Rick Prelinger: Media Archealogist

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 12-foot-high metal shelves, and in less orderly 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 that they are something other than Hollywood product.

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 43-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, divided into volumes with titles like Teenage Transgression (which includes six educational movies examining adolescent pitfalls like drugs, gangs, and trusting 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, etc.). At first blush, it all seems sort of campy and amusing, like a vintage martini mixer or a bowling shirt. “Pot-that's jive talk for marijuana,” explains the dreamy-voiced protagonist of an anti-drug film called The Terrible Truth, and you can't help but roll your eyes and snicker. Then there's the nostalgic thrill of recognizing John Forsythe's voice as narrates a Chevrolet-sponsored film called American Harvest, or 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, in that these films were meant to be shown in classrooms, in community or professional meetings, and sometimes in theaters or on early television-and then forgotten. But the ephemeral persists in this unlikely 2,500-square-foot storage space, and Prelinger has mined it extensively, looking for clues to how Americans lived and how they were told to live (and to behave and to consume) and, most important, how we were all supposed to feel about it. Each disc includes his spoken introduction and written notes on each film by Prelinger, plus a dose of supplemental text material like marked-up script excerpts or contemporary articles, print ads, or even reviews.

The cumulative effect is powerful. In the Teenage Transgression disc, for example, Prelinger makes the viewer re-think 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 13-year-old boy shattered by his mother's death and stuck with an indifferent stepfather, pulling 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 L.A., looking for any excuse to rip each other to shreds. Things generally work out for the best, Prelinger notes, “in an 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,” says Prelinger, “is present primary historical material to people without any mediation.” Instead of spliced-together clips interpreted by a Ken Burns or a Bill Moyers in traditional PBS fashion, Our Secret Century rolls out complete movies and lets 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, are market generally ignored by producers of historical programming of any kind. “And that's the most interesting audience to work with.”

By now, Prelinger has attained connoisseur status, and his commentary on the discs also brings out his selections' unexpected filmic value. Five of the six entries on Teenage Transgression were made by an independent filmmaker Sid Davis, an ephemeral auteur who emerges as a great unsung chronicler of the seamier side of Southern California. “His pictures," Prelinger says 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" followed a serendipitous route. A friend, Pierce Rafferty (a filmmaker who collaborated on the remarkable archival tour de force Atomic Café) hired him to help with the research on what became Heavy Petting, a movie that draws heavily on sex-ed films from the 1950s. Entranced, Prelinger started collecting, piling up reels of educational movies, then industrials, and advertising films. Eventually 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 1980s he began his relationship with Voyager, then a California-based company that had just released the Citizen Kane laserdisc. Under Voyager's auspices he compiled videotape, laserdisc, and eventually a CD-Rom compilation of highlights from his collection. And as he began presenting lecture/screening programs for small audiences, with titles like “Highways and Manifest Destiny,” he gradually discovered the values of text and context. “You give just a bit of context and completely changes the response,” he says, describing the change in audience response from giggles and guffaws to the intelligent questions and childhood reminiscences his talks now elicit.

As it turns out, few marriages of media and message are as seamless as Our Secret Century on CD-Rom. The format gave Prelinger the option of including a staggering amount of material, yet it gives the viewer a lot of 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 on a disc, 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 started story-boarding his next project, a documentary about landscapes using archival film, radio broadcasts, and some original shooting. And there's the matter of trying to bring a little more order to his vast, quiet storage space in downtown New York; something like 10 thousand reels sent from a California donor sit in a massive jumble just by the door. Prelinger long ago started accepting far more material than he can possibly watch, but even this has never really sparked him to stop and question his obsession with material that even its creators considered imminently disposable. Prelinger shrugs and says simply: “It just seemed incredibly important.” Then he turns off the lights and pulls that big, nondescript door firmly closed.

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This story appeared in the September 4, 1997 issue of New Times Los Angeles.

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