Forgotten Footage Illuminates San Francisco's 'Lost Landscapes'

San Francisco's Embarcadero in 1937. Courtesy of the Prelinger Archives.

It’s somewhat hard to imagine that in the same week that The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 is dominating box office sales a presentation of scratchy found film footage of old freeways, street cars, and city streets with no sound track could pack the 1,400 seat Castro Theater.

But after eight years, Rick Prelinger’s Lost Landscapes of San Francisco is as popular as ever. This Thursday night's show sold out in just 20 hours and a second show has been added for December 19 at the Internet Archive. (Ticket-less fans wishing to catch the Castro screening can try their luck in the walk-up line the night of the show. Go early.)

Prelinger is an archivist constantly on the prowl for “ephemeral film” -- home movies, industrial and educational clips, and other interesting celluloid and video relics. Each year he gathers the best of this raw visual documentation of San Francisco’s past into a new edition of Lost Landscapes. Rather than present the clips with music or narration, he conducts the evening like a home movie night for the entire city and invites the audience to yell out memories, facts, or other responses as the images roll by.

The corner of Haight-Ashbury in 1966.
The corner of Haight-Ashbury in 1966. (Courtesy of the Prelinger Archives.)

People may boo, for example, at a clip showing the ugly Embarcadero Freeway obscuring the Ferry Building. But footage shot from a street car running up Market Street in the '20s as people crisscross the traffic like dancers draws cheers. You can see last year's Lost Landscapes 8 online in its entirety -- but it's nowhere near as fun as the live event.

I chatted with Rick Prelinger by email about why people like this kind of footage, what's new in this year's edition, and what can be learned from Lost Landscapes.

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Why do you think the event remains so popular?

This is a historically conscious city. I'd like to think we collectively are meta-nostalgic and interested in history as a means of coming to terms with the future, and I bet that the current pace of change makes some of us think that way.

Also, people like the interactive format. As they have for thousands of years, people love to aggregate into big groups to share common experiences. Movies as we have known them don't always offer enough of that.

What do you hope people will take away from the evening?

I think it builds public consciousness, not only of the importance of history in understanding the local and coming to terms with change, but of how personal history can be. People often tell me they didn't attach much importance to their home movies until they saw how home movies can speak to a broad community beyond the specific family pictured.

I would hope that people reference these images in their mind when thinking about the kind of city they'd like to live in, and don't simply revert to received ideas like "new is bad" and "the city is ruined." The reality is much more complex.  I also do these urban history shows in Detroit and now in Oakland and I hope they contribute to a sense that complexity is OK and interesting.

What are you most excited about showing this year?

This year will be almost 85 percent new footage. Viewers can expect amazing footage of the bridges under construction that has never been seen before, including Bay Bridge images that seem uncanny when compared with the partially disassembled bridge we see today.

There is also footage of the Golden Gate Bridge shot by citizens who unaccountably gained access to the span while it was being built -- footage of construction at a personal level, quite amazing.

Also stay tuned for a swampy, half-built Treasure Island, astonishingly beautiful color footage of downtown in 1938, North Beach in the go-go 1970s, ROTC drills in the Marina, families in the newly built Avenues, Miss Tall San Francisco 1970, a fall 1971 anti-war march, sheep grazing in Golden Gate Park in 1938, the early days of the hippie Haight, newly discovered footage of Playland-at-the-Beach, color footage of the 1930s shipwrecks off Land's End, and much more.

Lost Landscapes of San Francisco 9 is December 6, 2014 at the Castro Theater in San Francisco. For more information, visit longnow.org; For information about the December 19 benefit screening, visit archive.org.

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