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Rick Prelinger, 1996


Are You Popular?, Am I Trustworthy?, How We Learn, How To Argue Effectively, The Story of Sugar, Resistance Welding.  These are just a few of the more than 80,000 films in Rick Prelinger’s archive.  For the past fifteen years he has obsessively collected ephemeral film — industrial, educational, advertising, and home movies — fascinated by the ways in which they reveal attempts to manufacture an idealized American identity in this century.  He has recently brought toge ther more than 100 films for a series of CD-ROMs called Our Secret Century, offering what he calls “a glimpse of the persuasions of the past,” films which not only show how we were, but how we were supposed to be.

PETER:  It’s so great to be in this room with 80,000 canisters of film.  There’s this sense of the mad scientist in the extravagance of the setting ...
RICK:  More like a mad historian without a diploma, or something like that.
ALEX:  It’s a unique environment.  I don’t know if it’s a laboratory, a huge library or a mausoleum.
RICK:  I think of it as a laboratory and as a playground and as a library.  It’s like an incredibly formative place for ideas for me.

ALEX:  It has a library feel to it, but the air conditioning being so low because of the film gives it a mausoleum-type feeling.  Coldness.  Do people react like that all the time?
RICK:  No, people say things like, “I saw this movie that you’d be fascinated by, Rick,” - things like War of the Satellites or something like that.  Or they say, “here take a look at my campy ’50s plates.”
     They misrepresent this as an exercise in practical nostalgia.  And it’s much more an attempt to try to rationalize the kind of history that’s felt very deeply and that often comes out as nostalgia.  It’s an attempt just to try to put past and present together.

PETER:  You’re also the only self-financed historian I know.  You don’t have a job at a university or a grant from somebody.  How did you get started?
RICK:  Completely by accident.   I began to collect.  In 1982 I was working as a researcher on a documentary film called Heavy Petting and that was my first acquaintance with what I call ephemeral film, industrial advertising and educational film.  It spoke very powerfully to me.  I never knew it would come to this.  It just seemed to be the right thing to do to start collecting this material.  You couldn’t really find it anywhere else.
     There was this immense attraction for me to the periphery of things in these films.  What you saw in the middle of the film was maybe a family behaving properly, maybe somebody learning how to be safe, but the periphery of these films was the whole world, as it was in Oakland, California, in 1948 or New York City in the ’50s.

ALEX:  And then gradually people started asking you for your material?
RICK:  A couple of years later people began coming to me for material, and I realized this was a resource.  Not only that, but it might be a potential moneymaker.  When you make your first sale for $1,000 for something that only cost you $15, you think it’s a great business. 
     That erroneous sense of things kept me going, collecting film for a long time.  But if I was really doing this for profit I would just collect 1,000 hot films.  I would collect hula hoops and rock ’n roll and famous people.  As a result it’s never quite worked out the way I imagined it in the beginning because I want to collect everything.  I want to preserve a really complete and comprehensive cross-section of these 20th-century images.

PETER:  It reminds me of an artist I heard about called Andy Warhol.
RICK:  Well, I comment a little more I suppose.  I’m perhaps a little more judgmental, I don’t know.  Home movies for example.  When you start looking at home movies it’s a cross section of everyday life at its most ritualized and its most banal.  When you have two or three home movies you can make some speculations and you can write about them.  You can use them as an occasion for filmmaking, or for poetry, or for whatever.  Then, when you collect hundreds of hours, a very different kind of picture suddenly begins to emerge. The same thing is true when you begin to collect thousands of different perspectives from educational or industrial films.  I think you can show the richness and the contradictions of 20th-century life with much more force.

ALEX:  I’m very interested in how you initially perceived the history of these films that you’re amassing.  Was there something that fascinated you to the point of wanting to accumulate as much as possible?  What is it that you are finding of use now in the films that you ...
RICK:  It doesn’t begin with the idea of accumulating.  I’ve learned that it begins with the idea of the first new contact with this material.  It’s being the first person to open it up and look at material that nobody has looked at in twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, sixty years.

ALEX:  There is a particular impulse that certain researchers or people who collect material have toward non-selectivity ...
RICK:  I want to preserve it all.  I don’t collect feature films.  I don’t collect television.  I don’t collect material that was shot specifically to entertain.  There are no other archives that focus singularly on what I focus on.  So it’s really filling a gap.  Nobody else focuses on this stuff in the same way.  So that,  in a very specific sense, is why I want to try to preserve as much as possible.

ALEX:  What have you learned from these films about their agenda, whether promoting a belief system or a code of behavior or pitching a product?      
RICK:  One of the things that’s most amazing about these films is that you can’t make sweeping generalizations about them.  Yes, I’ve learned from looking at these films that there has been an effort throughout most of this century to manufacture consent, to breed out the unusual, and to help make human beings and human interactions predictable and subject to market forces.  This is true.  But the films all work differently.  There are films that are blatantly propagandistic, that stridently shout out at you, like newsreels.  Then there are also films that have a great deal of delicacy and subtlety to them.  They’re good films, or what we now think of as a good film, a film that understates itself.  There are films that are badly made, that are naive films made by people who weren’t schooled in Hollywood that many times point the way to very interesting ways of doing things. 

ALEX:  In your introduction to Secret Century, you speak very eloquently about the ’50s.  You were obviously born in the ’50s, and so it makes sense that the ’50s are a specific interest of yours.  I am  interested in your take on the propagandistic, consensus-building role of media in the ’50s.  
RICK:  You know, it’s hard to isolate the Depression and World War II and the ’50s.  In the Depression we had a sense of national mobilization through the New Deal.  This carried over into World War II.  But it couldn’t be sustained so well during the war because there were many tensions and contradictions that tore the country apart. 
     And a lot of films that we now see as consensus-building films made at that time were responding to near riots on the home front and the almost total collapse of family values — big demonstrations in the cities about ‘Bring the troops home earlier.’  All kinds of crazy stuff.

PETER:  Is that all documented?  I never knew ...
RICK:  It’s documented by historians.  It was in the news media but there weren’t newsreels because it would have been just playing into the enemy’s hands. 
     Then by the end of the war there was a lot of money in people’s pockets but there was a scarcity of consumer goods.  Nine million people were living with their parents, as adults.  There was a real housing shortage and the consensus needed to be rebuilt.  And the pipelines needed to be primed with lots of fresh new consumer goods and lots of mass-produced housing.
     These films depicted these things in a microscopic sense.  When you see a film about the post-war washing machine, it’s not just responding to a presumed need for a better washing machine. It’s pulling people out of the Dark Ages because a lot of people hadn’t had conveniences like that since the ’20s, if they had them at all.

ALEX:  So basically what you’re saying is that the films, rather than simply providing information about the way things were, also provide a glimpse of the way things were supposed to be.
RICK:  A glimpse of the persuasions of the past.  And a glimpse of the old normative models of the past.  People always think that history is about what things were and the way that they looked.  I propose in Secret Century that these films are also about the way we were supposed to be, and I think that that’s a very important object of study too.
PETER:  Looking at these CD-ROMs, the thing that really impresses me is you’re dealing with pretty rigorous concepts in a way that is very direct and free of academic jargon. I guess you must think that these are things that we can all get a grasp on.
RICK:  Well, you know, these films are raw material for all different kinds of work and play, and they’re totally appropriate for scholars to analyze and to discuss.  But they’re also very entertaining. Before I ever started working on any kind of CD, and before I even knew a lot about what these films meant, I was showing them to people.  I would do a lot of public screenings, about twenty events a year.  And when you do an event like that, you discover that there are many different kinds of people who can relate to this material.  For example, there is the film Master Hands, which is an incredible Wagnerian neo-fascist poem to the system of mass production.  It shows how cars get made.  That’s a film that I’ve shown to gear heads, who watch with incredible absorption. They’re not interested in history per se, but this film has a great deal of presence to them.
     I’ve shown a lot of the films about behavior to teenage audiences, in schools, or just out in public.  I’ve done band shell screenings in the suburbs of Washington where kids look at this material, and they really see the tension between what being a teenager is supposed to be about today and what it was then.  And then I’ve also shown films at every kind of rarefied event you can imagine.  From design conferences, to the Whitney Museum film fellows, to Media Arts Centers, and so on.

ALEX:  As you organized your CD-ROMs, did you have a public in mind as an artist would?
RICK:  What I tried to do is a little bit different.  These discs are scalable.  By that I mean that you can just put them on the computer and you can look at the movies and you can yuk, yuk, yuk if you want.  But when you start pressing buttons different voices intervene — my voice, or some of these archival texts come in.  You see pictures.  You see all kinds of suggestions about what is happening right now in our particular social and cultural sphere.  What might have happened in the past.  And you begin to start getting cues to think about this in different ways.

ALEX:  What kind of cues?
RICK:  I want people to stop thinking that history is boring, or history is for other people, or history is nostalgic, or history is glorious.  I’d like people to just look at history with the same level of criticism and detachment with which they look at a sports match or they look at a song they like or don’t like.  It’s presenting the original documents of history as entertainment.  It’s trying to remove this heavy, heavy level of mediation.  Now, granted, I am on this disc — a little 3” Rick speaks — and you could argue that the little Rick tells you what to think.  But it’s optional. 
     It’s not like when you watch The American Experience from WGBH and everything that you see is an amalgam of documents that have been cut and sliced and diced and pasted together and over-determined by the very finely crafted narration, where the sound of the narrator’s voice is practically as important as the words the narrator is saying.  It’s an attempt to work in a documentary mode without its incredible limitations.  The great thing about CDs is they’re so anti-spectacular.  They leave so much up to the audience. 

PETER:  I would go so far as to say that your CDs give the CD-ROM an excuse for being invented.  It really works in different terms than other media.  There’s a lot of flexibility in terms of the button pushing and options.
RICK:  But it’s not a game.  We haven’t had as good ways as we need to put word and image together. That’s something that’s always been incredibly frustrating.  Yes there are some very successful attempts to work with text and still images, but it’s really hard to mix text and moving images.  And these films work so much better when they’re contextualized.  When you show some of these films like the ones on “The Behavior Offensive” to kids, they laugh and laugh ... Then you explain that there was a family values crusade at the end of World War II because teenagers were getting out of hand.  Suddenly zap there’s a point that’s been made.

ALEX:  How many movies are there on the whole set?
RICK:  There’s 100.

ALEX:  How did you select them?
RICK:  Oh, interesting question.  In 1994 I did a retrospective at the Museum of the Moving Image called “Our Secret Century.” There were umbrella topics that had been bugging me for a long time.  Some of those topics have made it into Our Secret Century.  Some of them didn’t because they weren’t millennial enough.  They weren’t about things that I thought were essential for us to look at now.  What I tried to do was build twelve thematic anthologies around issues that are important to us today.  These are intended to be historical interventions rather than historical investigations. 
     There’s a disc about teenage transgression because juvenile delinquency and youth crime is such a big issue now. Many people are trying to write off a whole generation of children, but we’ve had this problem before in our history.  So I’m showing different ways that the problem was approached in the ’40s and ’50s.
     Then there’s a disc about technology. There is so much on the agenda right now — our willingness to embrace technological solutions at the same time that we’re very suspicious and frightened of technology.  This duality seems to be a continual theme.  It is not new.

ALEX:  The whole concept of intervention as opposed to investigation implies a certain agenda.
RICK:  Yes, I have some very specific goals.  I mean I haven’t done a manifesto or a declaration, but I believe in increased literacy.  We’re not a very literate society right now.  Literacy in all forms.  Images as well as words.
ALEX:  But the way that you juxtapose clips from different films ...
RICK: They’re entire films. That’s important.  I’m sort of into people comparing big chunks.

PETER:  Play the whole thing and let them figure it out.  
ALEX:  So here you can enter into the film and manipulate it.
RICK:  It’s absolutely essential these days for anything you put together, in digital work, to allow people to remanipulate it themselves. 
     So you can go on this disc, you can pick the movies, you can put them on your own computer, you can re-edit them if you so choose, you can send a little piece over the Internet, whatever.  People have already started to do that. You have to allow that.  That’s part of the interventionist thing.  You allow this material, in fact you encourage this material, to go back into the culture and see what happens.  I don’t control that process.
ALEX:  So the topics are at once timely, lively and well chosen.  But are these films chosen out of affection, out of just what you happen to like?  You’ve got a lot of hands going here.  
RICK:  Well, they were chosen because number one, they were interesting to watch and number two, they contributed.

ALEX:  What does that mean?
RICK:  It could mean that it was a film which has a particular edge today because there’s such a distance between the way that film is intended to be perceived, and the way most of us perceive it now.  It could be that the films embody great internal contradictions.  That’s what makes a great industrial film. 
     I think the capitalist realism films on Disc 2 are great because all of them are very rich texts in that way.  These are films that some people love and some people can’t stand.
     Consumer films are not very rich texts.  They don’t resonate that much.  But they’re very interesting because  they’re like intense camp, because they’re these very highly structured worlds.  There’s no one criteria.  I want to give this diversity to the selection of the 100 films because there’s so much here that can’t be categorized  in conventional terms. 

PETER:  Do you think your work is about things that have just entered the past?
RICK:  Yeah, it’s an idea that I’m very interested in because it revolves around this concept of things going out of date very quickly and something else coming in.  And in order for something else to come in, you kind of have to forget last year’s model, you have to forget the 1948 model in 1949 because otherwise you’re not going to be interested. 

ALEX:  There’s a fascination with the just-past in artistic circles.  We retro everything now.  Retro is what’s going on.  Even retro is being retroed now.
RICK:  I think the remote past is interesting too.  I never lived in the ’20s, or ’30s, or ’40s, but I love the idea of presenting material from this period in ways that have some relevance and interest to people today.  There are so many things happening now that seem to be just intolerable contra-indications which are not new, and we’ve had ways of dealing with them in the past. 

ALEX:  I’m wondering what kind of theory of history that fits into.  What is history?  Is it simply knowledge of the past that helps us contextualize ourselves?
RICK:  I’ve been thinking about my theory of history over the past year or so, and I guess I’d have to say that I’m working on it.  I do believe that it’s dynamic, that my sense of what history is isn’t something fixed.  To be most honest, in my case it’s probably a sensibility.  I have an historical sensibility.  It may be almost an aesthetic sensibility rather than a purely historical sensibility.  I don’t think I’d be happy at a university. 
     But I also believe that history can be a collective endeavor.  I don’t necessarily mean that we’re all going to go out and storm the palaces together, but I do think that we will collectively ask society, especially in the generations to come, to define how history is seen and how it’s used. 

PETER:  That’s optimistic.
RICK:  I don’t know that people who work for a living are going to determine the course of history, but I think that people who are not the ruling classes have already had a lot to do with how we see history. We have created a huge market for the mass media, and as a result, dumbed-down versions of history have been presented to us and are presented to us right now. 
     There is an operative version of history that’s disseminated all over the place.  And then we have a version that I think isn’t given as much attention, and that’s the kind of history that may be felt as much as it’s written about and it may be too subjective to be written up in books.  And I think when you go to ephemeral material that’s about everyday life and about big events seen from popular points of view you get back in touch with a certain kind of subjectivity.

ALEX:  You’re bringing in the idea of exploding a myth. That’s the agenda.
RICK:  I don’t shirk from that idea at all.

ALEX:  You’re talking about this collective myth that’s been manufactured, and you’re trying to explode it by re-presenting this ephemeral material.  That in itself is a utopian project, an enlightenment project, very much so from the word go.
PETER:  On the intuitive level I share Rick’s optimism and sense of commitment, but if I try to look at the cold-hard facts, I think that enlightenment project is over. We live in a society that has been so permeated with self-perpetuating myths that I’m not sure if I feel it’s possible for a sense of perspective like that to emerge except in small subcultures.
RICK:  You know, I think the subcultural ... the idea that a lot of things will get absorbed into subcultures, is a very compelling idea.  I’m not trying to engender false optimism here.  I’m just saying that I don’t think that we can predict what social and cultural formations are going to be like in fifty or one-hundred years.

ALEX:  You’re absolutely right.
RICK:  I do think that by trying to build an apparatus that foregrounds historical artifacts and ways of looking at history that aren’t constantly thrown out by the mainstream, that at least there’s something I can do to try to get some new genes into the pool, so to speak.  And that’s where I come from.

PETER:  Well let’s just say, in the simplest possible terms, if people have a certain of knowledge of their circumstances, understand the forces that surrounded them, they can free themselves from this manipulation.
ALEX:  Which is in a way what I’m hearing Rick say.  Namely, that there’s a huge myth that has been constructed, manufactured, by those who control the mass media, and his agenda is to dismantle that myth.
RICK:  That would be tremendously messianic,
pretentious, if I felt that these discs were going to
be emancipatory in and of themselves.  I’m just trying
to change the mix a little bit.  I believe skepticism is formative rather than destructive.  I think that some sense of history and some sense of what’s come before is important, rather than believing that everything is new and that we remake our lives every moment in completely novel ways. 


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rick2Film archieves by Ed Glendinning, 1996

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