Issue #12 October 2005

Interview with Rick Prelinger

RHM: How did the collection start? And why? What got you interested in these films?

RP: I was working as a researcher on a documentary film, "Heavy Petting," which was directed by Pierce Rafferty and Obie Benz, on the history of sexuality and romance in the 20th century. Just before that, Pierce had been one of the co-directors of the highly touted doc "Atomic Cafe," which was famous for its pioneering use of found footage, using archival material in ways that previous documentaries hadn't. Pierce hired me to be Director of Research. This was an interesting challenge. How do you do research on a topic that's really a concept? We decided the way to go was to look at films designed to train people in social, consumer and gender roles, which meant finding educational and advertising films. This was an interesting challenge, and I dove right into it.

And when I started to look at the films we were finding, they were really incredible. Their value wasn't just in showing the way things look or the way we behaved, but the way we were supposed to behave. The films turned out to be amazing, vivid examples of propaganda and persuasion in every way: how to be a good citizen, worker, consumer, kid, boy or girl.

I got hooked and collected for 20 years, until our film collection was acquired by the Library of Congress in 2002. (We still have thousands of films on videotape, and as you know almost 2000 are available online at archive.org).

RHM: Where do they typically come from? As the collection grew, did these films start finding you?

RP: At first I got them from schools and colleges that maintained film libraries. Later, I went to people who had produced them and had materials they no longer needed. Many films also came from production companies that had gone out of business, and film labs full of abandoned material stored for customers that no longer existed. And yes, I used to actively look for them, but now they find me.

RHM: We have so many films in the archive that we love, but few get more repeat viewings than "Your Name Here," the spoof of the do-it-yourself corporate promotional video and "The Relaxed Wife," about easing away the stresses of everyday life with prescription drugs. Do you have a favorite film in the collection? And what would you say is the strangest? Or most historically significant?

RP: I really like "The 'Your Name Here' Story" -- it is a great film, says something kind of profound about the nature of most industrial films, and is funny too. I tend to like films that contradict themselves, for example, films where the narration goes one way and the images another. One example of this is "Master Hands," the film showing Chevrolets being assembled in Flint, Michigan in 1936. It is a monumental film supposedly glamorizing the workers that make cars, but when you watch it you see how boring, repetitive and dangerous the work actually is. I also like a lot of the amateur or home movies in the collection -- they are personal expression rather than corporate expression, and often have a freshness to them.

RHM: What questions do people usually ask you about the films?

RP: Some of the same ones you are asking! They ask, "Have you preserved them all in digital form," which is funny, as there is no such thing yet as digital preservation and we don't really know how to save bits in the long term. They ask "Have you seen everything?" which is of course impossible -- 60,000 films (the number in our archive before it went to LC) equals 15,000 hours.

RHM: Have you ever been surprised to come across clips of the films in the archive used creatively in a public or commercial venue? Any favorites to mention?

RP: There are too many great examples to mention of how the archive's been used. Literally thousands of derivative works are out there. Many are actually online in the "Open Source Movies" collection at archive.org. I like Ken Smith's and Vicki Bennett's work, and I think a film called "Come Join the Fun" is a great example of how reworking material can turn it 180 degrees from its original intention. And, over time, there have been a lot of great music videos.

RHM: Why do you feel it is important to keep these films available in the public domain?

RP: Wonderful things happen when regular people get access to primary historical resources and can remix and recontextualize them at will. Beyond that, we have a right to our own histories -- it doesn't make sense that people wanting to do educational or noncommercial work are running into trouble accessing the raw material they need. As far as public domain works are concerned, I believe in public access to the public domain. That's why we put these films online under the Creative Commons public domain license. We still earn income from them, because we charge if people need a written license agreement or a physical copy, such as a videotape. This "two-tier' system seems fair.

RMH: What's the biggest challenge to keeping them available? How do you feel about using open and standard formats?

RP: Cost of storage and hosting are both going down; I think it's more a maintenance issue. Who will run digital archives? Who will reformat material and migrate it to different formats as platforms change? Rapid tech evolution argues for open and standard formats, but it is really early in the history of digital media, so it is very hard to know what "open" and "standard" really mean over time. Typewriting was pretty standard for a long time, and who types now? And it's nontrivial to convert all the typewritten documents into digital form. So, though we may think we know what questions to ask when we think about permanence of digital objects, I think it is a bit early to know.

RHM: How do you hope people will use these films?

RP: One of the things that bugs me about how archives are used in mainstream culture is that the images and sounds, however vivid and wonderful they are, tend to be subordinated to what the narrator has to say. We all know it from watching cable TV on long airplane trips -- those docs all look like someone wrote a script and then sent an intern out to look for images to match the words. That isn't very imaginative, and it makes people think that archives are boring.

I'd like to see people making more stories, more fiction and more fantasy out of archival materials, and thinking more imaginatively about what film/video/digital media really could be. We have arrived at a utopian moment in the world of media production. Let's ask more of ourselves and make better and more interesting work.

I tried myself to make a different kind of feature film, all archival, last year. It takes 64 segments of footage and puts them together to make a story, not an obvious one, but I hope a rich one. It's "Panorama Ephemera," online at archive.org.

RHM: One of the things I've found really interesting is how fans of these films are taking their favorite moments and piecing them together to create new "best of" films. It's obvious that these films have historic value on their own. What do you think about the potential these films have to be a part of the remix culture that's growing more common in technology and music today? How do you feel movie editing software becoming more accessible to more people will play a role?

RP: Well, it's clear we live in a remix culture, no doubt about that. On the other hand I don't see remixing as anything particularly radical or unusual. Remixing, appropriation and recontextualization is part of all art and media, and in fact it is part of normal human activity. Look at the scrapbooking craze sweeping families right now. Musicians have always sampled and borrowed bits from one another. Quotation and quotation-as-parody go way back. Just because a new work remixes something else shouldn't make the work special unless it's good work. The more old stuff that's available, the more new work will reflect our cultures and styles, and that's great. So I'll end with my manifesto, which is about why I like working with old material rather than making things from scratch:

  1. Why add to the population of orphaned artworks?
  2. Don't presume that new work improves on old.
  3. Honor our ancestors by recycling their wisdom.
  4. The ideology of originality is arrogant and wasteful.
  5. Dregs are the sweetest drink.
  6. And leftovers were spared for a reason.
  7. Actors don't get a fair shake the first time around, let's give them another.
  8. The pleasure of recognition warms us on cold nights and cools us in hot summers.
  9. We reach the future only by roundabout means.
  10. As we wish to address the future, so the past desires to address us.
  11. Access to what's already happened is cheaper than access to what's happening now.
  12. Archives are justified by use.
  13. Make a quilt not an advertisement.

Read the accompanying article.