Prelinger’s Land of the Lost

An upcoming screening highlights a vast collection of urban time capsules

You know a film screening is going to be good when, in speaking about the event, the presenter refers to things like “this incredible document about civil engineering.” In Lost Landscapes of San Francisco, self-described “guerilla archivist” Rick Prelinger draws on his massive collection of home movies, educational and industrial films, and other ephemera. From promotional films of the building of the Bay Bridge to footage of the construction of the Twin Peaks tunnel to the home movies of the Ransohoff Family (their Union Square department store was featured in Vertigo), Prelinger collages a range of “unofficial documents” to explore the history and built environment of the City by the Bay. The aim, he says, is to investigate how “models of the past inform models of the future.” The Prelinger Archives, amassed by Prelinger over 20 years and sold to the Library of Congress in 2002, contains 48,000 complete films and roughly 30,000 cans of raw footage. Prelinger maintains a small portion of the collection on tape, which he sells as stock footage and also makes available free to the public through the Internet Archive. With his spouse, Megan Shaw Prelinger, he also runs the Prelinger Library. This artistically arranged collection includes books, journals, maps and documents collected from public libraries and elsewhere around the country, and contains large sections devoted to geography and landscape, urban planning and urban studies, and specific regions of the U.S.

Prelinger spoke to me recently about Lost Landscapes, which he will be screening for the third year, in an updated version. Most of the segments in the presentation are silent, and one of the highlights of the event is the sound of audience members interacting with the films. Prelinger will also offer his own minimal narration, and he especially encourages viewers to identify mystery scenes.

None of these films were shot for the purposes of telling us something about the landscape…

They’re unofficial documentation. It’s what happens when personal documentation is repurposed in time, and it becomes something other than what we intend it to be, and that’s the very nature of ephemeral film. The reason I started collecting films was to document the landscape. The first film I ever collected, way back in 1982, was a pedestrian safety film that was shot in Oakland back in 1947 or 1948. It was called “When You Are a Pedestrian.” It was shot on the city streets of Oakland, and all of the accidents were simulated, and the close calls were simulated, and I realized that the periphery of this film was this incredibly amazing documentation of what was happening in the city at the time, and what the fabric of the city looked like. That’s actually why I started collecting film—it was precisely for its value as evidence.

The clips I chose for this screening are all clips that have evidentiary value.  It’s about looking beyond the center and looking at the periphery.

Stills from When You Are a Pedestrian

It seems there’s something about not looking with an eye toward landscape, necessarily, that makes the landscape almost pop out more.

Right. Looking for a perspective that’s not necessarily nurtured. You go look at all the stuff that people are doing, whether it’s artwork or whether it’s structural planning, and it’s very studied, and very little of this kind of thing is studied.

There’s also something about knowing this isn’t acting. These are real people.

The actuality. You wonder who are these people, what happened to them, how did they get there, what’s the back story? I’ve gotten really focused on home movies this year. I’ve been acquiring home movies and working on home movies a lot. They are incredible.

Kodachromes from 1941 of a visit to San Francisco

How so?

Well, you know, personal documentation, not corporate expression. Many unorthodox sensibilities. I got two rolls on eBay that were shot around Clawson, Michigan, and around Royal Oak (both Detroit suburbs). There’s great footage of Father Coughlin walking into church and hanging out with all the kids. And there’s footage of the Clawson Land Development Company, early suburbs that are now all filled in but in those days there were just a few houses out there. At a certain point it became indistinguishable from that pattern of Detroit.

Stills from Detroit: City on the Move (1965)

I was looking at the Prelinger Archives and one of the staff picks is a film, “The City,” which is a Regional Planning Association of America film.

The script was written by Louis Mumford but the ideas are all from Benton McKaye.

There were films back then extolling the virtues of the suburbs. Now, at City Center BART in Oakland, every billboard is trying to sell you on a downtown Oakland condo. Is there still selling of suburbia now or has it moved back to trying to sell the urban?

There’s still selling of suburbia, you just have to get in your car and drive out a little further. If you drive up to Cordelia (in Solano County), at every freeway exit there’s guys standing out there waving the styrofoam things and there are big houses in the high 600’s and small houses in the high 200’s. I don’t know what’s happening there now, that’s heavy foreclosure area, but there’s still massive selling of suburbia.

There are so many strains to suburbia. There’s the anti-urban thing, there’s anti-immigration, anti minority, there’s the better life for the children, there’s the American pioneer fringe psychology or psychosis. But beyond that there was also a progressive strain, especially in the teens and 20s, that’s what the RPAA was all about. Cities were killing people, especially children. Cities were dangerous. And the whole idea of the Appalachian Trail, Benton McKaye’s idea was “Let’s set up this fine settlement along the Appalachian Ridge that takes people out of the city, takes kids out of the city, puts them in these autonomous communities where they’ll manufacture small-scale goods and trade with each other.” This was a totally anarchist, de-centralist idea. It’s not about a trail for people to walk on. The Appalachian Trail was an attempt to remake society and save young people from the plague of the city.

Stills from The City (1939)

At that time planning was, frankly, utopian. Now you see this much more in the realm of art, I think, rather than the realm of architecture and urban planning. In a lot of ways urbanism is shifting back into artistic discourse-artists go to New Orleans, artists hang out with CLUI [Center for Land Use Interpretation], artists build houses, artists build victory gardens, artists are doing urban gardening. But the very fact that artists do it means that it’s inherently vitiated and non-serious. What have artists ever done that finds its way into everyday practice?

A Harper’s article about the Prelinger Library describes the library as part art installation,

I think Megan, as a taxonomist of the library, on both the conscious and the unconscious level, created a built installation, a sculpture of ideas. It very much represents the way we both think, that’s for sure.

It crosses a lot of boundaries in so many ways, one of them being that the place has ongoing utility.

It’s an actual, functioning utility and part of the cultural community here. Everybody comes, we’ve had something over 4,000 visitors. On the other hand, it is also an engagement with the idea of what is a library? It is a practical experiment in archival access and mainstreaming research collections.

Many people think of the digital age as antithetical to what we might call the terrestrial age. Because of your keen interest and involvement in both of those worlds, what is your take on where San Francisco has gone, either since the time of the footage in your film or just over the last decade?

We don’t have a lot of experience in this country of what the life-span is or the life-cycle or even the long-term characteristics of cities are when they gentrify and they push out working people and they push out minorities and they turn into refuges for the creative class. We don’t know what the pattern is. We’ve been looking at a boom potentially for several decades with a few little hiccups, and now we are looking at real economic changes. And we haven’t developed a robust system of urban organization that knows how to deal with these things. So I think we may see the proliferation of localism, smaller institutions rather than big institutions. We may see a lot of uncertainty. It’ll be interesting to see what arises out of precariousness.

I think what’s going to happen is we are going to see a lot more interest in things that happen in groups, things that happen as collectivity as opposed to things people do on their own. Even now, people love to gather even if they’re working on their phones or their PDAs, they’re still in the physical presence of other people. I think we’re going to see a lot more of that, and I hope we can reorganize the urban fabric to make that possible. The library is a meeting place, and that’s been one really, really small example, but we can’t have all of San Francisco in here.

You said you’re going to talk at the screening about how models of the past inform models of the future . . .

When you look at old footage of San Francisco-this is not a nostalgia trip-one of the great things about the past is that it’s predictive. We’re not looking back, we’re looking forward. Like when you look at the old social guidance films, don’t think of them as behavior that’s gone, think of it as evidence of potentially behavior as it may be in the future. My thesis would be that you can see kind of a ghostly template of the present in the past and the future in the present. So what I’m interested in is how this material is predictive. I’m also interested in people like David Rumsey, the map collector, and many others who have been geo-rectifying old maps so you can project onto Google Earth and there’s a point-to-point accuracy. People are starting to do this with photographs, geo-coding, geo-rectifying photographs, so that we’re moving toward having a virtual model that is visual as well as GIS of the past. When you do that, you get one step closer to being able to use past models as predictive of the present and the present in the future.

So what happens when you have a really good 3D model of the city, that model becomes very valuable. In some ways it’s more valuable than the actual city itself. You can market on it, you can overlay an incredible amount of information on it, you can navigate within that, you can live, practically, in that virtual space, you can self-service it. People may resist that. People may want to keep it private. There will be a really complicated and fascinating relationship between representation and the actual 3D spaces of experience. You begin to weave that visual evidence of the past into a matrix, which is the first step toward making that happen. That is some of the stuff that I will talk about. I think this material counts for a lot more than just tickling people’s perceptions about time and memory.

Lost Landscapes of San Francisco screens Friday, December 19 at 7:30 pm
at the Cowell Theater in Fort Mason. Prelinger will give a short talk before the film. The screening is presented as part of the Long Now Foundation Seminars About Long Term Thinking. A reception at the Long Now Foundation, also in Fort Mason, follows.

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