Archivist captures New York's past through home movies, historical footage
Rick Prelinger’s city-centric documentaries diverge from the traditional narrative format. Rather than presenting historical footage and scholarly commentary, the film archivist uses a mixture of fleeting clips and audience participation. This is how he relays an intimate portrait of urban life.
Prelinger has been creating features on several cities. The cities include San Francisco, 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 encore screenings at the museum 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 to commercial film outtakes and “process plates.” These treat the cityscape as a background. There is no sense of chronological movement. Instead, the work traverses boroughs and time periods seemingly at random. They draw on snapshots of everyday life, work, celebration and change. It is approximately 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,” 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. As the archivist informs 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, Depression-era “Hoovervilles” and other slices of city life. They are encouraged to interact with the images onscreen. And, Prelinger tells Schiller, responses often move beyond simple commentary.
“[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 contributions to the documentary film industry. In addition to creating these urban portraits, he oversees a titular archive of home movies and amateur and industrial films. In 2002, the Library of Congress acquired the Prelinger Collection, comprising more than 48,000 films. Roughly 7,000 of the Prelinger archives are available to view on the National Archives’ website.
Despite the widespread availability of his collected footage, Prelinger maintains that films are best viewed in an interactive setting.
“There is great potential in assemblies of large groups of people, and 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.”