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 disc's late-Forties etiquette and behavior films like Shy Guy, Dating Do's and Don'ts, A Date with Your Family, and Are You Popular? introduce that species of grinning zombie Sis-and-Wally nerds that would soon become the American TV Family. An amazing piece of pop surrealism, The Relaxed Wife (1957), helps explain how they got that way. An ad for tranquilizers made by the Pfizer company, it's a full-(bad)-color hallucination where lab beakers have smiling faces and a pair of disembodied Thing hands pass the daily newspaper along to a guy lounging in a futuristic office, tranked to the gills, airily shrugging off screaming headlines about crashing economies and raging storms. "As with everything else," the Voice of Authority narrator intones, "the Greeks had a word for this mental and physical state of bliss: Ataraxia...." ("Great name for a nightclub," Prelinger quips.)

It's telling that by the mid-Fifties, these corporate promo clips and advertising -- Technicolor hard sell for electric washers and Two-Ford Freedom and a kitchen crammed with Populuxe doodads -- no longer look forward to the future, but try to sell contentment with things just looking futuristic. (Though even that seems heartbreakingly optimistic now, when if we look to the future at all it's Blade Runner or Terminator.)

The latest laser disc, Call It Home, a scholarly and subversive version of the history of suburbia, is by far the most ambitious. It's crammed with a tremendous amount of information -- more than 2800 still photographs, seventeen film clips, a booklet, and three audio tracks. One track has the original soundtracks for the films, one plays related historical audio like recorded speeches, and one is voice-over commentary written and spoken by Prelinger and Keller Easterling, an architect who teaches design and the history of small towns at the Pratt Institute, the Parsons School of Design, and Columbia.

"We met at a party in '86 and started chatting," Prelinger recalls. "I told her I had some films related to what she did." She ended up reviewing something like 300 of them. They spent the next six years working together on the disc. Prelinger says that at first they thought about doing a typical PBS sort of documentary "with a narrative that would tell people what to think and would be prescriptive and overdetermined. But since we're not part of the recognized fraternity of public TV makers, we didn't do it."

Which is just as well, because the interactive laser disc format allows users to explore the wealth of materials at their own pace and depth -- and, critically, to make up their own minds, "to formulate their own interpretation of the materials," Prelinger says.

Briefly, Easterling's thesis is that what we think of as the Fifties phenomenon of suburbia actually begins in the Depression era (and has roots in planned communities that go back as far as the 1890s). From 1929 through 1934, new home starts plunged a gruesome 92 percent. In 1935 the federal government, as Easterling puts it, made home-building a "flagship industry," working with banks, real estate developers, planners, and builders to jump-start home-building as a way to stimulate jobs, mortgages, and demand for materials. The National Housing Act of 1935 caused, as one period newsreel put it, "a tidal wave of new construction" and put hundreds of thousands of men back to work. Much of it was in new suburban communities and Green Towns (Greenbelt, Maryland, Greenbrook, New Jersey, et cetera) that are still considered brilliant realizations of the near-utopian ideals of decentralized planned communities that theoreticians like Lewis Mumford had been dreaming of since the 1920s.

World War II burst that bubble; when it was over, something like fifteen million GIs flooded back into the country, starting families and looking for new homes. In 1947, the feds stepped in again, the FHA and Veterans Administration and GI Bill once again forming alliances with bankers, builders, and developers in a rush to build millions of new homes. It was at this point, Easterling argues, that the Thirties ideals were "neutralized and misquoted" and turned into the suburban wasteland of the Fifties. In the rush to slap them up fast and cheap -- at peak production, Levitt and Sons was knocking together one house every sixteen minutes -- whole developments became standardized and prefabbed and, as Easterling says, "denatured." For the bankers and builders, she says, "suburbia became currency. The more that it could be standardized against mortgage risk, the better and more bankable it was."

By the late Fifties, even the bankers and developers began to realize that they'd created a monster A the soulless suburban sprawl, the highways choked with rush hour commuters, the racially subdivided communities. Where the disc's early-Fifties film clips are full of patriotic bluster and rolled-up-sleeves American gumption, by the late Fifties viewers are subjected to The Smart Sell, a training film for real estate salespeople trying to peddle surplus crackerboxes in a wised-up and flagging market.

The disc is intentionally set up so that you can ignore the thesis altogether if you want, and just roam through all the visual detail, which is pretty incredible -- from film clips of homeless GIs pushing baby buggies down deserted streets to hundreds of examples of housing designs, variously ingenious and wacky (the American Motohome, the Ferro-Enamel House, the Higgins Therm-O-Namel House, Buckminster Fuller's unlivably futuro Dymaxion House).

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