"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."
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 archival tour de force Atomic Cafe), 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 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-'80s he began his relationship with Voyager, then a California-based company that had just released the Citizen Kane laser disc. Under Voyager's auspices he compiled videotape, laser disc and eventually CD-ROM compilations of highlights from his collection. And as he began presenting lecture/screening programs for small audiences, with titles such as Highways and Manifest Destiny, he gradually discovered the values of text and context. "You give just a bit of context, and it 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 storyboarding a documentary about landscapes using archival film, radio broadcasts and some original shooting. Prelinger has also just begun directing Danger Lurks! -- a feature-length film he refers to as an "all-archival drama on menace and jeopardy in America."
"I've always been fascinated by how Americans, when they reach a certain level of comfort, attempt to banish all surprise, risk and danger from their lives, move into gated communities, lock themselves into sport utility vehicles and protect their children from strangers," he says, explaining the film's premise. "At the same time, they flirt with risk on so many levels and fantasize about menace and jeopardy ... A frightening number of films I'm looking at for Danger Lurks! visualize harm to children, and I think they are expressing some unconscious wishes within our culture."
Between collecting and directing, there's the matter of trying to bring a little more order to his vast storage space in downtown New York; something like 10,000 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 eminently 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.
Our Secret Century is available at software dealers or from Voyager, (800) 446-2001, in six two-volume sets.