non-traditional, stream-of-consciousness classification system is an aesthetic experience of its own.
Prelinger is also a filmmaker and uses this same approach to making films. Rather than representing scattered interests, his films are visualizations of his belief in the importance of archiving and appropriating the everyday. He produced his first film Panorama Ephemera in 2004, and has created eight films in his Lost Landscapes of San Francisco series (2006–ongoing), three in the Lost Landscapes of Detroit series (2010–2012), and No More Road Trips? in 2013.
Lost Landscapes of San Francisco 7 (2012), the most recently premiered film in this series, begins with black-and-white footage taken from a ferry as it leaves Oakland for San Francisco. Soon, the ferry (or another) pulls into the San Francisco Ferry Building and the seventy-five-minute tour of a long-lost San Francisco commences. Using primarily black-and-white footage, the film shows viewers not only the streets, landmarks, and buildings that are well known today, but also some that have since been forgotten. Depicting scenes mostly without chronological or geographical order, the film’s content spans decades and shows the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge, parades, picnics in the park, and life among the former sand dunes of the city’s far western reaches.
The film lacks captions, save for a few that were included in the original films, and there is no sound or soundtrack. The time, origin, and even location of many of the scenes in Lost Landscapes 7 may be unknown to many viewers, but even though Prelinger makes no attempt to provide context within the film, he isn’t trying to obfuscate history or mystify the city. In fact, almost no stone is left unturned at public screenings of Lost Landscape films, where the soundtrack is, as Prelinger instructs, the audience, who are encouraged to yell out questions, terrible jokes, and factoids about the locations or scenes shown. Prelinger also chimes in at times to explain scenes, give a little history, and ask outstanding questions. (He often gets answers from the audience.)
Prelinger’s work may lack the obvious radical overtones that characterize détournement, the Situationist International appropriation of culture for subversive ends, but there is something subtly subversive about his films and archives: They bring to the surface knowledge and experiences that have been lost or forgotten. The materials remind readers and viewers of ideologies (good or bad) that we may neglect, they document lifestyles our grandparents forgot to tell us about, and they call to attention the precariousness and ambiguity of history.
The screenings of Prelinger’s films are like experiments in collective memory. No single person is likely to know about every location or building shown in the film (not even the filmmaker), but together the audience creates a complex, and probably rather accurate, understanding of the history at hand. It’s like performing a Wikipedia article.
Prelinger’s No More Road Trips? adheres to a format similar to the Lost Landscape series, but eschews a geographic focus to explore an important American phenomenon: the road trip. Prelinger received a prestigious Creative Capital grant to produce the film, which premiered in its initial form at South by Southwest in March 2013. Prior to making the film, Prelinger wondered what would happen to the American sense of mobility amid a decline in the purchasing and driving of automobiles.4
To better probe this question, he created his own version of a road trip by pulling together a sprawling collection of home movies that leap between the decades of the first half of the 20th century, like a family driving a Studebaker through a wormhole. Like in the Lost Landscape films, there is no narration or explanation of scenes. Unlike the other films, however, No More Road Trips? begins in New England and follows a roughly accurate and continuous route across the United States, ending in Southern California after only one detour to Yellowstone National Park.
Prelinger says that home movies such as those included in his films are “key to understanding private and public life.” Citing poet and artist Jen Bervin, Prelinger adds that while home movies may seem trivial, they have a function and a job.5 These films document ways of life that are in many ways more real than those of sitcoms, commercials, radio dramas, novels, plays, or films. To be sure, home movies are always framed by their creators—often heavily so—but they still transmit genuine and earnest depictions of life. There is a scene in No More Road Trips? where an elderly man drinks from a fountain labeled “spring of youth.” The movie then cuts to a boy drinking from the fountain and, as he finishes, the movie cuts once more to an even younger boy drinking from the fountain. The playful scene is obviously not real, and the roadside fountain would be of little interest to Juan Ponce de León, but this thirty-second scene provides more insight into the lives of that particular family than the creators of The Andy Griffith Show could ever dream.
Any single clip is unlikely to drastically shift a viewer’s worldview, but one scene can indeed inform the nuances of time and place to create an image of a more realistic world than might be accessed firsthand. This phenomenon isn’t relegated to films from before my time. I’m green with envy of future anthropologists studying the YouTube rants, LiveJournals, and animated GIFs so easily disregarded as frivolous today. It’s a treasure trove I imagine any student of history would kill for.
There is, however, no reason to wait before appreciating our quotidian culture. Prelinger has spent decades amassing an archive of what he calls “ephemeral” films, but our own era’s digital archive is already constantly archiving itself, providing much we can learn about our communities, other communities, and ourselves. Prelinger describes his films as being in “a perpetual state of incompletion,” and he urges his audience to construct their own narratives for the films.6 This is sound advice not just for viewing films, but for viewing the world around us.
- Prelinger Library, “About,” accessed November 18, 2013, http://www.prelingerlibrary.org/home/about.
- Prelinger Library, “Support,” accessed November 18, 2013, http://www.prelingerlibrary.org/home/support.
- Megan Prelinger, “On the Organization of the Prelinger Library,” Prelinger Library, accessed November 18, 2013, http://www.prelingerlibrary.org/LibraryOrg.html.
- “Rick Prelinger presents at the 2013 Creative Capital Artist Retreat,” YouTube video clip, accessed November 18, 2013, http://youtu.be/xZqjjiv7GdY.