Exploring lost landscapes with Rick Prelinger

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Rick Prelinger at the Prelinger Library in San Francisco (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Our schizophrenic feelings towards mass transit may be because despite all the problems presented by the car, it still represents personal freedom and mobility. And in the event you’d forgotten that feeling, look no further than a very intriguing film called “No More Road Trips?” It’s one of two movies made by veteran film archivist Rick Prelinger that will screen in Los Angeles this coming week.

“It’s a study of mobility as it’s changing and a look at how history is shown through landscape and basically it’s a dream journey through the United States from Atlantic to Pacific, from the ‘20s through the ‘70s made completely with other people’s home movies and like ‘Lost Landscapes of Los Angeles’ it’s a silent film. And the audience makes the soundtrack completely,” Prelinger said.

RoadTripStillPrelinger founded and runs the San Francisco-based Prelinger Library as well as the appropriation-friendly Prelinger Archives, a free online clearinghouse of thousands of ephemeral films  think educational and advertising films, newsreels, and home movies.

DnA producer Avishay Artsy spoke with him about “No More Road Trips?” and asked for starters why the title has a question mark at the end.

Rick Prelinger: A few years ago one of our interns in the library that we operate in San Francisco said, ‘Rick, you’re a baby boomer. You can drive across the country any time you like, but we don’t have cars. We might not even have driver’s licenses. Road trips are for old people.’ And I thought, wow, that’s a surprise. But then I began thinking, was our sense of mobility changing? Had the road trip, was it not only unaffordable, you know, gas was at $4.50 a gallon at that point, but was it something that had kind of faded away? The idea of self discovery through migration, bettering your life, was that gone? And so I started to collect footage and I decided that I would try to make a dream trip out of home movies. The research was the hard part because I looked at almost 5,000 home movies.

DnA: You personally watched five thousand home movies?

RP: I personally did. I mean, of course, fast forward is the filmmaker’s friend. But I still watched them. As my friend Keller Easterling the architect says, subtraction is growth. And it’s really true. As you begin to slim down, logic emerges, drama emerges, narrative, it begins to make sense. And so what’s left is this 80-minute movie which begins on the East Coast and it ends at the beach in L.A. And it’s not just a trip traversing the geography of America but it’s also a trip that traverses the history of the twentieth century. And no, it’s not in historical order. You can watch it and through the images you can tell a great deal about what the twentieth century was like. I’ll quote the famous cultural geographer John Brinckerhoff Jackson who said landscape is history made visible. And that’s really the principle behind both of these films.


DnA: And what you have sort of projected onto the landscape, is this kind of American romanticization of getting on the road. And this really came about with Eisenhower and the building of the highway system. And plus the mass manufacturing of cars so that the average person could afford to put their family in a car and drive them across the country. And so then you have books like On the Road and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. And it becomes really an American cultural touchstone, is this idea of hitting the road with a buddy and exploring the landscape.

7c4f1786-9b8b-463f-ab9e-99b0cf1a0151RP: The post World War II road trip is what we remember, it’s in our minds, it’s constantly pushed at us when we go into a Johnny Rockets, let’s say. But it never quite existed that way and that’s actually not historically what happened. People started driving across country en masse in the teens and the 20s. And it integrates with World War II. It’s part of the Depression and then of course, as you say, it explodes after World War II. But the images don’t quite say what we think they’re going to say because the images are of an America that’s really precarious. Rural America, what you see from these home movies, may have been a good place to live but it wasn’t a very fancy place to live. It was poor and it was underdeveloped really until after World War II. And so that roadscape, you know, it isn’t just Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady racing the Union Pacific at 95 miles an hour in Kansas, although that’s in the film. It’s actually this really wonderful and complex and unknown landscape of America.

DnA: So in a way, one thing that you’re doing is subverting that romanticized idea of the post World War II road trip that we’ve seen and read about so much. And saying there’s actually much more to it and it was a lot more complicated than we think of back then.

RP: I guess a lot of my work over time is about trying to take historical nuance and historical complexities and present them to mass audiences in a way that isn’t threatening or isn’t filled with jargon. And I’m really interested in surprising people, in getting people to think about a landscape that they think they recognize in unfamiliar terms.

No More Road Trips? The 66-second trailer! from Rick Prelinger on Vimeo.

DnA: Let’s talk about the other movie that you have showing at REDCAT on Nov. 16th. This is called “Lost Landscapes of Los Angeles.” Is this also a feature length film, like “No More Road Trips?”

RP: “Lost Landscapes of Los Angeles” is a feature length film. And it uses two types of footage, both of which are kind of not seen so much. One of them is home movies. And the other is outtakes from feature films. And specifically it’s not outtakes with people. It’s establishing shots and what are called process plates.

A still image of San Fernando Rd. from "Lost Landscapes of Los Angeles"
A still image of San Fernando Rd. from “Lost Landscapes of Los Angeles” (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

DnA: Explain what a process plate is. Because we’ve seen this in old Hollywood movies, but we may not have realized what was going on.

RP: In a classic Hollywood movie you might see a scene inside a taxi cab or on a train. And people are talking or doing whatever they’re doing, and out the window you see the countryside or the cityscape going by. And that’s a process plate. It’s a piece of film that was shot for rear projection. And when you see it in a movie it’s usually out of focus. But in reality these are locked-down, razor-sharp, rocksteady records of the landscape. So I’ll give you an example from some unknown noir film from about 1947. There’s a scene looking out the back of a car as you drive around Bunker Hill, before it was redeveloped and destroyed. And so you are able to drive through downtown L.A. and see the epicenter of L.A. noir. But the detail is just incredible. You can see what all the people are wearing, you can see all the signs, you can see everything.

A still image of Bunker Hill from “Lost Landscapes of Los Angeles” (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

DnA: What I think is so interesting about these process plates is, it’s not just showing Sunset Boulevard or Wilshire Boulevard or these major thoroughfares that we all know and drive through and we could say, ‘oh yeah, that place is still around’ or, ‘oh, look at how different it looks now.’ But you’re also showing neighborhoods like Bunker Hill and Chavez Ravine that no longer exist. That were thriving communities and have been completely paved over, or in Chavez Ravine’s case, Dodger Stadium was put there instead. So what do you think people might take from seeing these films and seeing these glimpses of a past Los Angeles that have been completely erased from the landscape today?

RP: There are many ways that you can look at this film. Some people are nostalgic about what was there and what is no longer there. I kind of take another tack. To me what this film  and the other urban history films that I’ve done here in San Francisco and in Detroit and Oakland  are about are interventions. And what I’d like to do  I’m not an Angeleno  but what I’d like to do is assist in the conversation about what kind of city you want to live in. And one of the ways to do that is by showing a working landscape of some years back and, is this where we want to go, did this work, how did we get from that place to this place? A great example is the footage of the San Fernando Valley that’s filled with gaps. The landscape has businesses and gas stations and shopping and then it’s farming or it’s land that hasn’t been dedicated to any particular purpose. You could view this as pre-sprawl. Or you could view this as an opportunity for almost like a Frank Lloyd Wright-based broadacre city landscape where living and working in agriculture all had a place.

Beany’s Drive-In Restaurant in Long Beach, from “Lost Landscapes of Los Angeles”

DnA: There are certainly a subset of L.A. historians that do have that kind of nostalgic yearning to go back to the way things used to be, that somehow things were better in the past. And that’s not always the case. In some ways, development really has helped the city. And it’s become a necessity. But seeing these videos gives you a chance to imagine how that city could look different than it does today, if somehow development had taken a different path.

RP: Exactly. You know, we’re stuck with the landscape that we have now and we can change it and we can, I guess tear it down and we could build around and on top of that. But the point of juxtaposing past and present is really to think about future, not to yearn for a past. For example I just found really amazing footage, driving down the street on Fifth, near Wall. It has always been a fairly troubled neighborhood but to see it in the 50s, is quite different because you realize that it’s actually a really finely tuned mix of seniors, of people who are precarious, maybe people who drink, people who are new Americans, and it was not a slum. It was not Skid Row. It’s much more complex than that. And when you see this, I think, minute-long ride by a block, you see a natural food restaurant on Fifth Street, in the in the middle of what we would now think of as Skid Row. And it just busts through all the stereotypes. It’s kind of wonderful.

No More Road Trips?” screens at the Downtown Independent on Sunday, Nov. 15 and “Lost Landscapes of Los Angeles” on Monday, Nov. 16.