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The first film Rick Prelinger bought for his world-famous collection of industrial and educational movies was When You Are a Pedestrian, a 1940s production warning of the myriad dangers that lurk in crossing the street. It opens with an unidentified "ex-pedestrian" telling the audience he'd been killed by a driver named Joe Smith.
"It hurt pretty bad at first," the narrator says nonchalantly as a bloody corpse flashes on the screen. A montage of accident scenes follows, juxtaposed with images of victims -- none of whom survives.
"Here is death," the narrator explains. "Raw and ugly death!"
The educational movie-cum-horror flick continues with staged sequences of a mother and daughter crossing the street hand in hand, followed by scenes of puppets viciously run over by toy cars because of flawed street-crossing techniques.
But it was not the film's campy subject matter that appealed to Prelinger. A self-described geek, late bloomer, and ex-punk rocker, the Richmond District resident was drawn, simply, to the images of Oakland. The film's latter scenes cut between shots of downtown, Broadway Avenue, and International Boulevard, moving through familiar streets and landmarks that Prelinger had known as an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley in the 1970s. He marveled at how the same places that he had seen through a bus window looked so similar and different simultaneously.
From that moment in 1982, Prelinger became obsessed with collecting the industrial and educational movies that he later dubbed "ephemeral films." To Prelinger, these movies -- rotting in basements or discarded as junk -- represented precious documentation of the past; they were his way of examining the landscape of an America that no longer existed.
Twenty years and 13 maxed-out credit cards later, Prelinger had amassed 48,000 movies in the Prelinger Archives, the largest collection of American ephemeral film in the world. Prelinger sold the archive to the Library of Congress in August for $500,000. And the film archive isn't just a collection; it is a testament to Prelinger's devotion to open access to historical materials.
In that regard, Prelinger recently made 1,500 films from his collection available for free on the Internet Archive, a digital library of the Web (www.archive.org). Users simply download the films without paying a penny or signing a licensing agreement. "You do NOT need permission to download or reuse Prelinger films if you have downloaded them from the Internet Archive," Prelinger's Web site says. "We warmly encourage you to download, view, and use these films in any manner that you wish ...."
"I couldn't believe the quality of the films available on the Internet," says Vicki Bennett, a British artist who makes collage films set to sampled sound. "I wrote to Rick and I said, 'Thanks, you saved my life.' I had been feeling really stuck because of the lack of generosity from other archivists. Since then, I've gotten work commissioned by the government."
That his collection of films became an international resource is in some ways an accident; Prelinger never set out to build a film archive. Though he developed a particular connoisseurship over time, his archive is really just a manifestation of his compulsion to hoard in the name of history, and that impulse has not dissipated with the sale of the film collection.
Almost autonomically, he continues to amass great quantities of material -- obscure and popular magazines, Bureau of Land Management reports and other government documents, newspapers, atlases -- certain of their eventual historical value. The publications he collects are often already archived by other institutions; in some ways, the piles of paper he has stashed in storage are obsessive redundancies.
But Prelinger is not just gathering physical pieces of the printed past. He has plans to create a library that will do for his paper archives what he has already done with ephemeral film. Though he is still trying to find space to accommodate the approximately 40,000 items he has collected, Prelinger hopes that the library will enable artists, researchers, and people who are simply curious to re-examine and revere the unedited bits of cultural history he has salvaged.
"I'm taking historical material and showing people primary resources that were not reworked with voice-overs like on the History Channel," he says, his gentle voice grainy, like sound from an old 16mm film. "I was giving people a chance to look at footage of people from way back when. I call it 'historical intervention.' Injecting historical content into the present changes the way we experience ourselves and how we plan our futures.
"I'm fascinated with the look of the past. I have an urgent need to form images of what a place looked like in the '40s or '50s. What did it smell like? What were people wearing? What [was] people's body language? Was it noisy or quiet? Was the air smoky?"
Rick Prelinger is a self-taught historical visionary; at age 49, he remains two units shy of a bachelor's degree in a self-created major called "culture and ideology." A graying blond with a slight potbelly, Prelinger still listens to punk rock and considers himself a devotee of the counterculture, despite an obvious bent toward pedantry. He is widely described as open and generous, particularly with his film archive. At the same time, he is suspicious enough of the Establishment to be in constant pursuit of what he terms "unmediated information," reading at least three newspapers a day, speed-skimming through books, and listening to police scanners as a hobby. And though he wears a down-to-earth uniform of black T-shirts and jeans, Prelinger is clearly a savvy entrepreneur and self-promoter -- and an effective one, in part because he makes it seem as if he's not trying to promote anything.