Here Today, Still Here Tomorrow

They never were box-office smashes, but ephemeral films -- old industrial training shorts, educational and safety propaganda, and more -- are finding new favor as cultural records

The heart of Rick Prelinger's movie empire, in a building in the New York City meat-packing district, is a space the size of maybe three closets. It's crammed to the ceiling with film cans, a few thousand of them, some so old they're rusted over, others he hasn't had time to uncrate. He points out how the titles, usually handwritten on a piece of tape on the side of the can, make a kind of surrealist poetry: Our Foster Mother the Cow, Health Heroes Battle Disease, Chimp Safety, Goodbye Mrs. Ant, Life in a Cubic Foot of Air, When Sally Fell, The Adventures of Junior Raindrop, Tomorrow Always Comes.

And then there's Parade of Invertebrates. "Sounds like the presidential debates," Prelinger quips.

It's from stacks of old film cans like these that Prelinger has retrieved some of his best-known material. They're what he calls ephemeral films, a coinage he's made industry-ubiquitous. Industrial and government propaganda, worker safety films, educational films, behavior and etiquette films, and early commercials.

Like The Last Date, the quintessential driver safety film from 1950, in which a way-pre-Darren Dick York takes his girl out for a joyride and commits, as the narrator ominously intones, "Teenicide! Teenicide! TEENICIDE!" And Oxydol Goes Into High (1938), where a pertish housewife aims a zombie smile at the camera and declares, in response to a disembodied Voice of Authority, "Suds? Why, I want lots of suds. Every woman does."

There's Leave It to Roll-Oh, a sci-fi fantasy from 1940, where the housewife sits on her duff while Roll-Oh the Robot answers the door, vacuums the carpet, cooks the dinner, and even lights the candles for her. He does everything but take her to bed afterward, but then again his control panel of switches has one conspicuously labeled SCRAM!

There's Breakfast Pals, an animated short from about 1938, where Snap, Crackle, and Pop duke it out with three eggs named Soggy, Mushy, and Toughy. A City is Born: Levittown, Pa. (1953) fast-forwards a construction crew slapping up a ticky-tack suburban tract house in 40 seconds. And then The Smart Sell (1959) depicts unprincipled real estate sharks trying to figure out how to push the "red buying buttons" to stimulate a "buying frenzy" for those knocked-together cheeseboxes in a glutted market.

Made to be shown in school auditoriums and workplace lunchrooms, these things are usually mordantly serious but hard to take seriously. All most of us can remember is making fart noises and poking pencils in other kids' ears while they were being shown. Maybe that's why nobody thought much about archiving them until Prelinger and a very few others started collecting them in the early Eighties. Having started in 1983, he's built probably the largest and certainly the best-known collection of ephemeral films in existence: more than 25,000 titles at this point, not counting another 40,000 cans of unedited stock. He's in the laborious process of writing a catalogue of the entire collection; so far, he estimates, he has covered about one-third of the films and he's up to 120,000 words.

And that's just the tip of the ephemeral iceberg. He estimates that "since the coming of sound in 1927, at least 600,000 ephemeral films have been made." That's not counting newsreels, or the estimated half a million corporate videos being made each year now. Compared to maybe 150,000 feature films made in the entire history of cinema, he figures that makes ephemeral films "by far the largest and most significant group of film genres in history." And yet, he adds, as historical documents they're almost "completely unexamined."

Prelinger grew up in New Haven, which he remembers as a one-moviehouse town, in the Fifties. He didn't get into film until he went to Berkeley, and then he was less interested in the usual film student things than in nontheatrical and "factual film." He was friends with Kevin and Pierce Rafferty and Jayne Loader, who made The Atomic Cafe, the 1982 anti-nuke documentary that turns Cold War propaganda films on their heads. When Norman Lear asked Pierce Rafferty to do the same kind of job for the sexual revolution in what became Heavy Petting, Rafferty hired Prelinger to research Fifties' educational films on dating and teen etiquette, and that's how he became a collector.

"Nobody was archiving these things," he says. "There are a lot of film archives in America, though not enough, but their historical priorities have always been masterworks -- nitrate feature films, certain works of independent and experimental cinema, documentaries, and so on. Newsreels have usually been under commercial control, so they're in libraries but not in archives. But as far as this material goes, you know how they talk about subliterary genres? These are sort of subcinematic. They've never been systematically preserved."

The first batch he bought came from the library of a New England public school that was switching to video. Over the years, he says, "Sometimes I got material that was destined for the Dumpster, sometimes I bought out production companies that were going out of business.... A lot of people saved one film, or two. They're often gems, because people save things for a reason."

Since the mid-Eighties, Prelinger has licensed stock footage to "everybody who is involved in any kind of production," from music videos and TV documentaries to commercials and feature films set in the Forties or Fifties. Mostly it's used for its "Nick At Nite" kitsch factor, which is undeniably high: pipe-gnashing dads dispensing clunky wisdom, moms with linoleum-glossy lips and flippy hairdos, Junior and Sis at the weenie roast, stiff Dr. Science types offering quack advice. ("Remember, you must exert yourself at the start to start to relax.") At age 36, Prelinger recognizes the nostalgia of these things as well as anyone. But he says he has "a big beef" with milking the material for smirks -- "that sneer, that judgmental attitude, the present harshly judging the past, which is a snap judgment, and it's stupid and arrogant," is how he puts it.

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