Reel to Real

Prelinger's path to his current role as a "media archaeologist" was a serendipitous one. A friend, Pierce Rafferty (a filmmaker who collaborated on the remarkable archival tour de force The Atomic Cafe), hired him to help with the research on what became Heavy Petting, a movie that draws largely from sex-ed films of the Fifties. Entranced, Prelinger started collecting, piling up reels of educational movies, then industrial and advertising films. He was able to make some money by licensing certain popular sequences, but he tracked down hundreds, then thousands, of films with little regard for their commercial potential.

In the mid-Eighties he began his relationship with Voyager, then a California-based company that had just released the Citizen Kane laser disk. Under Voyager's auspices he gathered videotape, laser disk, and eventually CD-ROM compilations of highlights from his collection. And as he began presenting lecture and screening programs for small audiences, he gradually discovered the values of text and context. "You give just a bit of context and it completely changes the response," he posits, describing the change in audience response from giggles and guffaws to the intelligent questions and childhood reminiscences his talks now elicit.

Few marriages of media and message are as seamless as Our Secret Century. The CD-ROM format gave Prelinger the option of including a staggering amount of material, yet the viewer can exercise control over how that material is consumed. It's relatively easy to jump from film to commentary to archival document within each disc, or to skip around within a film to find what you want. (One of the best technical features is a meticulously coded search feature: To look for all references to, say, rape, just type in the word and click straight to any spot in a film where the word is said or the idea is represented visually.)

More recently he's been adding home movies to his archive -- "popular expression rather than corporate expression." He's also storyboarding an upcoming project, a documentary about landscapes that uses archival film, radio broadcasts, and some original shooting. And Prelinger has just begun directing Danger Lurks!, a feature-length film he refers to as an "all-archival drama about menace and jeopardy in America."

"I've always been fascinated by how Americans, when they reach a certain level of comfort, attempt to banish all surprise, risk, and danger from their lives. They move into gated communities, lock themselves into sport utility vehicles, and protect their children from strangers," he says, explaining the film's premise. "At the same time, they flirt with risk on so many levels and fantasize about menace and jeopardy.... A frightening number of films I'm looking at for Danger Lurks! visualize harm to children, and I think they are expressing some unconscious wishes within our culture."

In between collecting and directing, he tries to bring a little more order to his vast storage space; something like 10,000 reels sent from a California donor sit in a massive jumble by the door. Prelinger long ago started accepting far more films than he can possibly watch, but he has never stopped to question his obsession with material that even its creators considered eminently disposable.

Our Secret Century is available at software dealers or from Voyager, (800) 446-2001, in six two-volume sets.

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