The Hero with a Thousand Faces: Rick Prelinger’s Lost Landscapes of New York
Pulled from an estimated 110 archived sources of home movies, background process plates, and ephemeral novelty films, Lost Landscapes of New York is the latest in film historian and archivist Rick Prelinger’s ongoing series of city symphonies of urban life during the 20th century. In editing each Lost Landscapes film, Prelinger’s focus is not to tell a story about the city so much as to disclose a unique set of facts, unbridling each scene from needing to follow any narrative arcs or develop characters. Rather, the audience is the focus, tasked with providing a soundtrack akin to a history lesson’s syllabus by calling out the names to buildings, locations, and events, asking questions of each other when something is unknown.
In the first thirty seconds, a title card instructs, “You are the soundtrack.” Aside from a narrated segment from What’s Happening in Harlem?, which sourly asks why there are more police in Harlem than in other neighborhoods, the voiceover commentary for Lost Landscapes is provided by its viewers. The film is therefore less of a history lesson and more of an ice-breaker: audiences are expected to chime in with their recognitions of footage (“That’s Times Square!”) as well as ask questions. By differentiating between a “film-film” (narratives with characters and plots) and a “film-event” (interactions during a film), Prelinger as an archivist filmmaker becomes more of a Montessorian anthropologist, guiding audiences with context about what’s on-screen, dates, locations, or background stories of where the footage came from.
The first Lost Landscapes film was made for San Francisco in 2006, and Prelinger has since created projects for Oakland and Los Angeles as well; his Lost Landscapes for Detroit was instead titled Yesterday and Tomorrow in order to avoid any direct commentary on loss within the city’s difficult history. Prelinger’s ultimate goal with his Lost Landscapes series becomes clearer as he assumes the role of a guide through each screening—although the success may only be revealed in hindsight. The films, exhibiting a variety of untampered delights and distresses in metropolitan life over decades, are intended to serve as sparks of change, enabling viewers to witness the past in order to apply its effect to the future. Can we see what “worked” or where things went wrong in order to avoid regression or destruction?
As Prelinger describes in the paper “Archives of Inconvenience,” his contribution to Terms of Media: Archive (forthcoming from Meson Press), his intention in sharing Lost Landscapes is “to position archives as places of possibility, as places where we might seek to engage in contestation, perform struggle, expose presentism, make theories actionable, refuse dominant narratives of inevitability and imagine and stage a broad spectrum of futures.” While cutting together Lost Landscapes of New York, for example, Prelinger says he was struck by a number of evident differences in living standards: the density of foot traffic and small businesses in the early 1900s; the commonplace mobilization of crowds; the tangible desire for information, exemplified by long queues of people waiting to buy a newspaper; the possibility of stillness and quietude in a place like Times Square. And yet, some facts still resound with the New York of today, such as the constant presence of police in non-white communities.
Assembling the past’s found ephemera into a looking-glass for the future has taken filmic shape before. Consider Jem Cohen’s Lost Book Found (1996): filming Super-8 and 16mm footage around New York City for five years, Cohen documented metropolitan life without the edict of a documentarian, instead preferring the chance happenstance akin to Walter Benjamin’s flâneurs. Much like the home movies of Lost Landscapes, which don’t always have a subject, plan, or any action in the shot captured, Cohen’s camera simply rolls and cannot unsee what happens before it. The film becomes an open stage for audience speculation and invites comparison with the New York of today, but it’s narrated by readings from the eponymous “lost book found” of its title. The film imitates the found document imitating the city which imitates life as a whole. “Might we look to the city as a way to better understand the relationship of the record to the present?” asks Prelinger in his forthcoming paper. “Archives, after all, are a cheaper arena than architecture.”
Prelinger’s homebase is San Francisco, for which he has cut twelve versions of Lost Landscapes thus far, with locals loyally attending by the thousands. Last year, the city commissioned a very different cinematic homage through SFFILM in conjunction with Stanford Live. Using over 200 films, TV shows, an *NSYNC music video, and footage from the Prelinger Archives—all of which were shot on location in San Francisco—Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin and his frequent collaborators Evan and Galen Johnson assembled The Green Fog, which accurately and alluringly recreates Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic San Francisco-set Vertigo (1958) in only half the runtime. Cutting out nearly all dialogue, the narrative arc of The Green Fog moves instead by an original score performed by the Kronos Quartet. Where Prelinger uses the indisputable lens of historical fact to conjure memory, Maddin and the Johnsons use humor and musical cues to ask audiences, “Remember this?” The success of The Green Fog comes not from having “found” the footage, but having been able to exquisitely assemble a portrait of San Francisco from what’s been captured on camera for decades, often repeating the same locations and views. “When you’re Frankensteining these things together, you really are performing a vivisection as well,” Maddin said at The Green Fog’s opening weekend at the IFC Center in January, “You’re learning how film works.”
Maddin’s lesson equally applies to Lost Landscapes and Lost Book Found, in which Prelinger and Cohen craft their own singular portraits of New York using incidental footage. But while Cohen’s chance encounters on film devise a visual soliloquy, The Green Fog and Lost Landscapes of New York must forge their own chances using intuition and aesthetic rhyming. Viewers, unforgotten, are tasked with upholding the polyphonic captions of Lost Landscapes, acknowledging what the film truly represents: an idea of home lost to the deluge of the metropolis in history, but found by those who can recognize it recurring in the future.
Lost Landscapes of New York screens on February 10th and 11th at the Museum of the Moving Image. www.movingimage.us
SHELBY SHAW is a multidisciplinary writer based in New York, where she co-edits the biannual art and literary journal Storyfile. She is the program coordinator for Projections, the New York Film Festival’s section devoted to artists’ films and experimental moving images, and works with the IFC Center in Manhattan.