The heart of Rick Prelinger's movie empire, in a building in the New York City meat-packing district, is a space the size of maybe three closets. It's crammed to the ceiling with film cans, a few thousand of them, some so old they're rusted over, others he hasn't had time to uncrate. He points out how the titles, usually handwritten on a piece of tape on the side of the can, make a kind of surrealist poetry: Our Foster Mother the Cow, Health Heroes Battle Disease, Chimp Safety, Goodbye Mrs. Ant, Life in a Cubic Foot of Air, When Sally Fell, The Adventures of Junior Raindrop, Tomorrow Always Comes.
And then there's Parade of Invertebrates. "Sounds like the presidential debates," Prelinger quips.
It's from stacks of old film cans like these that Prelinger has retrieved some of his best-known material. They're what he calls ephemeral films, a coinage he's made industry-ubiquitous. Industrial and government propaganda, worker safety films, educational films, behavior and etiquette films, and early commercials.
Like The Last Date, the quintessential driver safety film from 1950, in which a way-pre-Darren Dick York takes his girl out for a joyride and commits, as the narrator ominously intones, "Teenicide! Teenicide! TEENICIDE!" And Oxydol Goes Into High (1938), where a pertish housewife aims a zombie smile at the camera and declares, in response to a disembodied Voice of Authority, "Suds? Why, I want lots of suds. Every woman does."
There's Leave It to Roll-Oh, a sci-fi fantasy from 1940, where the housewife sits on her duff while Roll-Oh the Robot answers the door, vacuums the carpet, cooks the dinner, and even lights the candles for her. He does everything but take her to bed afterward, but then again his control panel of switches has one conspicuously labeled SCRAM!
There's Breakfast Pals, an animated short from about 1938, where Snap, Crackle, and Pop duke it out with three eggs named Soggy, Mushy, and Toughy. A City is Born: Levittown, Pa. (1953) fast-forwards a construction crew slapping up a ticky-tack suburban tract house in 40 seconds. And then The Smart Sell (1959) depicts unprincipled real estate sharks trying to figure out how to push the "red buying buttons" to stimulate a "buying frenzy" for those knocked-together cheeseboxes in a glutted market.
Made to be shown in school auditoriums and workplace lunchrooms, these things are usually mordantly serious but hard to take seriously. All most of us can remember is making fart noises and poking pencils in other kids' ears while they were being shown. Maybe that's why nobody thought much about archiving them until Prelinger and a very few others started collecting them in the early Eighties. Having started in 1983, he's built probably the largest and certainly the best-known collection of ephemeral films in existence: more than 25,000 titles at this point, not counting another 40,000 cans of unedited stock. He's in the laborious process of writing a catalogue of the entire collection; so far, he estimates, he has covered about one-third of the films and he's up to 120,000 words.
And that's just the tip of the ephemeral iceberg. He estimates that "since the coming of sound in 1927, at least 600,000 ephemeral films have been made." That's not counting newsreels, or the estimated half a million corporate videos being made each year now. Compared to maybe 150,000 feature films made in the entire history of cinema, he figures that makes ephemeral films "by far the largest and most significant group of film genres in history." And yet, he adds, as historical documents they're almost "completely unexamined."
Prelinger grew up in New Haven, which he remembers as a one-moviehouse town, in the Fifties. He didn't get into film until he went to Berkeley, and then he was less interested in the usual film student things than in nontheatrical and "factual film." He was friends with Kevin and Pierce Rafferty and Jayne Loader, who made The Atomic Cafe, the 1982 anti-nuke documentary that turns Cold War propaganda films on their heads. When Norman Lear asked Pierce Rafferty to do the same kind of job for the sexual revolution in what became Heavy Petting, Rafferty hired Prelinger to research Fifties' educational films on dating and teen etiquette, and that's how he became a collector.
"Nobody was archiving these things," he says. "There are a lot of film archives in America, though not enough, but their historical priorities have always been masterworks -- nitrate feature films, certain works of independent and experimental cinema, documentaries, and so on. Newsreels have usually been under commercial control, so they're in libraries but not in archives. But as far as this material goes, you know how they talk about subliterary genres? These are sort of subcinematic. They've never been systematically preserved."
The first batch he bought came from the library of a New England public school that was switching to video. Over the years, he says, "Sometimes I got material that was destined for the Dumpster, sometimes I bought out production companies that were going out of business.... A lot of people saved one film, or two. They're often gems, because people save things for a reason."
Since the mid-Eighties, Prelinger has licensed stock footage to "everybody who is involved in any kind of production," from music videos and TV documentaries to commercials and feature films set in the Forties or Fifties. Mostly it's used for its "Nick At Nite" kitsch factor, which is undeniably high: pipe-gnashing dads dispensing clunky wisdom, moms with linoleum-glossy lips and flippy hairdos, Junior and Sis at the weenie roast, stiff Dr. Science types offering quack advice. ("Remember, you must exert yourself at the start to start to relax.") At age 36, Prelinger recognizes the nostalgia of these things as well as anyone. But he says he has "a big beef" with milking the material for smirks -- "that sneer, that judgmental attitude, the present harshly judging the past, which is a snap judgment, and it's stupid and arrogant," is how he puts it.
"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."
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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It's fascinating stuff. Still, given that so much of this material started out as propaganda and promotion, you have to ask how well it really reflects history. Put another way, will historians and other scholars really ever be able to accept Health Heroes Battle Disease and Chimp Safety as genuine historical documents?
"Most twentieth-century history is the study of special interests and groups that sought in one way or another to make a profit or increase their hegemony over somebody else," Prelinger responds. "In that sense, these films are sometimes more revealing than a lot of other documents, because the pretense of neutrality is much harder to swallow. And in addition, the history of consumer society, especially midcentury, is the history of idealized wants and needs rather than real ones. We are beings who are constructed in many ways by these stimuli that have a corporate or institutional or governmental push behind them. These films are sort of prima facie evidence of that process.
"Yes," he goes on, "we have a million unanswered questions about them. Like how seriously were these films taken, if they ever were? That's complicated, and we can speculate a lot, but we do know that they must have worked because they kept making them. Some of these films would stay in circulation for 20 or 30 years." One of the films on his first disc, We Drivers, "was seen by something like 30 million people, and brought the message that GM was interested in road safety. Of course, GM was also the company that didn't put seatbelts in its cars until long after Ford did," he grins. "So there's a hidden history there that this film goes a long way to illuminate."
For information about the Ephemeral Films series, call the Voyager Company toll-free at (800) 446-2001.