It's that time of year again. Time to bundle up, walk out into the cold, and... head down to the Herbst Theater for a couple of hours of archival film footage. Sponsored by the Long Now Foundation and curated by Rick Prelinger, the first person I know of to earn the label guerrilla archivist, the Lost Landscapes series has become an annual San Francisco tradition, showcasing the best of whatever leftover industrial videos and home movies Prelinger has added to or discovered in his copious collection since last year.
Prelinger started the Prelinger Archive in the early 1980s after coming to the following epiphany: the United States throws out more media than most other countries produce. Prelinger began collecting exactly the kind of films that others found inconsequential: educational films, promotional films, home movies, etc. In 1999, he digitized his collection and made it available for free online (not such a popular decision at the time). Eventually, the archive was bought by the Library of Congress, where it remains, appropriation friendly, in digital perpetuity.
My favorite clip from last year's Lost Landscapes is a 1969 BART promotional film that combines proud shots of city infrastructure and construction with images of children digging in sandboxes and the sounds of an idealistic folk guitar. The singer croons, "over the hill and all along the way, we're building a dream for tomorrow." Ah, progress.
Other goodies include Youth on the Street, black and white footage of two groups of young men loitering on their neighborhood corners, and Wartime Home Movies, where a mom and dad in Bernal Heights humorously struggle to break ground for their victory garden and their army-enrolled son does handstands and gives his girlfriend flowers before swooping her off her feet.
Part of the charm is the films themselves, but the experience of watching images of San Francisco and its citizens roll by you as you engage in a game of recognition and misrecognition with a theater full of strangers and friends is also pretty special. On top of this, Prelinger usually invites a special guest to help him narrate the films.
Unfortunately, the show has become so popular that it sold out within a few days of being announced, although there will be a few walk up tickets available. Lucky for us -- and true to Prelinger's project -- the Long Now Foundation makes all previous years' films available for download.
Lost Landscapes 5 plays at the Herbst Theater on December 16, 2010. For more information visit longnow.org.