Rubrics and Tendrils of Richard Gehr

April 24 1995

Rick Prelinger's Ephemeral Films

In Oxydol Goes Into High , a 1939 advertising short made by ephemeral film legend Jamison "Jam" Handy's production company for Proctor & Gamble, an anonymous offscreen Voice of Authority translates detergent theory into practice:

"That's a convincing demonstration alright. But what about our girlfriend, that most important of all persons, Mrs. Housewife? What do more suds mean to her? Sure, that's what counts. Let's leave the laboratory for a moment and ask her: 'Madame, can you tell us what suds mean to you in washing?'"

"'Suds? Why, I want lots of suds. Every woman does, whether it's for washing clothes, dishes, or for general cleaning.'"

"'I see. Well, then, the amount of suds you get from a soap influences your purchases?'"

"'Indeed, yes. I want the soap that gives the most suds.'"

This absurd yet telling exchange illustrates the brand of social engineering instilled by corporate America through film. Film archivist Rick Prelinger collects such celluloid arcana, dubbing them ephemeral films : the industrial, advertising, educational, and amateur movies that occupy a unique place in the margins of film history. These are practical, tendentious films with a limited shelf life. Nothing, says Prelinger, is more ephemeral than a movie about the new 1948 Chryslers in 1949. Oxydol Goes Into High , quite a hoot nearly sixty years after the fact, is just one of hundreds of thousands of similarly kitsch-laden vehicles offering unique views of the pale white underbelly of midcentury America.

Prelinger Archives, located in the meat-packing district, is a climate-controlled cavern filled with pallets and rows of floor-to-ceiling shelving groaning under countless film canisters. How many exactly? "In this room at present," reckons Prelinger, a silver-haired 42-year-old with a sly gap-toothed grin, "there's about 32,000 cans of film shelved and 19,000 unshelved. Completely filled with shelving, the room's capacity would be about 70,000. This is a problem because it appears I have about 90,000 cans scattered around the country, including lots of duplicates. But we don't need 21 copies of About Fallout or 11 copies of Our Mister Sun ."

Prelinger has obsessively collected this type of celluloid flotsam since 1982, when his research for the forgotten feature Heavy Petting brought him some fascinating footage from Grand Rapids. Today his collection spans ephemera from 1905 to 1980. Represented by Archive Films, he has provided footage for Natural Born Killers, Diane Keaton's Heaven, David Byrne's True Stories , and countless conventional documentaries. "We sell the same shots over and over again," he complains. "The 1939 World's Fair, the 'electronic highway,' the 'kitchen of tomorrow,' suburban scenes of kids mowing the lawn--we sell clichés."

From my chair I can jot down such immediately evocative titles as Play It Safe, Citrus on Parade, Portrait of a Businessman , and Miracle of Moss . They elicit a flood of AV memories. Long before Chris Whittle, school movies provided edutainment for the masses and a breather from teachers' tired blather. Or perhaps you recall sexually segregated health classes that taught adolescents how to think about and what to do with their bodies. Today these films may release a flood of memories, but Prelinger refuses to suffer nostalgists gladly.

"Our films are very funny," he admits with a perfectly straight face. "They're hilarious to watch. People laugh their heads off. They're very kitschy and satisfying. The problem is, when you look at Are You Popular? and everybody goes 'Yuck yuck yuck, isn't this funny and weird?', you're playing into the hands of the nostalgia merchants. They aren't interested in people understanding history in order to understand their present-day existence; they're only interested in appealing to some false consensus history that never really existed. You need a context."

Prelinger provided context aplenty during the 1994 American Museum of the Moving Image programs that inspired Our Secret Century , a series of a 12 CD-ROMs that Voyager will release over the next several months. In addition to the 75 films, the discs will contain Prelinger's blue-screen introductions as well as collateral advertisements, articles, and illustrations. Prelinger even interviewed Tad Tadlock, the perky brunette who starred in such ephemeral hits as 1956's Design for Dreaming . Design is the colorful centerpiece of "The Rainbow Is Yours" CD, which recaptures postwar design and consumerism with films about kitchens, cars, populuxe, and Plexiglas--"the most glamorous plastic of all"--even when viewed in the somewhat grainy QuickTime format, which Prelinger fancies in a vaguely nostalgic way, appreciating the circular manner in which CD-ROM's low-tech film viewing resembles early television.

"It's not an immersive experience like going to a theater and being wowed by a powerful movie. But these are not immersive movies. You know, immersive also means evasive, and QuickTime allows you as an individual, maybe with one other person, to look not at a movie, but at a picture or rendering of a movie. It's much easier to look at that movie critically on your computer, to see it as a document with a context."

Prelinger estimates that some 600,000 ephemeral films were produced between the 1920 and 1990, with more than 100,000 ephemeral videos currently unspooling annually. This plethora of documentary evidence reveals body language, architecture, landscape, rhetoric and other historical data omitted in the more controlled filmic space of feature films. Where B movies illuminate the shadows of film history, these films document a hidden dimension or parallel cinematic universe located between feature films and documentaries. And Prelinger sees an even more important value in ephemeral cinema's "normative quality," which is where the secret of his series title awaits uncovering.

"It was life as it was supposed to be. These films are your best source for the 'conspiracy' to manipulate the way people think and behave from the top down in order to ensure social consensus and a captive market. It's like class in the US. Everybody knows it exists, but it's not polite to talk about it. You're branded a zealot. But these films are the most delightful way to bring up subjects like this."

If you want to know how good citizenship and patriotism was constituted, see Day of Thanksgiving . The Johnson family can't afford a turkey, so they sit around talking about what they're thankful for. Everything's gender linked, however. The girl is grateful to live in America because of what she has to wear. Mom's happy to have water in the washing machine. This beautiful film was made in 1951 by Herk Harvey, who made Carnival of Souls . A Date With Your Family from 1950 attempted to teach children something odd about family values: "These boys greet their Dad as though they were genuinely glad to see him," notes the narrator, "as though they had really missed being away from him during the day and are anxious to talk to him."

Although Prelinger anticipates "piercing the veil of mystification that so many of us still labor under today" with his sex ed films, it is America's corporate legacy that obviously most piques his interest. He admires the approach of Jam Handy "the voice of corporate America," whose 19th-century sensibility lent a cool eloquence to 20th-century factories. "He saw his work very much as naturalizing industry, making the patterns of power seem natural and logical."

The other great corporate film factories included Coronet Educational Films, nearly all of which feature protagonists and characters to empathize with. "The kids are neither ugly nor attractive," Prelinger says, "and the scenes take place in what we call the generic Coronet house, which is this set that evolved over the years." Here you can observe older, Depression-era parents do psychic battle with their unruly postwar children. Looked at through Prelinger's eyes, they take on a darker meaning. And yet, he emphasizes, "these films are still the most delightful way to bring up subjects like this."