Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 9#1 Geert-Jan Strengholt 1 Jan 1998


Our Secret century

Slowly but surely, everyone has become accustomed to the frequent use of 'found footage', often obscure film material being reapplied in the new context of a feature film, music video or TV ad. The origin of the footage usually remains unclear, while its original meaning is replaced by new content.

For many years now, the media archaeologist and film archivist Rick Prelinger has been collecting this original material, the so-called 'ephemeral films': educational, industrial and commercial films which, having been made for the moment, were never meant to be preserved. His fascination dates back to the time when he was investigating these 'hybrid genres' for Heavy Petting, a documentary on sexuality and romance in the America of the 1950s, and he discovered that thousands of information films had been made on every conceivable subject. However peculiar and dated they may be, these 'secret films' are most of all 'compact memories', and, on closer inspection, they not only present a revealing picture of 'how people lived', but also, and in particular, of 'how they were supposed to live'. Subsequently, he discovered that there were also innumerable old commercial and industrial films which had been produced, usually under the sponsorship of a large company, to promote a product, idea or lifestyle, and to lure the citizen into becoming a better worker, student, or.... consumer.

From his growing archive, he provided material for, among other things, Coca Cola ads and Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers. After the success of the CD Rom Ephemeral Films, also published by Voyager, Prelinger decided to compile from this archive, by now incorporating some 33,000 titles, a series of twelve CD Roms entitled Our Secret Century. This series not only opened up his archive, but was also an intentional attempt to make recent history part of the present once more, free of nostalgic motivation. At the end of the twentieth century, Prelinger uses 'disposable' films to trace the development of major themes, such as, the consumer society, work and technology. He also examines the role that design had in influencing the way in which we arrange our lives.

Based on an appropriate theme, each CD Rom brings a number of films together. The first ten have already been published, with themes such as The Rainbow is Yours, Capitalist Realism, The Behaviour Offensive, on postwar attempts to restore family values, and Menace and Jeopardy, on Safety films, including such classics as Safety Belt for Susie (in which the dummy, Susie, unfortunately does not survive). As well as Prelinger's own introduction and the many film fragments, the CD Roms also include much textual background information on who made the films and why, and brief clips from similar films from the same period. The way in which the material is contextualized makes this series particularly fascinating.

The Rainbow is Yours, for example, not only contains the comprehensive version of The American Look, a Chevrolet commercial from the 1950s, subtitled 'A tribute to men and women who design', but also the complete 'pitch book' drawn up by the makers. It is truly astonishing to be shown, point-by-point, the underlying strategy, which is still a match for those of contemporary advertising agencies. In short, it boils down to the fact that Chevrolet had something to hide, namely, that for many years they had been selling cars which were technically the same. The only thing changed was their appearance. Therefore, in order to focus the consumer's attention first and foremost on the Styling, they chose to make a film against the background of a specially designed modern lifestyle. To quote: By presenting a moving panorama of the most advanced in Styling as manifested in American life, Chevrolet can be integrated in mind and in memory... A clear insight into the situation of the American movie theatres did the rest. Movie theaters had to combat small budgets and were therefore keen to acquire well-produced, complimentary, commercial and promotion films. Some 40 million Americans saw this film at the cinema (drive-in), and underwent a processing which lasts for twenty minutes of undivided and uninterrupted attention. What is most interesting about films from this period is that they not only promoted the American Dream, but also, and in particular, they helped to give it shape. With these kinds of examples, Prelinger moreover shows how these, often disguised 30s, 40s and 50s advertising efforts, formed the basis of today's TV ads and infomercials.

The visual and interactive design of the CD Roms, consistently implemented by Diane Bertolo, who recently published her own CD Rom Probing into Science, provides a clear background and structure for this huge amount of material. It even includes a search function in which not only the text is indexed, but also the film images. Our Secret Century contains a wealth of information. It is both instructive and hilariously entertaining. Most of all, Our Secret Century awakens a growing desire to see these films, some of them even produced in Technicolor, on the big screen.

translation OLIVIER / WYLIE