Reel to Real

Filmmaker and archivist Rick Prelinger protects America's forgotten "home movies"

Somewhere in the meatpacking 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're 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 44-year-old who tends to make 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 six two-volume sets with such titles as Teenage Transgression (which includes six educational movies examining adolescent pitfalls such as 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.).

There are also such volumes as 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 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 he narrates a Chevrolet-sponsored film called American Harvest, or spotting Angie Dickinson's face in Freedom Highway (both featured 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 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, 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 the Teenage Transgression disc, for example, Prelinger makes the viewer rethink the notion of the '50s and early '60s 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 Los Angeles streets, 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," Prelinger says, "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 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 Block-buster; 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, he says, is "the most interesting audience to work with."

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 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 '50s."

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