Film archivist Stephen Parr once remarked that the best database of film was in his head — “because there’s a lot more room for serendipity.”
That serendipitous database is now lost. The 63-year-old Parr died unexpectedly, possibly as a result of complications from Parkinson’s though details are unclear, late on the morning of Oct. 24.
He was the founder and director of Oddball Films, which is both a massive trove of collected films and a quirky cinematic hub where Parr regularly screened different compilations in a small room on the second floor at 275 Capp St. In Oddball Films, Parr created the kind of gem that makes a city feel special.
“I’m screening memories. I’m screening history. I’m memorializing it to a certain extent, reinvigorating it, giving it a new take, recontextualizing it, remixing it,” Parr says in a film about Oddball directed by Joshua Moore and shot by Matthew Rome.
He held public screenings of pieces that struck his fancy, while earning his keep as the custodian of an enormous archive for clients searching for just the right clip. They included artists, documentarians and commercial media enterprises.
That approach earned him and Oddball widespread recognition.
“People, constantly, when they hear I’m a film archivist, people say, ‘Oh, you have that place in the Mission,’ because everybody knows Stephen,” said Rick Prelinger, another film archivist and a friend of Parr’s.
It helped that he’d worked with some serious heavy hitters. Parr’s first client as a film archivist was director Ridley Scott, who learned that Parr was the man to see for quirky footage.
Now there is a question of what will become of his collection, rumored to contain 50,000 cans of film. Prelinger said archivists from near and far are reaching out to Parr’s family to determine the archive’s future. For one thing, it is a formidable collection of, yes, oddities, but it has also served as a resource for footage in important documentaries — a catalogue of, as Parr himself put it, memories.
Oddball was really set apart, however, by Parr’s determination to share what he’d found with others and bring future archivists into the fold.
“Archives tend to be really closed places, behind closed doors, mysterious and to serve some people and not others,” Prelinger said. “Stephen’s archive was very hospitable. Tons of people came through Capp Street as interns, volunteers, people who worked for his nonprofit, the SF Media Archive.”
Many of them took to social media to lament the loss of the person who had been their introduction to the film — actual physical film — world.
“Oddball was the first time I encountered film on film, and since then, my life has changed as well,” wrote Hila Avraham on Facebook. “Rest in peace, and thank you Stephen for being yourself and sharing your light.”
Glamorous clients aside, Parr was also always ready to share his treasure trove with creative types who didn’t have a hefty corporate bank account. If you were an artist or documentarian, Prelinger said, “you were very likely to just get a gift from him. He was just very generous that way.”
Chris Carlsson, a local historian and an archivist in his own right — though not in film — remembered Parr as nerdy and peculiar, but also congenial and engaged.
“The guy was actually in the spirit of the Mission that I think of as the artistic, sharing, open-minded, curious and friendly attitude that people have had here for a long time,” Carlsson said. “That does seem to be dying, and it’s sad to have one of the stalwarts of that spirit pass away.”