Further evidence that they don't make movies like they used to, or maybe just the first sign of the apocalypse: Runaway Bride, the Julia Roberts/Richard Gere fluff fantasy, is number one at the box office. For fans of serious cinema, disheartening to say the least. But as Hollywood directors continue to churn out big budget schlockstravaganzas at warp speed, a select few cineastes thankfully devote themselves to the preservation of films. The good stuff we mean. The stuff we saw as kids in school. The stuff we watched on late-night TV and at midnight movies. The stuff sometimes we never got to see but wished we had.
Stephen Parr is one of the cinematic stalwarts. As the director of San Francisco-based stock footage archive Oddball Film + Video and the San Francisco Media Archive, which preserves all kinds of film, he does double duty as the keeper of the celluloid flame. (Well maybe not the flame. The stuff is pretty flammable.) He's the guardian of the goods. The man who makes sure all that needs to be saved doesn't turn to dust in a canister or to mush in a dumpster.
Twenty-five years' worth of Parr's salvaging will make its Miami debut this Sunday afternoon when the Cinema Vortex series at the Alliance Cinema unspools Historical/Hysterical, the first in a series of historically based screenings curated by Parr. Among the plethora of specialized films: television commercials, movie trailers, exploitation, educational, military, and religious movies. Many are offensive and insensitive, others simply clueless. They're all doing one thing though: propagandizing. "All these films are designed to sell things, and they sell them for different reasons. Some sell a product. Others sell a culture. Some sell a way of life," Parr says. "A lot of these films are very colonialist. Blacks are bizarre and kind of strange creatures from Africa. The Terror of the Tongs sees Asians as evil triad gangs."
People aren't the only ones not looked upon kindly in the films. Animals get a bad rap, too, though some of the movies portray this more effectively than others. The commercial titled "Starve a Rat" features urban vistas as seen through the eyes of a scurrying rodent. Made by the New York City Department of Health, the ad rails against a rat infestation that plagued the city. "There still is [an infestation]," Parr laughs. "I've seen them [rats] the size of cats!"
Historical is certainly not a program for the humorless or the easily offended, but they're welcome to attend nevertheless. Parr prides himself on being not just a curator but a provocateur: "I actually enjoy pushing people's buttons. I'm the guy with the wood, the match, and the gasoline!" he chuckles. To stifle any fuss made by politically correct crybabies, Parr adds: "This wasn't designed to be an exploitation screening. It was designed to show people that images have certain types of values. We're putting it out there to let people decide for themselves, to create a dialogue."