Dipping into the thousands of ephemeral films in the Prelinger Archives.
There’s a scene in Ed Wood, Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic of the director of Glen or Glenda, that has always struck me as profound. The young Wood, played by Johnny Depp, is doing thankless work as a stagehand on a Hollywood-studio lot where he kills time watching stock footage of bomb detonations and rampaging bison. Visibly rapt, he asks what’s to become of these clips, only to be told by the kindly clerk, “Probably file it away and never see it again.” He replies, “If I had half a chance, I could make an entire movie using this stock footage. The story opens on these mysterious explosions. Nobody knows what’s causing them, but it’s scaring all the buffalo!”
Since 1982, the archivist, filmmaker, and open-access advocate Rick Prelinger has curated the Prelinger Archives, which comprises upward of sixty thousand sponsored, ephemeral, and industrial films. Some six thousand of these are available for free viewing on the Internet Archive. Like Ed Wood, I can while away hours watching these movies, many of which were originally made to be shown before feature films, as part of expos, or in classrooms. I am so grateful for the opportunity to take a journey by cable car in “A Trip Down Market Street” (1906), which captured downtown San Francisco just before the fire and earthquake reshaped the city; or to observe the industrial constructivism of the Chevrolet-produced “Master Hands,” (1936) where the toil of autoworkers converts the assembly of machine parts into a kind of proletariat ballet. Read More