Jan 212011

I wrote earlier about efforts that have gone into preserving what are known as ephemeral films: productions geared for educational, advertising or other uses separate from theatrical releases.  One of the largest online sources for these films is the Internet Archive, which has thousands of titles, many of which have long lived in obscurity.  Now accessible in digital form, these films are open to discovery.

A colleague pointed me to a U.S. government film in the IA FedFlix collection, The American Scene Series, Number 11: The Library of Congress.  It was made by the Office of War Information, Overseas Branch, around 1945.  Over the course of 20 minutes it presents a remarkable portrait of the Library at that time.  The film mentions the Library’s work to conduct field recordings of “unknown primitive singers” and has brief clips of two recording sessions.

One is of Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, very well-known artists in the “acoustic, folk-oriented Piedmont blues style… ready-made for the folk festivals and college campuses of the 1960s.”  The duo perform one of their signature songs, “Red River Blues” for about two minutes.  The setting appears to be in a farmyard and shows two earnest recording technicians at work.  It is an amazing scene, as the embedded video attests.

The second clip is also remarkable:  Woody Guthrie singing “Ranger’s Command,” again in a rural setting with recording gear in evidence.  The Guthrie clip is already on YouTube, but is no less compelling than the first.

I think I may spend more time trolling through these old films for such unexpected treasures.  But only the digitized versions!

Dec 292010

Much news came from the recent announcement that the Library of Congress was adding 25 new titles to the National Film Registry for permanent preservation.  This assortment of “Hollywood classics, documentaries and innovative shorts reflecting genres from every era of American filmmaking,” were selected because they are “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”

02.23.38.jpg by footage, on Flickr

Amid all the hoopla, it is worth bearing in mind that there are many, many other film and video productions that provide a different kind of significance, one that provides unique historical–and sociological–insight.  These are “ephemeral films,” which consist of everything from anti-drug dramas to car advertisements.  Rick Prelinger is a long-time champion of these productions, and he provides access to over 2,000 titles through the Internet Archive. Equally important, the information has been placed in the public domain under a Creative Commons license.

While titles such as Good Table Manners, Duck and Cover, and Are You Popular? never won an Oscar, they do document certain idealized behaviors and mindsets from the past.  On this basis, the Library of Congress acquired over 48,000 titles from Prelinger in 2002.

Announcing the acquisition, the Librarian of Congress noted that the films are “quite distinct from that found in Hollywood feature films and newsreels. These are the films that children watched in the classroom, that workers viewed in their union halls, that advertisers presented in corporate boardrooms, and that homemakers saw at women’s club meetings.”

Our collective history is richer with the preservation of the Prelinger collection.  With apologies to Baudelaire, we now have the chance to extract eternal knowledge from ephemeral films.