These films are guided tours of lost urban landscapes
By Ezra Haber Glenn
This article was originally published by Experience Magazine, a publication of Northeastern University that tells stories at the intersection of humanity and technology. Follow @expmag
I am sitting in the dark, in a crowded room of strangers, watching black and white images of the city of Los Angeles, circa 1940, flicker past on a screen. The film has no traceable plot, and the city itself is the only character — other than the people in the audience, who, I come to realize, are the real performers.
As the movie unfolds and the room warms up, people start calling out the names of buildings and events they recognize, asking questions, and engaging in lighthearted debates across the dark aisles. The program explains a bit of what’s going on here: “Unlike most screenings, the audience makes the soundtrack.”
The conductor of this orchestra is Rick Prelinger, creator of an expanding series of Lost Landscapes films, which preserve bygone places and forgotten neighborhoods — not as museum pieces, but as slices of daily life animated through archival footage. Far more than just a movie screening or local history talk, the event is an alchemical spectacle in which old images — traces of light, etched on scraps of celluloid ages ago — are re-awakened to recall our urban past.
A professor of film and digital media at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Prelinger is a cinematic pack-rat. Starting in 1983, back in the days of Super 8 film and Betamax videotapes, he began collecting thousands of what he calls “ephemeral films.” The artifacts included advertisements, home movies, educational videos, industry PR, and other celluloid flotsam and jetsam: everything from About Bananasand Why Play Leap Frog to Our Enemy: The Japanese to dozens of black-and-white, not-safe-for-work stag films from various eras. By 2000, his collection had far outgrown his storage capacity, and the world of media technology had transitioned from analog to digital, from home storage to the global attic known as the internet. So Prelinger partnered with the Library of Congress and the nonprofit Internet Archive to establish free, open-access collections of his ever-expanding catalog.
Today, the Prelinger Archives host more than 8,500 films, available free online for viewing and reuse in the public domain. But Prelinger found himself particularly drawn to footage of cities — which, around 2002, he started to compile into his Lost Landscapes film series. Beginning with his hometown of San Francisco, and continuing with features on Detroit, Oakland, New York, and, most recently, Los Angeles, Prelinger assembled his rediscovered footage to take audiences on guided tours through these urban landscapes.
Prelinger draws much of his material from high-quality process prints and B-roll stock footage, which Hollywood studios had gathered for use as establishing shots and streetscape background filler. The result is a multi-city travelogue of unexpected scenery: Rather than standard sight-seeing, tourist-trap tropes (skating at Rockefeller Center; a cable car down Powell Street; the Hollywood sign), Prelinger’s films explore lesser-known corners and lost, forgotten, or forever-changed neighborhoods.
Unlike many feature films with quick cuts and changes of scene to suit short attention spans, these films’ shots can be impressively long, crawling slowly down a city block, or resting in place as people come and go. The camera seeks comprehension, not merely impression, allowing our slow brain to mediate and process these places as time unfolds at a real human pace.
Months before COVID-19 made crowding into a theater an impossibility, I visited one of Prelinger’s screenings at the Harvard Film Archive, joining over 100 other people (some old groupies, some fresh newbies). Together in the dark, we reminisced — and exclaimed! — about the bygone streets and shops of Lost Angeles.
Heading in from the outskirts, past highway overpasses and fields of oil derricks, guided by the constant North Star of the City Hall tower, we drove steadily downtown. But before long — and without much prompting from Prelinger — the folks in the back seat chimed in, calling out, recognizing, naming, sharing: “That’s the old ‘Angels Flight’ [funicular], back in its original location!” “And look at all the old laundries!”
We continued to explore L.A.’s Bunker Hill, opening up a time capsule of this neighborhood the way it lives in memory, before it was cleared and redeveloped under the urban renewal schemes of the 1950s. “And that hotel, I think, was really where a lot of people in the neighborhood lived, not like a tourist hotel, before they knocked it down.…” And just like that, I realized I was in the pews of a revival meeting.
Lost Landscapes serves up not just nostalgia, but also community. Ned Hinkle, creative director of the historic Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts (known locally as “Boston’s unofficial film school”), often introduces the screening of a classic film to a crowded house with this line: “It’s so great to see so many people come out today to see this film the way it was meant to be seen: on a big screen, in a room full of strangers.” These words have a particular poignancy for cinema lovers waiting out the current pandemic, eager to reconnect to the houses of worship we call movie theaters.
That sentiment — connecting with our neighbors in the dark, through the magic power of the phantoms of light and shadow — pervades Prelinger’s films. Watching the films alone on a computer screen or a home theater (which you can do on prelinger.com) can be impressive, amusing, and intriguing. But watching them collectively, in public, is a transformative communal experience.
The emotions the films elicit are also deeply personal. That’s because personal memory is bound up with place — and that place can sometimes exist in memory, outside of time. Ask a lifelong Bostonian for directions — at least, a Bostonian of a certain age — and you’re likely to get an earful. “Go down this street until you come to what used to be the McCormack Middle School, where my cousin was expelled for putting chalk in a kid’s sandwich. Take a left, then turn right where the old Franklin Spa used to be, until you come to place where they piled up all the snow during the Blizzard of ’78….”
From what I could tell viewing Prelinger’s films, this way of viewing the world seems to apply to other cities as well (although perhaps without the accent and the blizzard). A city is the canvas upon which our lives are painted. Each intersection, alley, or playground meanssomething — something special, unique, particular to me. This corner matters because of what it means to me — and, conversely, I matter because I was here when that happened.
As humans, we understand that things change and time marches on, but that realization can make us more eager to find some stable ground, some bedrock that is not shifting. So neighborhood change can feel threatening, and memory becomes a powerful antidote to the fear that the world is slipping away too quickly. “Our experiences of places — and our lasting memories of them — inspire us to be who we are,” says Sharon Harlan, a health sciences and sociology professor at Northeastern University. “[When] these landscapes are radically changed or lost — as often happens with marginalized groups in the city — it is essential for these communities to remember collectively how their landscapes have been transformed in the past so they can recapture control of their future.”
This is exactly where Prelinger’s attention is focused. He says his films explore “the persistence of cities, even when certain elements disappear.” He’s fascinated by — or perhaps committed to — the idea that “nothing ever really goes away.” As we shuffle through quiet downtowns and peer over our COVID masks at too many shuttered stores, I expect we will return to these ideas even more strongly.
Prelinger emphasizes this collaborative, interactive aspect of his work. In fact, he doesn’t even refer to these works as “films” in the conventional sense. He calls them “participatory urban history projects.” As he recounts the evolution of the series, he won’t even take credit for inventing the format: he says it grew out of the ways that audiences responded to his screenings.
Though he’s assembled the footage, Prelinger doesn’t have all the answers about what we see. Rather than a pre-scripted moving-picture version of Name That Tune, each screening promises a different sort of ride, and the man at the wheel seems happiest when even he doesn’t know where we’re headed. Pushing against the narrative conventions that dominate the film industry, he describes his goal as trying to create “cinema in some form, but without closure.”
As the audience exits the theater, the conversations, shared memories, and debates spill out onto the sidewalks and continue through the city. With our help, Prelinger has gotten his wish.
Ezra Haber Glenn is an urban planner and lecturer at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies & Planning, where he teaches on community development, data in public policy, and cities in film. He has been published at Bloomberg’s CityLab, Observer.com, Next City, and the Arts Fuse.