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Prelinger may have accumulated the largest collection of ephemeral films in the United States, but his is by no means the only one. What separates him from the film-collecting fray has been his willingness to share his archive with most anyone who asks. Independent filmmakers, Smithsonian scholars, and university professors have all requested free footage from Prelinger, and he has obliged. Given his reputation, even filmmakers who can afford to pay for the footage have tried to score free material from Prelinger. "Corporate, for-profit types -- like a documentary filmmaker for CNN -- will call and harass us and try to pose as an independent, broke filmmaker trying to help children," says Greg Allen, a former Prelinger Archives employee. "They think you're so stupid. Rick has plenty of people trying to take advantage of him."
Even so, Prelinger seems to be constantly focused on new ways to get his material to the public, without charge. In the mid-'90s, when CD-ROM was a new format, he was already producing the first segments of Our Secret Century, a 12-volume compilation of archival films complete with a video introduction, bibliography, suggested reading, and program notes. A few years later, he gave access to several of his films to a friend who was packaging ephemeral films into DVDs. He travels across the country curating screenings at venues such as UC Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive and New York's American Museum of the Moving Image. Most recently, he put 1,500 free, downloadable, public domain movies on the Internet Archive.
"Rick is at the forefront on access issues," says Rob Stone, associate curator for collections at UCLA's Film and Television Archive. "Certainly all archives are looking at what he's doing, seeing where he's headed, and then following him."
Stephen Parr, who runs a smaller archive on Capp Street in the Mission District, has debated the issue with Prelinger for years. Parr says Prelinger operates from a position of privilege that other archivists just can't match. "The theory [behind providing free access] is good," says Parr. "We've had a lot of give-and-take on this issue because it works for him, but will it work for other people? It works for him because he has a major collection, and he can afford to put up 1 percent of his collection for free."
Prelinger remains steadfast in his belief that cultural artifacts like his film collection should be available for free so the public can create its own interpretations of history. And his resolve to save and publicize these films undoubtedly has much to do with a sincere desire to share pieces of history that America didn't know it wanted.
But the care, time, and money he has spent saving, preserving, archiving, and providing access to these films also has had much to do with a possibility that he would never want to face: These films might have disappeared. To Prelinger, the thought is heartbreaking. The very basis of his view of the world depends on visual, tangible evidence of the past -- so it can be compared to today, and used to guess at the future -- and the evidence he's gathered does not stop at film.
Prelinger enters the dark mouth of a Marin storage space on a blazing fall morning and switches on the light; a narrow hallway stretches out before him, its cool and dim conditions ideal for the storage of archival material. Most of his expansive film collection has been transported to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., but he keeps a few boxes of quality film-to-tape transfers in storage, so he can continue to license footage to production companies.
Among other reasons, he's come to the storage space -- where he rents five units, and the manager knows him by name -- to pull out tapes that he plans to use for the archival-footage feature film he hopes to finish by the end of 2003. The film project, too, relates to his frustration with how historical material remains undervalued. "Archival documentaries are heavy on the voice-over," he says. "That's one of their greatest limits -- you don't see [the footage] for very long. Archival footage was getting screwed. I thought that what would save archival footage is if we blew open the usage of archival footage and began using it fictionally."
The dozens of boxes of film-to-tape transfers in the storage spaces take up only a small portion of one 10-by-10-by-10 unit. The rest of that space -- as well as the other four -- is packed to the gills with books and bound magazines and government documents and boxes of yet-to-be-identified matter that Prelinger and his wife, Megan, hope to organize into a community library.
To see the sheer volume of material in his possession is to understand that Prelinger's impressive collection of film is only one manifestation of his impulse to preserve in the name of history. "His pace is incredible," says Tim Ries, a former employee at the Prelinger Archives. "It's a fact that Rick is continually in collecting mode. It makes you realize how great his passion must be."