Reel to Real

Somewhere in the meat-packing district in downtown Manhattan, behind a nondescript door in an unremarkable building, about 100,000 reels of film sit in stacks on twelve-foot-high metal shelves, and in unruly piles on the concrete floor. The titles taped to the sides of each canister -- The Honey Industry, Resistance Welding, Good Grooming for Girls, Things Expand When Heated -- suggest they are something other than products of Hollywood. And this is precisely why Rick Prelinger, who once described himself as "a mad historian without a diploma," has been collecting these educational, industrial, promotional, and home movies for well over a decade.

"They're far more important than feature films, I would argue," he says offhandedly, leading the way into the stacks.

A mild-demeanored 44-year-old who tends to makes his most provocative observations with the quiet certitude of a tenured professor, Prelinger has lately presided over the creation of a dozen CD-ROMs that present and preserve more than 100 of these films. The result is Our Secret Century: The Darker Side of the American Dream, which is divided into six sets with titles such as Teenage Transgression (six educational movies examining adolescent pitfalls like drugs, gangs, and spooky strangers) and Tireless Marketers (seven films plus a bunch of "minute movies" and shorter ads displaying subtle persuasions of the merits of Chevrolets, plastic wrap, cotton clothes, et cetera).

Also here are Gender Role Call (containing films showing boys how to be boys and girls how to be girls), Busy Bodies (with sex-ed movies on everything from the basics to the dangers of consorting with men who are "sick ... in the mind"), and How to Lose What We Have (patriotic propaganda that includes a film wherein a Martian figures out just how important big business is).

At first blush it all seems campy and amusing, like a vintage martini mixer or a two-tone bowling shirt. "Pot -- that's jive talk for marijuana," explains the dreamy-voiced protagonist of an anti-drug film called The Terrible Truth; you can't help rolling your eyes and snickering. Then there's the nostalgic thrill of recognizing John Forsythe's voice as he narrates a Chevrolet-sponsored film called American Harvest, or spotting Angie Dickinson's face in Freedom Highway (both on a disc called The Uncharted Landscape).

But of course there's more to it than that. In fact, there's a whole "secret" history here: These films were meant to be shown in classrooms, in community or professional meetings, and sometimes in theaters or on early television, and then to be forgotten. But the ephemera persist in this unlikely 2500-square-foot storage space, and Prelinger has mined them extensively, looking for clues about how Americans lived and how we were told to live (and to behave and to consume), and, most important, how we were all supposed to feel. Each disc includes his spoken introduction and written notes for each film, plus a dose of supplemental text material such as marked-up script excerpts or contemporary articles, print ads, even reviews.

The cumulative effect is powerful. In Teenage Transgression, for example, Prelinger makes the viewer rethink the notion of the Fifties and early Sixties as "the golden age of the American teenager," an uncomplicated time far removed from our own. Instead we find a thirteen-year-old boy shattered by his mother's death and stuck with an indifferent stepfather; he pulls a pistol on his classmates. Or a good middle-class girl falling in with the wrong crowd and getting hooked on smack. Or racially divided gangs prowling Los Angeles streets, looking for any excuse to rip each other to shreds. Things generally worked out for the best in this world, Prelinger notes, as the films "attempt to show that the system is the solution."

Taken together, these national home movies filter America through the lenses of community groups and corporate sponsors, and the most telling truths can be spotted among the distortions. "Part of what I wanted to do," Prelinger says, "is present primary historical material to people without any mediation."

Instead of spliced-together clips interpreted by Ken Burns or Bill Moyers in traditional PBS fashion, Our Secret Century rolls out complete movies and lets you draw your own conclusions. (There's plenty of commentary from Prelinger, of course, but the CD-ROM format makes all of it optional.) This approach is doubly important when the source material is not exactly available at your local Blockbuster; Prelinger calls the series a kind of "archival intervention" meant to put these preserved films in as many hands as possible.

Finally, he argues, Our Secret Century ought to be of particular interest to young people, a market generally ignored by producers of historical programming of any kind. "And that's the most interesting audience to work with."

Prelinger has attained connoisseur status, and his commentary on the discs brings out his selections' unexpected filmic value. Five of the six entries on Teenage Transgression were made by independent filmmaker Sid Davis, an auteur who emerges as a great unsung chronicler of the seamier side of Southern California. "His pictures," Prelinger remarks in the disc's intro, "are wonderful documents of L.A.'s underside in the Fifties."

Similarly, Detroit industrial filmmaker Jam Handy, whose production company cranked out scores of movies for corporate clients, dominates Tireless Marketers and pops up throughout the series. The production values are surprisingly high, and sometimes the pitch is incredibly well-disguised in what seems to be simply an entertaining cartoon or newsreel. Another selection, In the Suburbs, produced for the benefit of Redbook's ad sales staff, is peppered with startlingly avant-garde passages. "That's an amazing movie," Prelinger says without irony. "I could just watch it over and over."

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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