Every year, Rick Prelinger edits together a reel of rare and vintage film clips of San Francisco. There’s no narrator – just footage of San Francisco, from a collage of perspectives: newsreel photographers, tourists, factories photographing their new equipment, activists photographing their protests, families photographing their babies toddling along on the sidewalk.
This year’s showing, called Lost Landscapes of San Francisco, and held by the Long Now Foundation at Herbst Theater this evening, promises “test flights over the unbuilt dunes of the Sunset District, Prohibition-era libertines partying in Golden Gate Park and drinking in their cars, lost travelogues and scenes from San Francisco countercultures.”
Alas, it sold out weeks ago. But many of the films that Lost Landscapes uses can be seen, and downloaded, from the Prelinger Archive. Above is one of our favorites: a film about juvenile delinquents in San Francisco, with some rare footage of the Mission.
Rick Prelinger was kind enough to answer a few of our questions concerning why he’s the kind of archivist who shares instead of hoards and why home movies make great history.
Mission Loc@l: How did your interest in archiving start out?
Rick Prelinger: When I was a kid, I watched TV documentaries. Historical footage in those days was all about war and disaster. When I moved to New York City in 1980, my friends got a gig doing a documentary on sex and romance in the USA after World War II. So we thought we’d try to do it through educational films about behavior. And I got really, really interested in that and started collecting.
ML: You’re very dedicated to the idea of open source and public access to information, and many of your archival materials are available online to download and use. What brought you to embrace open source so fully?
RP: I met Brewster Kahle, who started the Internet Archive. He challenged me to put my collection online for free. At first, I thought, “This is really weird. I don’t understand this California free culture stuff.” But intuitively it felt like the right thing to do. Today we have tens of millions of downloads…. The world has become our collaborator.
ML: After the Library of Congress acquired your film collection in 2002, you began to focus much more on archiving home movies. Why?
RP: Home movies are interesting because nobody got paid to make them. They record everyday life, ceremonies and travel. A lot of times, people shoot the same thing — it’s the little variations that tell you so much. You find that body language changes, fashion changes, what’s in the home changes.
ML: Where do you find all of your material for San Francisco archival movies?
RP: For the local material? It’s all word of mouth. I ask anybody I run into who might be a native San Franciscan if they have old movies. One things leads to another. Each year, I usually use about 50 percent new footage in the film. This year, it’s about 80 percent.
ML: Tell me about the scene of the Mission in 1969 that you’re using in this year’s Lost Landscapes.
RP: A group of young men were arrested in a police shooting and became known as Los Siete de la Raza. There’s this great sequence with people walking up and down Mission Street, and you’re listening to the voices of young Latinos and Latinas. They talk about how a plan to redevelop the Mission is all about removing people of color — to build a financial center at the 24th Street BART. The film is filled with images of working-class Latinos: working, hanging out, shopping.
ML: What parts of San Francisco do you find the most footage of, and where do you find yourself having trouble obtaining archival movies?
RP: Obviously, the most footage is where the tourists were. There’s no end of material of Fisherman’s Wharf, Powell Street, the cable car turnaround.
The fact that there’s much less of anything that shows the outlying neighborhoods is really telling. I have very little of the Fillmore. I have a little bit from the Mission but not nearly enough.
ML: What do you think these films offer people?
RP: There’s so much validity to history that comes out of a community rather than history that comes from outside. It’s not the kind of history people are accustomed to — a narrator on TV, telling you what to think. People are invited to come up with their own interpretation of what these films say. Or no interpretation at all, if they choose.
ML: Tell me more about Lost Landscapes and what it means to your understanding of San Francisco history.
RP: I’m beginning to regret the title. Because, you know…you just have to get over it and build the kind of city you want rather than lament what we’ve lost.
ML: I’ve read that you don’t consider yourself a nostalgic person. How can you not be nostalgic and still be an archivist?
RP: It’s the best job in the world, but it doesn’t quite lend itself to nostalgia. Nostalgia is being lost in time and space. It’s a longing for what you cannot recover.
I’m kind of over that idea that it used to be better — “It used to be safer, people were nicer, kids were smarter.” Who would turn down a chance to travel in time if we could do it? But I wouldn’t want to go back and live in the ’60s and ’70s or ’50s. Those were very difficult times. You couldn’t express yourself freely. There was intense racial conflict.
ML: What drives you to do these things, at root? Why do you think this is so important?
RP: I’m not just interested in the thrill of looking at the record of the past. I’m interested in what’s going to cause us to look at our immediate moment in a different way. I’m thrilled by the search for new evidence.
Prelinger says he’s always looking for home movies and archival footage of San Francisco. If you would like to donate your home movies to Lost Landscapes and Prelinger’s library, you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.