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L'avenir de la mémoire

André Habib
Michel Marie

Looking Back at an Electronic exchange with a Media Archeologist. An Interview with Rick Prelinger by Caroline Martel 12 ½ years later1

Caroline Martel et Rick Prelinger

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  • 1 Acknowledgements : Caroline Martel wishes to thank Rick Prelinger for his spontaneous complicity an (...)
  • 2 Back cover of Rick Prelinger’s laserdiscs To New Horizons and You Can’t Get Here From There (1993).

1It took place over a dial-up connection on a 386 computer, in the last century, a century that Rick Prelinger decrypted through his collection of films artifacts revealing “the dark side of the American Dream.2” As I was writing a review of his twelve CD-rom collection Our Secret Century, focusing on how multimedia could contribute to a new historiography of cinema, I dared to ask for an interview. This led to a back-and-forth email exchange over some long winter months, from November 1998 to April 1999.

  • 3 Caroline Martel, “Our Secret Century : archives filmiques, nouveaux médias et historiographie,” Soc (...)

2Prelinger may have later mentioned that my review3 was one of the first to engage seriously with his methodology, but his genealogy of ephemeral film, and his perspective on the transformation of knowledge culture and archival institutions in the digital age ended up seriously informing my own work, even infusing the development of my montage film The Phantom of the Operator (65 min., productions artifact, 2004).

Ephemeral/Orphan Films Today

  • 4 Dan Streible, “The Role of Orphan Films in the 21st Century Archive,” Cinema Journal, Vol. 46, No.  (...)

3Taking up the idea of media archaeology that was becoming fashionable then on forums like Nettime and in Bruce Sterling’s Dead Media encyclopedia, I was curious to explore what an archaeology of media could entail, more specifically using ephemeral film as a “site.” The interview revolved primarily around the concept of the ephemeral film Prelinger brought to archival culture, and which ended up gaining institutional adherence from the National Film Preservation Foundation in the United States. Over the last decade, however, the use of the term orphan film, popularized through the contagious efforts of people like Dan Streible, founder of the Orphan Film Symposium, seems to have taken prevalence, for film archivists, scholars, and programmers around the world, and in legal settings. Abandoned, rare, neglected, almost-lost, unseen, or rediscovered, orphan films have gained a powerful resonance for motion picture preservation. Meant as a metaphor that strikes an emotional chord, the concept of orphanhood, for Streible, could at its best serve as an intellectual model for the study of media and culture writ large.4

  • 5 Effectively formed in the past, but still active in the cultural process, the residual allows us to (...)

4Ephemeral and orphan film may really be one and the same, still the theories behind their naming suggest different avenues of discussion. Reading the exchange with Prelinger more than a decade later, it remains clear that the concept of ephemeral film has kept a relevance, especially in light of the notion of residual media now circulating in the fields of media studies and visual culture.5 While the orphan is to be saved, adopted and taken care of, the ephemeral film, as a form of residual media, reemerges “with a vengeance” to be recognized by the present as an image of its own (to paraphrase Walter Benjamin). Dealing with the ephemeral (in) film isn’t simply about rescuing it from being lost or out of sight. The very notion of “ephemeral film” is a productive oxymoron, pointing to how the existence of an artifact takes place in a cultural process of tensions between continuities and ruptures, imbuing it indeed with a new power.

  • 6 Vinzenz Hediger and Patrick Vondereau (eds), Films that Work: Industrial Film and the Productivity (...)

5Not only do we find the films championed by Prelinger increasingly present in today’s mediascape, but their study has now been embraced by academia. As he says, the field has now even become “gentrified”! The collection of essays Films that Work: Industrial Film and the Productivity of Media6 exemplifies the growing literature on such films, filled with rich case studies, methodologies, and theoretical frameworks for the study of non‑canonized films.

The Media Archaeologist of Digital Archives

6In this new century, media archaeologists with credentials of their own have also multiplied‑with proponents such as Thomas Elsaesser, Wolfgang Ernst, Erkki Huhtamo, and Siegfired Zielinski. Emerging from a range of fields, and using an interdisciplinary approach, they rediscover non-dominant artifacts and narratives, much like what Prelinger has done since the 1980’s. As I read his assessment of the changes in the practices of preservation and access of motion picture archives since the late 1990’s, it seems indeed that perhaps we’ve moved from the paradigm of a more traditional historical approach to a more material, immediate one that is indeed a form of archaeology. The “populism inherent in an archaeological approach” Prelinger refers to below has migrated largely onto the territory of the Web. But there, where “immaterial digging” is assisted by search engines, the risk is in the assumption that everything is there. We may be just now indeed accessing and watching databases, as figures such as Geert Lovink argue. While “folks,” citizens, and fans develop a YouTube-based relationship to the access of moving images, archivists still look for ways to redefine their working model. However, as archivist Paolo Cherchi Usai will point out, we have entered an era of permanent revolution where “the digital” defines the game of the audiovisual ecosphere, and another breed of orphans may be emerging: analogue print archives in the “post-celluloid” age. Increasingly preoccupied by the profound impact brought by the digital revolution, Prelinger has always kept his focus on access. Like a media archaeologist yet again, he suspects that the most interesting developments in the redefinition of our relationships to archives will arise from practices from the margins.

  • 7 Dan Streible, “The Role of Orphan Films in the 21st Century Archive,” op. cit., p. 125.

7In his concluding remarks of the interview, Prelinger expressed the wish to work with archival material “in a different way.” He indeed has done so since by continuing to experiment as a cultural producer, making a film (Panorama Ephemera, 2004), some film‑based performances (such as the Lost Landscapes, and The Life of Energy, 2010), and with his partner, the researcher and writer Megan Prelinger, he opened a public library of books, periodicals, and print ephemera. His interventions in the public sphere have ranged from acting as a film collector committed to the preservation of ephemeral/orphan films, to building a case before the court for the Public Domain Enhancement Act (Prelinger vs. Ashcroft, 2004), to leaving a “material” legacy at the Library of Congress (transferring his collection there in 2002), as well as online on Giving thought-provoking presentations and writing essays (Archival Manifesto: on the Virtues of Preexisting Material, 2007), Prelinger is currently working on a new archival-based film like a dedicated orphanista, integrating “a scholar’s knowledge, an archivist understanding of material, and the interpretive vision of an artist.”7

8(Caroline Martel, 2011)

Email exchanges between Rick Prelinger and Caroline Martel (November 1998-March 1999)

Media Archaeology

  • 8 Our Secret Century, A series curated and hosted by Rick Prelinger (Vol. 1-12), New York, The Voyage (...)
  • 9 Ian Hodder, Theory and Practice in Archaeology, New York, Routledge Press, 1992, p. 227.

9Caroline Martel [CM]: In Our Secret Century8 , you analyze the American culture celebrated/constructed by governments, corporations and institutions, yourself saving and using audiovisual material vestiges. As Ian Hodder notes in Theory and Practice in Archaeology : “archeologists often claim that in comparison with historical evidence their data allow access to popular, non-elite culture— to the everyday lives of past men and women. Certainly the materiality of archaeological data allows a popular, accessible approach to the past […]. Whereas history is abstract and often intellectual, archaeological objects are immediately accessible and more open to commodification and consumerism9 ”. Any thoughts on this ?

10Rick Prelinger [RP]: Since childhood, I have always been immensely attracted to objects and artifacts from the past. For me they are triggers of memories, narratives and ideas. I’ve always been more of a collector than a philosopher or theoretician. What this means in practice is that my ideas tend to arise from what I collect, witness and gather around me in an inductive, empirical process rather than a theoretical one. I don’t object to theoretical practice (in fact, I wish I was better at theorizing) but I find that material objects possess great power to stimulate thought, and we know so little about the historical contexts in which they were created. There’s also a populism inherent in an archaeological approach, as almost anyone is prone to reflection in the presence of old things, while few people like to wrangle with ideas.

11Media archaeology is an interesting offshoot of media-rich North American culture. Our predecessors (and ourselves) produce and discard media in all its forms almost as fast as we make garbage. It’s so ubiquitous, yet so unstudied. It seems daunting or forbidding to stop and examine what lies in front of us, to freeze the flow, to take a snapshot and see what it reveals. There’s far too much out there to do systematic studies: 500,000 to 600,000 ephemeral films; tens of thousands of music videos; millions of commercials. You really have to make up your rules as you proceed, based on what you can find or what you can see. The selection process isn’t motivated by principle but by expedience and possibility.

12CM: Any thoughts on your Film Theory studies at Berkeley?

13RP: I constructed my own major in college, called “Culture and Ideology.” I studied a little film theory and a little cultural theory, but what I do now has very little to do with what I studied in college, except one thing: I had a brilliant professor named Bertrand Augst, who is unfortunately not himself famous but who has influenced many people who are now quite influential. His thing was to look at films not as sacred, complete narratives, but as assemblies of “semiautonomous segments”, as people like Christian Metz and Noël Burch did in the 1970s. This still influences me today. Also, he did not believe in hierarchies and masterworks in film…

The Study of Ephemeral Films

14CM: Under “ephemeral films” on the alt.culture website from December 1997, I quote:

Term coined by film archivist Rick Prelinger (b.1953) to designate industrial, educational, amateur, and advertising films produced to instruct viewers how to become better citizens and consumers. Tendentious and practical, they are also disposable ; nothing, Prelinger suggests, is more ephemeral than a film about new 1948 Chevrolets in 1949.

15So you’re the one who coined the term! Has anyone contested this definition? Inspired by your methodology, I did some research to see how the study of ephemeral films could possibly translate in Québec/Canada. I came up with a terminology to talk about them: C-movies—for Commissioned films, and of course to evoke B-movies with their marginal status, their revealing “cheesiness” and their fans.

16RP: I am proud that the term “ephemeral films” has made it into official discourse; it’s been adopted as part of the National Film Preservation plans in the States. It comes directly from the term “ephemera,” which refers to printed booklets, brochures, advertising labels, miscellaneous documents, letters, etc. The alt.culture definition really oversimplifies the point. My idea is that like a chameleon, the effort to manufacture and sustain social consensus continually undergoes changes, and thus the media that it produces must always be reinvented and updated.

17CM: Do you somewhere present a definite introduction to the ephemeral genre? In fact, would you call it a genre? Don’t you see a problem with putting educational films in the same bag as industrial films? Also, why do you put amateur films within the sponsored film subgenre (industrial, institutional)?

18RP: It’s a bit of a stretch, but I think all of these subgenres (I agree with you) share one BIG thing in common: they function historically as a counter-cinema to mainstream fiction film (and television) even if they were not produced as such. The reason that they can function this way, I think, is that they document daily life, culture and industry and personal experience in ways that films produced within the fiction film industry cannot. They have evidentiary value in ways that feature films do not. Therefore we can look back upon these films, extract different kinds of evidence and construct different meanings. I do believe that fiction films tell us something about the conjuncture in which they were produced and distributed, but I think the landscape of ephemeral films is somehow much richer and, at the risk of being sentimental, more “authentic.”

19CM: Which genealogy do you attribute to ephemeral films? How do you situate them in relationship with the history of media such as radio, film, television and print magazines? For me, they also have a strong connection with functionalism, for their emphasis on the integration of individuals, “cultural dopes,” in the process of labour and consumption. Don’t you think ephemeral film discourse is often based on the functionalist belief in the social and capitalist systems’ perpetuity and capacity to overcome instabilities and disorders?

20RP: Even though they are not well remembered, ephemeral films were a very big part of the media landscape throughout the century. The first film ever made, La sortie des usines (1895), by the Lumière brothers, was arguably an industrial film. In the early years of cinema, educational, industrial and travel films certainly outnumbered fiction films, and the cinema was not devoid of advertising either. As fiction films and especially feature-length films became popular, the industry redefined the “essential” nature of the film experience totally in terms of mainstream fiction and fantasy. Even so, the numerically dominant genres continued to be ephemeral; perhaps 500,000 to 600,000 ephemeral films have been made in the States, compared to 100,000 features at most, and probably many fewer. They started to leave the scene in the 1970s, when the World War II-trained generation of filmmakers began to age and step back from the business, when technological factors like the eclipse of Super8 and the rise of video challenged producers’ ability to keep up to date with the tools of the trade, and when conventional film distributors found it impossible to compete with cheaper and easier-to-display video. Now the same impulses that gave rise to hundreds of thousands of sponsored and industrial films are expressed in a proliferation of media: the Web, op-ed pieces in newspapers, place-based advertising (like TV in airports and doctors’ offices), infomercials and videotapes mailed to peoples’ homes. Yes, many of these films are totally functionalist, and serve as excuses and alibis. If I was to hypothesize a common goal of all these genres, it would be to manufacture and sustain consensus in support of capitalist economics and 20th-century hegemonic structures of all kinds. Since film operates psychologically on individual subjects, it stands to reason that it would be the medium of choice for those interested in aiding the integration of individuals into larger systems.

  • 10 Daniel J. Perkins, “The Sponsored Film: a New Dimension in American Film Research?,” Historical Jou (...)

21CM: Back in a 1982 issue of the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Daniel J. Perkins from the University of Wisconsin asserted that the exclusion of the study of the sponsored film in the United States was not only logically and methodologically invalid, but that it also had prevented the development of a comprehensive history of cinema—and, we would agree—of North American 20 th century civilization.10

22RP: Much too little work has been done on ephemeral films in the U.S.; I can think of three reasons why. The first reason is that media studies still doesn’t carry the value or the prestige associated with more classical historical investigation. The study of film, especially films that aren’t recognized masterworks, is considered peripheral at best, trivial at worst. The second reason is that there is little consensus about how to approach and evaluate these complex documents. Scholars took perhaps seventy years to come to terms with fiction film, but they don’t know how to determine who is speaking in, who is the intended audience, and what is the representational vernacular of ephemeral films. It’s relatively easy to extrapolate the intentions of an individual, group or government from paper documents. It’s harder to look at films, such crowded and dense documents, and come up with simple theses. (Not impossible! I’m not asserting that these films defy analysis. Quite the opposite.) The third reason is access. Scholars (and everyone else) have had a difficult time gaining access to these documents. Remember, with the exception of films produced by the U.S. government, most of these films do not exist in any archives. That’s one of the reasons I made Our Secret Century, to put 100 canonical films on lots of peoples’ desks so that they could view and analyze them at their leisure. Out of the 45,000 or so films that we hold in our archives, perhaps 20,000 were effectively inaccessible to researchers and scholars until we acquired them. But there are many more you just cannot find. We’ve been involved with a few scholars who have worked with this material, and there are more every year. I think we’ve helped out several dozen people in recent years.

Film Archives at The Age of Digital Reproduction: Convergence of Institutions?

23CM: How has the Internet’s system/culture/existence transformed the way you see archives? In terms of access, of a circulation of works-production-reflections, but also in terms of your own feeling vis-à-vis the quantity of knowledge “out there”?

24RP: I could write a book about this question alone, but one issue jumps into the foreground: archives are going retail. Until recently, archives generally did not deal directly with the public. They functioned according to a service model, which meant that they waited for people to come to them and ask for access to their materials. Except in very special cases like genealogical records, most people only saw archival material in secondary form, recontextualized within completed works like photography books, TV programs and magazine articles. To use a marketing analogy, archives functioned as wholesale suppliers of content, while producers, publishers and other creators added value to this “wholesale content” and incorporated it as part of their commodities. This has changed. Archives now reach out to the public, especially through the Web. Rather than just putting indexes, databases and finding aids out for people to search, the records themselves are beginning to become available. In the States, you can go on the Library of Congress website and access thousands of photos and film clips. NBC is the first television network in the States to create an archival video server, though it is mostly entertainment-based. Much more of this will happen. Archives are suddenly much more accessible and proactive about offering access. How this will affect the circulation of knowledge and ideas is as yet unclear. At this point everything that archives disseminate just goes into the same media soup as everything else, and many people seem to view every kind of image in the same way, regardless of where it comes from or how important it may be. It is possible that the millennial spectator has so many images at his or her disposal that distraction and fatigue is inevitable. But for me it is exciting that it is starting to get easier for people to inform themselves historically, to create a context for their reflections that finally includes historical imagery. I don’t know how this may affect the creators of the future, and whether all of the newly archival material that’s available will be used for much of anything. But the elevation in the status of archival material and the growing ease of its availability is to me a very important trend, as we live in a society that sometimes seems almost proud of its ability to be ahistorical.

25CM: Some words on you present projects?

26RP: I’m working on a film called Danger Lurks!, a Canadian feature film which is being produced by Ron Mann, a Toronto director and producer. Danger Lurks! is a dramatic narrative produced completely from archival material, and it’s about menace, jeopardy and risk in North American culture. Safety films interest me tremendously because they are all about primal concepts (life, death, injury, punishment, redemption) and seem to provide a view into our social unconscious. Our Secret Century opened me up and gave me increased confidence to try out new ideas, and I’m most interested in trying to use archival material in a narrative mode. Since there is so much about documentary film (and historical TV programming) that’s static (and sometimes stagnant) right now, and since so many films that fit into existing genres seem rather repetitive, I hope to work with archival material in a different way.


27It speaks well for Caroline Martel that her questions are still relevant. This is hardly the case for all of my answers. Who would have imagined that moving image distribution and cinema culture would change so radically in just a dozen years, and that archives would be floundering in a born-digital ocean while still trying to get control of the analog heritage ? More particularly, I could not have imagined in 1998-99 that by the end of 2000 I would start putting digital files derived from my archives online for free distribution, and that they would be downloaded tens of millions of times in just a few years, nor could I have imagined that a profoundly “unofficial” website like Youtube would serve up billions of videos per day of every conceivable type (excluding erotica), and that it would become a significant player in movements for social change.

28Nonetheless, I do not want to exaggerate the pace of change. While it is a truism that “the Internet changed everything”, it sometimes feels as if the world of moving image archives remains untroubled, if not unproblematized, by the ascendancy of digital cultures. In fact, while archives may be deep in a crisis of models, it’s not clear that many archivists (as well as the managers of their institutions) recognize this. An emerging generation of archivists, librarians and museum workers has elaborated a rich quilt of ideas and practices that could not only change their institutions but profoundly affect the cultures to which they contribute, but this group doesn’t possess the fiscal and institutional power to act on their ideas. The fiscal crisis of the state and many nonprofit institutions has also chilled inventiveness and experimentalism in the field.

29Access to archives has also escalated into a real problem. I stated in the interview that “archives are suddenly more accessible and proactive about offering access,” which may have been a case of wishful thinking. But the contradiction is accentuating between our ability to access and reuse archival holdings via the Internet and the small fraction of archival materials that is actually available for these purposes. I worry that emerging authors and creators no longer look to archives as sources of historical documentation, that they’ve “routed around” legacy repositories in favor of more accessible (if sometimes less authoritative) online collections. In part this may be due to archives’ longtime orientation towards credentialed scholars and professional researchers, a direction that does not recognize that much research (perhaps a majority of work) in cinema studies and media scholarship occurs within an unofficial community of citizens and fans.

30But in a broad sense there are indeed encouraging developments in the field some still call “media archaeology.” A growing body of ephemeral films (a loosely-defined cluster of genres that’s now closely congruent with what’s called “orphan films”) is now available online for screening, teaching, remix and reuse. I estimate that tens of thousands of derivative works have been made by amateur, student and professional makers simply from our own online collection. Material that was once at the cultural periphery is frequently shown, quoted and integrated into the contemporary media flow. What I call the “gentrification” of ephemeral film studies is in progress, as academic attention shifts from studio-made masterworks towards film documents of daily life and industry. Dan Streible and Anna McCarthy’s 2007 course on sponsored films at New York University was a watershed moment, and there is major interest in these materials at Concordia University, Indiana University and elsewhere.

31It is risky to speak of frontiers and futures, but if new territory is indeed being navigated, it is probably in the area of personal archives and documentation. A broad-based decentralized set of archival practices is very likely to cause a dramatic difference not only in the kinds of documents that are preserved, but also in the archival workflows and practices that prevail. It may be apropos to characterize the great shift in archival culture as a movement from institutional to personal, but it would be foolhardy to overestimate the wisdom of crowds or underestimate the survivability of venerable institutions. But just as media archaeology influenced the established archives field from outside, it seems likely that the future of archives will be influenced most dramatically by externalities rather than what archivists do on their own.

32(Rick Prelinger, 2011)


1 Acknowledgements : Caroline Martel wishes to thank Rick Prelinger for his spontaneous complicity and William Buxton for his support, as well as the Fonds des chercheurs et de l’aide à la recherche (FCAR).

2 Back cover of Rick Prelinger’s laserdiscs To New Horizons and You Can’t Get Here From There (1993).

3 Caroline Martel, “Our Secret Century : archives filmiques, nouveaux médias et historiographie,” Sociétés et représentations, No. 9, “La croisée des médias,” April 2000, p. 241-248.

4 Dan Streible, “The Role of Orphan Films in the 21st Century Archive,” Cinema Journal, Vol. 46, No. 3, Spring 2007, p. 124-128.

5 Effectively formed in the past, but still active in the cultural process, the residual allows us to focus on the life cycle of cultural artefacts and practices. Originally brought forth by Raymond Williams, the concept is revisited in the collection of essays edited by Charles R. Acland (ed.), Residual Media, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2007.

6 Vinzenz Hediger and Patrick Vondereau (eds), Films that Work: Industrial Film and the Productivity of Media, Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press, 2009.

7 Dan Streible, “The Role of Orphan Films in the 21st Century Archive,” op. cit., p. 125.

8 Our Secret Century, A series curated and hosted by Rick Prelinger (Vol. 1-12), New York, The Voyager Company, 1995-97.

9 Ian Hodder, Theory and Practice in Archaeology, New York, Routledge Press, 1992, p. 227.

10 Daniel J. Perkins, “The Sponsored Film: a New Dimension in American Film Research?,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1982, p. 133-140.

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