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"Really, the past has nothing to say to us and we have nothing to say back," he shrugs. "These films need context. Otherwise people just see them nostalgically as camp fun. I'm totally anti-nostalgia. It's a superficial and reactionary emotion."
He's seen a few examples of what he thinks is the right approach. There was The Atomic Cafe, and he says Roger and Me uses some of his old industrial propaganda footage "in a way that makes the false, propagandistic message perfectly clear."
Mostly, though, he's been doing it himself, and he's been doing it through a marriage of the old footage to new technologies. In 1988 there were his two hour-long collections of clips, To New Horizons: Ephemeral Films 1931-1945 and You Can't Get There from Here: Ephemeral Films 1946-1960. Originally on laser disc and videotape, they've been re-released as CD-ROM "electronic books" for use in personal computers, with the digitalized film clips running in a corner of the screen beside Prelinger's written commentary. His third laser disc was released this past winter. It's a history of suburbia, Call It Home: The House That Private Enterprise Built.
All three have been produced by the Voyager Company, a firm that's in front of the baby "electronic media publishing" industry. The laser disc and CD-ROM formats -- the latter "a medium that's happening before there's a real market for it," Prelinger says -- are brilliantly exploited to make multilevel, multimedia productions that integrate film, video, digitalized computer imaging, archival photographs, written text, and multiple audio tracks. And they pretty much force the user to interact with them; you have to choose the viewing order, speed, level of discourse, even the soundtrack. "You can't be a couch potato with these things," Prelinger smiles.
"With these discs I was able to focus for the first time on some of the historical and social issues in these films," he says. "Without making extravagant claims for it, what this collection is without a doubt is a really good source of material on everyday life and culture. Looking at these films allows you to approach history in a way that's nonpedantic and accessible." Then again, he adds, "Most of what I know about the Twentieth Century comes from looking at films and reading old ephemera. So it's all suspect knowledge because, you see, all these films were tendentious. They were produced by somebody who had an ax to grind -- a corporation, an organization, the U.S. government, an educational film company that was guided by an agenda."
To New Horizons is nineteen clips of industrial PR and corporate propaganda from 1931 to 1945, what Prelinger calls "the golden age of American industry." Funny and entertaining simply as kitsch, they can also be seen as fascinating industrial history. American engineering know-how is patriotically trumpeted; there's a heartachingly naive belief in the March of Progress toward a bright future, a utopian cornucopia of consumer goods endlessly churned out by science and technology. Often this future was used to sell widgets in the present: Roll-Oh the Robot turns out to be a pitch for kitchen gadgets and appliances, our little robot friends of today (1940). Meanwhile, Big Brother experiments with quasi-scientific tools of social control: cops in patrol cars use loudspeakers to lecture jaywalkers, while bald guys in lab coats test how a secretary's efficiency decreases when they blast an 80-decibel siren in her ear.
Precisely So (1937) is a pixilated paean to engineering precision with marching calipers and trained ball bearings bouncing through hoops; more outrageous, 'Round and 'Round (1939) uses Tinker Toys at a toy factory to teach a terribly simplified and gratingly patronizing moral of capitalism at work. It all peaks with To New Horizons itself, a color film of the Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair made by General Motors, a soaring ode to "new ways of living and new thinking [that] have laid the foundation for most of what is good in life today," a bonanza of "more things for more people."
You Can't Get There from Here takes up after World War II. "In the late Forties we see this amazing phenomenon of the GIs coming home, and suddenly there is an uninterrupted run of social guidance films for teenagers beginning in 1947," Prelinger says. "They're funny because they're starring people like Dick York, who a few years before had been playing soldiers and sailors, and now they're playing teenagers. They've regressed -- and in that regression there's a story. During World War II there was major familial disruption. I've read that kids as young as thirteen and fourteen were working night shifts and holding down full-time jobs. Mothers were, obviously, working. Fathers were away. Juvenile delinquency was up. This is a period, '42, '43, when you hear a lot about marijuana as a problem affecting white teenagers. The Victory Girls, underage girls who dated servicemen, is a phenomenon widely covered in the press. There are all these articles about how you couldn't walk across Boston Common without tripping over these couples entwined in the grass.
"All this was a tremendous threat to American morality. So after the war there is mounted a full-fledged effort to train kids how to be kids again. It involves sociologists, psychologists, educators, clergy."