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Wednesday, December 04, 2002

Communique from the Outside World

Last month I wrote about the films from the Prelinger Archive. This is (to recap) an on-line archive of "ephemeral films"---mostly industrial or instructional short films designed to showcase a company's products (or just the company), or for use as instructional or informational material, often in classrooms, but sometimes not. They were generally not meant for immortality, but for short-term use, hence "ephemeral".

Many of these films possess interesting qualities that were not always intended by their makers. Some of them show a wonderful slice of the time they were made. Some of them reveal a sort of subterranean zeitgeist, a world view that is not apparent at first glance. Some of them are just plain weird.

In the first post, I mentioned several interesting films in the archive that had been featured as shorts (and put to excellent use) on Mystery Science Theater 3000. In subsequent posts here and here I talk about two other films.

So this all brings us to the other day, when I found an email from Rick Prelinger in my mailbox.

Now, this won't mean much to most of you, but it did to me. He's the guy who saw the value in these little beauties, and saved them (under his bed at first) and collected and studied them, and finally turned them over to the Library of Congress. The collected is comprised of 48,000 completed films, plus another 30,000 cans of unedited footage. That's a heck of a lot of film. In his email, Prelinger said that the on-line collection will peak at around 1700 titles, which is something like 3% of the total number. Wow. So this is way cool.

Prelinger said that he was led here by his logs, which showed a number of people linking to his site from this blog. Surely there's some mistake. No one reads this blog.

Now, one of the things I mentioned in the post on the film Tuesday in November is that the comments on the movie archive are of very confusing provenance. There are comments from Ken Smith (author of this book), and from reviewers who have registered at the site (these are clearly marked). Then there are unsigned comments, plus a shot-by-shot description of the film, and a string of words that sounds like the kind of brief description you'd want if you were going to mine the film for stock footage. Not all of these are on every film (and many films have no information on them at all).

In his email, Prelinger clarified the origin of these comments:

When the Internet Archive upgraded the website this summer, I basically uploaded all of the textual metadata (commentary, synopses, shotlists, notes, miscellaneous rantings) from my company's database up to the IA site so that it would be searchable. It contains Ken Smith's comments that date back to when he worked for me (ca. 1993-94), before there was a _Mental Hygiene_ book. I also added program notes from the _Our Secret Century_ CD-ROMs (as you correctly hypothesize), scripts from some of the films, commentaries and reviews written when the films were released, and entries from our production databases that contain shot descriptions or other useful information. That note about the "superego" was written by someone looking through the collection for shots useful to a film project. There's all sorts of other miscellaneous kibble in there, too.

So there's a lot in there, and it's sometimes not well-separated, and confusing.

So this should probably bring me to the point of Prelinger's email. I disagreed with most of the comments on the site, which I found to have a depressing sameness of tone. Most of them seemed focussed on finding a sinister side to the films, sometimes with fairly flimsy justification (corporate sponsorship = bad). Others were just condescending. I found this very annoying, and I said so in those two posts.

Prelinger was pleased (yeah) by this, despite having written much of that commentary. He said that he'd been disappointed by the uniformity of perspective in the comments, and hoped for different views. He wrote a very kind email, especially considering that I'd said he was a graduate of the "University of Missed Points". (I still think he wildly missed the point.)

He said he looked forward to more. Hey, no problem! (Except for writing up the things, and the risk of boring the pants off of those who aren't interested.) I will have to wrestle with my indoctrinated politeness, though. It's more difficult to snark at someone who has written you a nice email. (I could, of course, simply write a thoughtful, reasoned, critique with no sarcasm, but that'd be real dull.)