Archivist captures New York's past through home movies, historical footage
Rick Prelinger is a film archivist. His city-centric documentaries move away from the traditional narrative format. He doesn’t merely present historical footage and scholarly commentary. He uses a mixture of short-lived clips and 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 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 on November 12. There will be two more screenings 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 also draws from commercial film outtakes and “process plates.” These treat the cityscape as a background. There is no sense of chronological movement. Instead, the work crosses boroughs and time periods seemingly at random. They draw on different snapshots of everyday life. They show work, celebration and change. It is roughly 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, but undertaken to encourage and sustain discussion about possible urban futures.”
Prelinger’s medley of urban scenes further differentiates itself from other documentaries. That is due to a nearly absolute absence of sound. The archivist makes a note to viewers during the film’s opening. “You are the soundtrack.”
Audience members absorb scenes of the now-demolished original Penn Station. They see Roaring Twenties-era crowds at Coney Island. They see Depression-era “Hoovervilles.” And they see other slices of city life. They are encouraged to interact with the images onscreen. And, Prelinger tells Schiller, responses often move beyond simple remarks.
“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 reading 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 consists of more than 48,000 films. Roughly 7,000 of the Prelinger archives are available to view on the National Archives’ website.
Prelinger maintains that films are best viewed in an interactive setting. This 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.”