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L'avenir de la mémoire

André Habib
Michel Marie

Benjamin, Prelinger, and the Moving Image Archive

Catherine Russell

Texte intégral

1For the last fifty years the film archive has provided substantive material for a wide variety of experimental films, essay films, autobiographical films and documentaries. Digital technologies have brought the archive closer, more accessible and more prevalent in visual culture, and filmmakers have been recycling images and sounds from the cinematic archive with increasing frequency. The excessive manifestation of recycled, found and retrieved audiovisual material poses a number of critical questions.

2First of all, what new kinds of knowledge are produced by this archival excess? We seem to have moved beyond the apocalyptic thrust of Bruce Conner, Craig Baldwin and Guy Debord who linked the archive to a loss of history and suffocating temporal discontinuity. What kind of historiography and cultural critique can be communicated through the proliferation of archival imagery? Secondly, I want to ask what happens to our understanding of the archive itself in this overwhelming retrieval from storage. Has the massive image bank of digitization given rise to a new form of the archive? Do older models still apply, and should they? Given the diversity of uses of the archive, these are not easy questions to answer.

3The archive manifests itself in many ways, from the celebratory montages of the annual Academy Awards shows, to the nationalist documentaries of the American documentarist Ken Burns, to the mashups of DIY web-based artists and fans. The limitless depths of Youtube and the viral dissemination of cinema on the Web are the most immediate signs of the phenomenal shifts in the audiovisual archive. In its variable fragmentary forms, its low-resolution, incomplete and unreliable inauthentic status, the digital archive has given us a new medium, with a new way of looking at the world. I would go so far as to suggest that it constitutes a new language, and I would like to sketch the basic contours of the media archive as an expressive medium. The wide range of films and media that I am invoking here is of course extremely varied, but the vast dissemination of archival imagery suggests a common practice.

4Found footage filmmakers, essay filmmakers and other artists working with archival media are frequently faced with the conundrum of copyright and questions of ownership. Despite the wealth of audiovisual material to work with, legislation tends to be stacked against independent filmmakers. Even if and when they can interpret and decode the language around such legislation, they cannot always afford to pay exorbitantly high fees. Archival film practices are thus often marginal to the mainstream, and their tentative “outlaw” status constitutes an implicit critique of mainstream media.

  • 1 The Internet Archive is housed in San Francisco, California. Online: < (...)
  • 2 Prelinger’s manifesto (2007) is available online: <> (accessed February 3 (...)

5Rick Prelinger is one of the most prominent advocates of the digital film archive. He has been collecting what he calls “ephemeral films” since 1982 when the Prelinger Archive was founded, consisting then mainly of 16 mm films. His collection of American industrial, educational and home-movie footage is now available for free download through the Internet Archive.1 Prelinger has published a short manifesto called: “On the Virtues of Preserving Pre‑Existing Material.” His argument for increased access to moving picture archives is a passionate critique of commodity culture, property ownership and the cult of the new. His Utopian manifesto champions the value of “ephemera” as the means of imagining possible alternative futures for our industrial mediatized society2.

Figure 1. This is Prelinger Archives.

Figure 1. This is Prelinger Archives.

Rick Prelinger, 2001.

6Prelinger’s ephemeral films are collected according to an archival principle of the everyday. They are films made “not for the ages,” but for the moment, for specific purposes at specific times, to sell products, ideas and practices, or to record activities and events. They say more about “ourselves,” says the voice-over of one of Prelinger’s own promotional films, than any feature films or TV programs ever could. In fact, they are invaluable records of American culture as it became increasingly invested in the moving image in the postwar era. The bulk of Prelinger’s material comes from the late 1940s through to the mid 1960s, a period during which discourses of social science embraced the documentary film as an explanatory and promotional tool. At the same time, TV advertisers and families with home-movie cameras began churning out images with all the enthusiasm and passion of the postwar economic boom.

7Prelinger’s manifesto is not a scholarly document, but a Utopian platform for the role of archival material in the contemporary media landscape. His polemics for open access are grounded in a serious discussion of visual culture. Without footnotes or sources, he seems to be channeling Walter Benjamin in a remarkably prescient way. Many writers on found footage and the film and photo archive return to Benjamin for a conception of the historiographic potential of the image archive-theorists including Alan Sekula, Mary Anne Doane, Bill Wees, Hal Foster and Jeffrey Skoller. Each theorist tends toward a different element of Benjamin’s diverse writing on film, photography, history and allegory in order to think through the significance of image storage, retrieval and recycling. Especially in his monumental work on the Paris Arcades, Benjamin developed a theory of history based in memory, material and visual culture, and montage.

8Following Prelinger’s fourteen points, I would like to map out the parallels between Prelinger and Benjamin, in order to better understand the implications of Benjamin’s thought for the digital media archive ; and to give Prelinger’s manifesto the critical weight of Benjamin’s theoretical insights. Benjamin’s critical philosophy resolutely resists convenient summary, and in its disparate forms it lacks the coherence of a philosophical program as such. And yet, by mapping it against Prelinger’s manifesto, I hope to at least point to the larger contours of a theory of archival filmmaking. In order to ground this map in a topography of film practice, I will offer examples of filmmaking strategies that are in turn consistent with the confluence of Prelinger and Benjamin. The avant-garde “found footage” film and the more documentary-like “essay film” provide a wealth of examples that will help illustrate the areas of agreement between these two commentators on the archive. The theory will, in turn, shed some light on the archival language that has been developed by archive-based filmmakers.

Why add to the Population of Orphaned Works?

  • 3 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Rolf Tiedemann (ed.), trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughl (...)

9By “orphaned works,” Prelinger refers to work without pedigree or owner. He advocates the free circulation of creative work to foster a society of cultural distribution and exchange. Archival filmmaking is where media trash ends up, the wasteful byproduct of a media—saturated society. We see such material reused in films such as La mémoire des anges (Luc Bourdon, 2008) in which a portrait of Montreal is constructed from the outtakes of National Film Board (NFB) films. Benjamin employs the figure of the “ragpicker” extensively in The Arcades Project to situate himself within the milieu of 19th century Paris. The ragpicker collected the city’s discarded materials in order to trade, recycle and reuse them, and Benjamin likewise focuses on what he calls the “The Refuse of History”—including the ragpicker himself, alongside the trivia of fashion, interior design, and numerous writers and thinkers whose words had fallen by the wayside.3

Figure 2. La mémoire des anges.

Figure 2. La mémoire des anges.

Luc Bourdon, 2008.

Don’t Presume that New Work Improves on Old

  • 4 Ibid., p. 207.
  • 5 Ibid., p. 205.

10Prelinger advocates “letting old works speak,” and warns us not to presume that “new work improves on old.” For his part, Benjamin saw in Baudelaire a critique of the cult of the new in modernity. Another key figure in the Arcades Project is the Collector, who not only lets old works speak, but enables them to speak a new kind of language. Collecting for Benjamin is a practice inundated with dream and magic, through which the collector detaches the object from its use value and places it within a new order. In the struggle against dispersion though, the collection is never complete. “For the collector, the world is present, and indeed ordered, in each of his objects.4” Collecting for Benjamin “is a form of practical memory.” He says that “the smallest act of political reflection makes for an epoch in the antiques business,” which leads up to one of the more potent aphorisms in the book: “We construct here an alarm clock that rouses the kitsch of the previous century to ‘assembly’.5

  • 6 Monica Dall’asta, “The (Im)possible History”, in Forever Godard, Michael Temple, James S. Williams (...)

11Numerous films could be marshaled for this particular point, but perhaps the most salient would be Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinema (1987-1997) Godard may not be dealing with kitsch, but his investigation and re-mixing of the canonical works of Euro-American cinema is a central example of a filmmaker who strongly doubts that the cinema of the 20th century can be improved upon. His four-and-a-half hour melancholic elegy has in fact been analyzed by Monica Dell’asta as a “coherent, self-conscious application of the historiographical method proposed in [Benjamin’s] ‘On the Concept of History’”. She claims that Godard attempts to “do with the 20th century what, in the Arcades Project (or Passagenwerk), Benjamin had done with the 19th.”6 Godard’s version of film history jettison’s “cultural heritage” for a dynamic and interactive version of film history in which the spectator is confronted with the incompletion of historical memory and historical time.

Figure 3. Histoire(s) du cinéma.

Figure 3. Histoire(s) du cinéma.

Jean-Luc Godard, 1987-1998.

Honor our Ancestors by Recycling their Wisdom

  • 7 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, op. cit., p. 396.
  • 8 Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History” in Selected Works, vol. 4,1938-1940, Michael W. Jennin (...)

12Prelinger’s third point is given with some degree of irony, to be taken, he says, “with a grain of salt.” He clarifies it by suggesting that the past can problematize the present, which echoes Benjamin’s proclamation that the historical materialist can potentially “blast open the continuum of history” precisely by recognizing the discontinuities of history.7 Benjamin’s insistence that the present and past enter into a constellation is perhaps most beautifully played out in Terrence Davies’ film Of Time and the City (2008) in which contemporary Liverpool and his own insouciant, disrespectful voice-over frames a montage of archival images of the past. The historical view of the city is thus respected, but at the same time, Davies breaks with what Benjamin decries as the “empathy” of historicism8.

Figure 4. Time and the City.

Figure 4. Time and the City.

Terence Davies, 2009.

The Ideology of Originality is Arrogant and Wasteful

13Perhaps the most obvious point of contact between Prelinger and Benjamin is Prelinger’s claim that “the ideology of originality is arrogant and wasteful.” Benjamin’s critique of aura in his “Work of Art” essay has been one of his main contributions to media theory, even if it has been interpreted in many different ways. Prelinger, however, links the critique of originality to the value and status of art documentation and points to this second-level image-sphere as a challenge to the question of art-as-property. In this sense, works such as Paris 1900 (Nicole Védrès, 1947) and Thom Anderson’s LA Plays Itself (2003) not only dispense with the aura, originality and authorship of the original films that they excerpt, but they turn them into documents. Védrès creates a portrait of Paris from a montage of turn-of-the century actualities and shorts, while Anderson attempts to reclaim LA from its status as backdrop for a history of Hollywood genre filmmaking. This shift that so often occurs in found footage filmmaking from fiction to document is exemplary of Benjamin’s concept of allegory. The image, recontextualized through montage, loses its commodity status and once it is stripped of its use value, it takes on new meaning within the collection of images of which it is a part.

Dregs are the Sweetest Drink

  • 9 Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire, A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, trans. Harry Zhon, (...)

14Prelinger’s fifth point takes us to Benjamin’s treasured realm of kitsch, the detritus of commodity culture. But Prelinger’s own example from his ephemeral film archive points to another of Benjamin’s observations. A 1936 film called Master Hands is a corporate film that was made as a tribute to mass production at Chevrolet. But, says Prelinger, “what it really shows is how elemental, dangerous and mind-numbing the work at Flint was.” Benjamin not only advocates “brushing history against the grain,” but links assembly-line work to film reception. In his discussion of Baudelaire he places the atomized experiences of time as a challenge to the poet. Baudelaire’s allegorical technique was dedicated to a conception of time that would break the repetitive cycles of duration with “spleen” or a perception of time that is “supernaturally keen : every second finds consciousness ready to intercept its shock9 ”. Here we could turn to Guy Debord’s found footage filmmaking, or Prelinger’s own Ephemeral Panorama (2004) as films that attempt, in different ways, to intercept the experience of time in industrial modernity. Kitsch is activated in these films as a challenge to the temporal mechanics of progress. Another example might be Atomic Café (Loader, K. Rafferty, P. Rafferty, 1982), which highlights the cultural underbelly of 1950’s atomic science projects.

And Leftovers were Spared for a Reason

15Leftovers are the substance of powerful films such as Resnais’ Nuit et brouillard (1955). The re-representation of holocaust footage, like the imagery of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Hiroshima mon amour (Alain Resnais, 1959), or the shocking footage in Chris Marker’s Le fond de l’air est rouge (1977), force the atrocities of war into the realm of spectacle. For Benjamin, “the materialist presentation of history leads the past to bring the present into a critical state,” which underlines the fact that the montage structure of the archive film constructs a dialectic of present and past, precisely because those left-over images are so eminently cut off from the time they were produced.

Actors Don’t Get a Fair Shake the First Time Around, Let’s Give them Another

16Venturing into the arena of the fiction film, Prelinger points to the way that the digital archive has enabled a whole new genre of film scholarship. New media has enabled a proliferation of old films, and clips from those old films appear in innumerable DVD special features and archive-based documentaries, such as the video essays in Criterion packages, and the ubiquitous audio commentary. Sophie Fiennes’s A Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2009) featuring Slavoj Žižek’s psychoanalysis of American cinema and Maximillian Schell’s film about Marlene Dietrich, Marlene (1984), in which Dietrich dismisses all her great prewar films as pure kitsch, are great examples of how archive-based filmmaking can produce important and insightful knowledge about film history itself.

17Found footage filmmakers Christoph Girardet and Matthias Müller have mined the Hollywood archive for their films The Phoenix Tapes (1999) and Kristall (2006). In the first film, fragments of Hitchcock’s films have been reassembled into new sequences that provide new, imaginative insight into Hitchcock’s use of space, his depiction of objects such as keys and suitcases, and recurring motifs related to mothers and trains. In Kristall, the filmmakers collect moments of expressive gestures, splicing together brief scenes from dozens of familiar films featuring a pantheon of American and European stars. Girardet and Müller’s films, like Anderson’s film about Los Angeles in which he takes the viewer through architectural landmarks that reappear in film after film, transform the dreamworld of studio-based filmmaking into collections of highly potent images. Each fragment triggers memories of films and the people that populate them and spaces that are eerily familiar.

18These cinephiliac films bring us close to an understanding of Benjamin’s phantasmagoria as a dream-sleep from which we need to awaken. They might even be exemplary of Benjamin’s dialectical images: they are renewed in their new contexts so that they become newly recognizable. Images in these films “become legible” in Benjamin’s sense because they can be read as the language of history and memory, but also because they can still excite us with some kind of intangible magic that was—and is still in important ways Hollywood’s bread and butter.

The Pleasure of Recognition Warms us on Cold Nights and Cools us in Hot Summers

  • 10 Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer,” in Selected Writings, vol. 2, 1927-1934, Michael J. Jenn (...)
  • 11 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, op. cit., p. 211.

19The notion of remixing, or the mash-up as it is now known, is linked by Prelinger directly to Brecht. The political implications of distanciation were likewise recognized by Benjamin, who saw montage as the technique par excellence by which the author could represent him or herself as a producer. Techniques of discovery and laughter created through montage effects are the epitome of Brecht’s epic theatre.10 Prelinger takes the relationship of montage and distanciation one step further to underline the effect of moving-image montage in time-based media like film and video. He says that information is like a river that routes itself around obstacles, “and the bends in the river are where adventure happens”. This seems like an apt description of films like My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, 2008) that tell a story through a mix of archival and newly filmed material. Maddin’s film, which is about a city founded on rivers, blurs the edges between the two forms, combining home-movie footage and archival film of Winnipeg with dreamy scenes of memory and childhood. This remixed autobiographical film reconfigures the river-crossed city as a matrix of historical material that is very much in keeping with Benjamin’s remark that “a productive disorder… is the canon of the collector.”11

Figure 5. My Winnipeg.

Figure 5. My Winnipeg.

Guy Maddin, 2008.

We Approach the Future by Typically Roundabout Means

  • 12 Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller,” in Selected Works, vol. 3, 1935-1938, Howard Eiland and Michael (...)
  • 13 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, op. cit., p. 460.

20In a related gesture, Prelinger suggests that archival film practices constitute a circumvention, if not an outright critique of narrative storytelling conventions. This point evokes yet another essay of Benjamin’s—“The Storyteller”—in which he contrasts the storyteller’s art with the bourgeois novel on the one hand, and the emerging information society on the other. He endorses the storyteller for telling it like it is, without explanation or deep meaning. In “The Storyteller” Benjamin argues for a materialist mode of narration, grounded in the experience of the teller,12 which is linked to the method of montage in the Arcades Project in which he says he “needn’t say anything. Merely show. I shall purloin no valuables, appropriate no ingenious formulations.”13

21Narrativity in found footage filmmaking takes many different forms, including first‑person confessionals spoken in voice-over, or inscribed in intertitles as in Tarnation (Jonathan Caouette, 2003) and Sink or Swim (Su Friedrich, 1990). It can be very literary in films by Chris Marker or Terrence Davies ; didactic in films by Debord ; entirely absent in the films of Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci-Lucchi ; or entirely borrowed from archival sources, as in Atomic Café. The best example of the kind of narrative subversion to which Prelinger alludes might be Craig Baldwin’s Tribulation 99 (1991) in which the voice-over narration parodies the apocalyptic doom-laden voice of the paranoid style of the American right. Baldwin’s relentless oration laid over a montage of disparate imagery that supposedly tells a story of alien invasion from South and Central America is a mashup of espionage, sci-fi, ethnographic and political discourse. Baldwin demonstrates the artifice of his discursive models, while his imagery evokes many other stories that remain untold. This is “information” at its most oppressive, and Benjamin’s storyteller is noticeable in his radical evacuation.

22Films with no narration, like Girardet and Müller’s montages, or Gianikian and Ricci‑Lucchi’s Dal Polo all’Equatore (1987), or Peter Delpeut’s Lyrisch Nitraat (1989), strip away all elements of linear narrative. Their montage structure might have an internal movement, but the images are left to speak for themselves, stripped of context, enabling or challenging the viewer to grasp them on their own terms, or through the filmmaker’s manipulations on the sensuous level of sound and picture alone. These films strongly suggest Benjamin’s storyteller by offering up images that speak only of their sources in the profilmic, saying simply this was here then, this happened here, this image was filmed.

We Hope the Future is Listening, and the Past Hopes we are too

23Prelinger claims that the reuse of preexisting materials enables us to think historically, a task that has been taken up perhaps most conscientiously by Péter Forgács, the Hungarian filmmaker who works from a wealth of public and private imagery. Moreover, we have a responsibility to the next generation to encourage them to think historically as well. Benjamin’s methodology in the Arcades Project is articulated in terms of an awakening. His historiography is oriented toward a “not-yet-conscious knowledge of what has been,” which is in turn an excellent premise for the reuse of archival footage that enables us to see the past on its own terms, torn from the mystifying contexts in which it lies dormant. Ernie Gehr’s wonderful film Eureka (1974) transforms a streetcar phantom-ride in San Francisco circa 1905 into a trip into another world where traffic, pedestrians, and horses take us deeply into the urban experience of the era. We are immersed not in information but in sensation, movement and space.

What’s Gone is Irretrievable, but Might Also Predict the Future

24Prelinger’s view of the archive is, like Benjamin’s, resolutely utopian. Through the construction of historical memory and historical difference, Prelinger came to understand that his ephemeral films “didn’t just describe a lost past, but might also be tracing the contours of possible futures.” This is precisely the thrust of Benjamin’s discussion of ruins as allegorical. Benjamin’s view of history as contingent, messianic and materialist is eminently embodied in the signs of decay and transience that are inscribed in the ruin. The impermanence of history ensures the Utopian possibility of social transformation promised but not delivered by modernity.

  • 14 André Habib, “Ruin, Archive and the Time of Cinema : Peter Delpeut’s Lyrisch nitraat,” Substance, # (...)

25Found footage filmmakers in the 1970s attended closely to the forms of decaying celluloid in films such as David Rimmer’s Seashore (1971) and Surfacing on the Thames (1970). Delpeut’s Lyrisch nitraat combines episodic montage technique with a melancholic tribute to the medium’s decay. As André Habib points out, Delpeut endows the cinematic ruin with a new aura in which temporality and historicity become palpable and tangible.14 In fact, I would argue that this is precisely how Benjamin conceived the notion of aura—as something always vanishing, on the verge of disappearance, thus marking the irreversibility and fragmentation of historical time.

Access to what’s already Happened is Cheaper than Access to what’s Happening Now

26Prelinger endorses the film archive as a source for DIY low-budget filmmaking. His polemic is not only a manifesto for fair use, but he links the detritus of the past, and the public domain, specifically with urban space. The city is the home of the garage sale and the flea market, and it is also, of course, the home of Benjamin’s ragpickers, gamblers, flaneurs and collectors. Prelinger’s cryptic remark that “the public domain is the coolest neighbourhood in town” reminds us that the city is, in turn, the subject of a great deal of found footage filmmaking.

  • 15 Walter Benjamin, TheArcades Project, op. cit., p. 394.
  • 16 Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art (third version),” in Selected Works, vol. 4, 1938-1940, op. cit., (...)

27The late silent period saw the rise of the city film as a collage form, with Entr’acte (René Clair, 1924), Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929) and À propos de Nice (Jean Vigo, 1930) made from the filmmakers’ own archives of original footage. The remarkable 1947 film, Paris 1900 (Nicole Védrès) may be the first in a long series of archival city films that has unfolded in the postwar era, including La mémoire des anges, LA Plays Itself, Of Time and the City and My Winnipeg. Cities are where many films—documentary and fiction—are shot, and thus, as Prelinger suggests, they are the source of a great deal of footage. But more importantly, urban space is like the cinema in that it is configured within the multi-perspectival collage form; and like archival film practices, it is riddled with signs of decay, transience and renewal. Benjamin recognized in the 1930s that film provided the emblematic context for “all the forms of perception, the tempos and rhythms which lie preformed in today’s machines.”15 The optical unconscious emerges in the depths of the urban jungle, enabling us to travel freely within its “far-flung debris.”16

Archives are Justified by Use

  • 17 Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking my Library,” in Selected Works, vol. 2, 1927-1934, op. cit., p. 492.
  • 18 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, op. cit., p. 66.

28Prelinger argues that only by increasing access can archives in the traditional sense keep pace with the degraded quality of all that is on offer on Youtube. Benjamin’s remarks on collecting privilege the private collection over the public because of the way that the collector inhabits his collection.17 And yet, even in this context, Benjamin insists that “the most distinguished trait of a collection will always be its transmissibility.”18 It may be that a collection becomes an archive once it becomes used, accessed and repurposed. In being used, moreover, it becomes an allegory of its own temporality and historicity; it becomes a form of memory that can be put in the service of the present and the contemporary user.

  • 19 Catherine Russell, “Autoethnography : Journeys of the Self,” in Experimental Ethnography : The Work (...)

29Home movies constitute an important component of a certain kind of found footage filmmaking that I have described elsewhere as autoethnographic.19 Alan Berliner’s film Nobody’s Business (1996) is a good example of the filmmaker delving into the past to confront his father with the photographic details of the family’s history of emigration. Their story, a Jewish family escaping European pogroms, is a familiar one that Berliner’s father dismisses as “nobody’s business.” Illustrated with pre-war family photos and classic home-movie footage from the fifties, the film deploys the archive in a dynamic confrontation between father and son, and a drama of remembering and forgetting. Another good example is Jonathan Caouette’s film Tarnation in which the filmmaker appears to have grown up on film as an adolescent drag queen. Caouette uses the archive in his film as a therapeutic confrontation with his own troubled family life, and in the process provides a unique portrait of a working-class American family falling through the social safety net.

  • 20 Ursula Marx, Gudrun Schwartz, Michael Shwarz, Erdmut Wizisla (eds), Walter Benjamin’s Archive, New (...)

30Walter Benjamin’s own archive has been collected, displayed, exhibited and published, indicating how he meticulously inventoried his own work in all its various stages and fragments. His fear of losing bits and pieces of his labour was a real fear, arising directly from his itinerant homelessness as an exile in interwar Europe. But as the editors of the English translation of his archive point out, his collecting and archiving was always intended to be “used productively and grounded in the present.”20 In a fragment of text labeled “Excavation and Memory,” Benjamin offers his most prescient insight into the status and role of memory in modernity. He says:

  • 21 Walter Benjamin, “Excavation and Memory,” in Selected Works, vol. 2, 1927-1934,op. cit., p. 576.

Genuine memory must therefore yield an image of the person who remembers, in the same way an archeological report not only informs us about the strata from which its findings originate, but also gives an account of the strata which first had to be broken through.21

Make a Quilt not an Advertisement

  • 22 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, op. cit., p. 205-206.

31Prelinger’s final point links open access to the folk art of quilting. The leftovers of corporate expression can be both useful and transcendent, he says, if they don’t have selling at their core. For Benjamin, the collector turns the commodity into an allegory. Detached from its use value, and indeed from all its original functions, the object in the collection is potentially dialectical, breaking down the commodity form into an allegory of its fetishistic origin. But Benjamin also identifies a kind of magical property in the collection, and suggests that the collector might even live a piece of dream life. Benjamin examines the Paris Arcades “as though they were properties in the hand of a collector.” The collector is like the dreamer in that the “rhythm of perception and experience is altered in such a way that everything…concerns us.”22 In the archival film, perception and experience are likewise reconfigured so as to address the spectator in the present historical moment. Influenced by the random juxtapositions of surrealist method, Benjamin provides an exemplary model for the potential of archival cinema to disrupt the expanding corporate landscape of archival imagery.

32In his note on “Excavation and Memory,” Benjamin actually suggests that memory itself might be a medium. As the many film examples I’ve sited here indicate, we can point to the image-bank of the media society that Benjamin’s arcades gave rise to as the realization of that medium. The image archive has given us a new language that the avant-garde has been mining for decades. In its earliest forms, Bruce Conner, Guy Debord and Arthur Lipsett used the language of the found footage fragment for a critique of image-based corporate culture. Prelinger’s manifesto reminds us of the ongoing urgency of this task. In what Benjamin described as the ongoing catastrophe of modernity, the film archive is one of our most valuable resources for a language that can speak to the impasse of historicism. Archival film practices are perhaps the emblematic art of the digital age and constitute the foundation of a new language of historical knowledge.


1 The Internet Archive is housed in San Francisco, California. Online: <> (accessed February 3rd 2011).

2 Prelinger’s manifesto (2007) is available online: <> (accessed February 3rd 2011). All subsequent references to Rick Prelinger are from this unpaginated text.

3 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Rolf Tiedemann (ed.), trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, Cambridge, MA, Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 460-461.

4 Ibid., p. 207.

5 Ibid., p. 205.

6 Monica Dall’asta, “The (Im)possible History”, in Forever Godard, Michael Temple, James S. Williams and Michael Witt (eds), London, Black Dog Publishing, 2007, p. 354.

7 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, op. cit., p. 396.

8 Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History” in Selected Works, vol. 4,1938-1940, Michael W. Jennings (ed.), Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2003, p. 391.

9 Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire, A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, trans. Harry Zhon, London, Verso, 1983, p. 143.

10 Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer,” in Selected Writings, vol. 2, 1927-1934, Michael J. Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith (eds), Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 778-779.

11 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, op. cit., p. 211.

12 Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller,” in Selected Works, vol. 3, 1935-1938, Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (eds), Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2002, p. 143-166.

13 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, op. cit., p. 460.

14 André Habib, “Ruin, Archive and the Time of Cinema : Peter Delpeut’s Lyrisch nitraat,” Substance, #110, Vol. 35, No. 2, 2006, p. 120-139.

15 Walter Benjamin, TheArcades Project, op. cit., p. 394.

16 Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art (third version),” in Selected Works, vol. 4, 1938-1940, op. cit., p. 265.

17 Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking my Library,” in Selected Works, vol. 2, 1927-1934, op. cit., p. 492.

18 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, op. cit., p. 66.

19 Catherine Russell, “Autoethnography : Journeys of the Self,” in Experimental Ethnography : The Work of Film in the Age of Video, Durham, Duke University Press, 1999, p. 275-314.

20 Ursula Marx, Gudrun Schwartz, Michael Shwarz, Erdmut Wizisla (eds), Walter Benjamin’s Archive, New York, Verso, 2007, p. 10.

21 Walter Benjamin, “Excavation and Memory,” in Selected Works, vol. 2, 1927-1934,op. cit., p. 576.

22 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, op. cit., p. 205-206.

Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. This is Prelinger Archives.
Crédits Rick Prelinger, 2001.
Fichier image/jpeg, 29k
Titre Figure 2. La mémoire des anges.
Crédits Luc Bourdon, 2008.
Fichier image/jpeg, 102k
Titre Figure 3. Histoire(s) du cinéma.
Crédits Jean-Luc Godard, 1987-1998.
Fichier image/jpeg, 64k
Titre Figure 4. Time and the City.
Crédits Terence Davies, 2009.
Fichier image/jpeg, 76k
Titre Figure 5. My Winnipeg.
Crédits Guy Maddin, 2008.
Fichier image/jpeg, 108k

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