Archivist captures New York's past through home movies, historical footage
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Rick Prelinger is a film archivist. He makes city-centric documentaries. They move away from the traditional narrative format. He doesn't merely present historical footage and scholarly commentary. He uses a mixture of brief clips. He uses audience participation. This is how he relays a close portrait of urban life.
Prelinger has been creating features on several cities. The cities include San Francisco. It includes Detroit. And it includes Los Angeles. He has been doing this since 2006. Lost Landscapes of New York is an “urban-history event.”
It was co-presented by the Museum of the Moving Image and NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. That was on November 12. There will be two more screenings. They will at the museum. They will be on February 10 and 11. The screenings take him to the unexplored territory of the Big Apple.
Prelinger's film draws on forgotten footage of New York City. That is according to The New York Times' Manohla Dargis. Prelinger draws from old home movies. He draws from commercial film outtakes. And he draws from “process plates.” They treat the cityscape as a background. There is no sense of chronological movement. Instead, the work crosses boroughs. It crosses time periods. This happens at random. They draw on different snapshots. Those show everyday life. They show work. They show celebration. And they show change. It is about 85-minutes long.
“On the surface the films are simple. They are lightly produced compilations of archival footage relating to a city or an area.” That's what Prelinger told The Essay Review's Lucy Schiller.
“And for some viewers the screenings are exercises in collective nostalgia. That's not the way I present them, however. Instead, I emphasize the events are not simply revisitations of the past. They are undertaken to encourage and sustain discussion about possible urban futures.”
Prelinger's mix of urban scenes further seperates itself from other documentaries. That is due to a nearly entire absence of sound. The archivist makes a note to viewers. This is during the film's opening. “You are the soundtrack.”
Audience members take in scenes of the now-torn down original Penn Station. They see Roaring Twenties-era crowds. They are at Coney Island. They see Depression-era “Hoovervilles.” They see other slices of city life. They are encouraged to interact with the images onscreen. And responses often move beyond simple remarks. That's what Prelinger told Schiller.
“Viewers turn into ethnographers,” he says.
“They notice and often remark on every visible detail of kinship, word and gesture and every interpersonal exchange. They also respond as cultural geographers. They call out streets and neighborhoods and buildings. They read signs aloud. They repeat tradenames and brands that mark extinct details in the cityscape.”
The Lost Landscapes series is only one of Prelinger's offerings to the documentary film industry. He oversees an archive of home movies and amateur and industrial films. In 2002, the Library of Congress acquired the Prelinger Collection. It is made up of more than 48,000 films. Roughly 7,000 of the Prelinger archives are available to view. They are on the National Archives' website.
Prelinger says that films are best viewed in an interactive setting. This is despite the widespread availability of his collected footage.
“There is great potential in assemblies of large groups of people. We rarely take advantage of them,” he tells Schiller.
“To do so would mean abandoning the idea that we are here for a show. And instead realizing that the show is us and we are the show.”