Issue 22 : Spring 2012








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by David Cox

1 Mar 2012

The LOST LANDSCAPES OF SAN FRANCISCO screening at the Castro Theatre, January 2012, hosted by the Long Now Foundation, might also be entitled, YOU MUST REMEMBER THIS: LOST LANDSCAPES OF SAN FRANCISCO - A Cinematic Trans-Temporal Performative Memory Ceremony

"Time bends, space is infinite" Charlton Heston's 'Taylor' says, peering into infinite space in the original PLANET OF THE APES as he hurtles in his spacecraft to a destination unknown. Only at the end of the film, the ruins of today's America lying around, does he finally realize: he alone is all that remains of mankind as he once knew it.

By comparison to Rick Prelinger, municipal government in San Francisco has taken few steps to preserve and exhibit 16mm recordings of the city's past. Presentation of the city in film has, rather, fallen to non-profit foundations like the Long Now, and to individuals like Prelinger and his associates at the Internet Archive.

During LOST LANDSCAPES, a vast auditorium is turned into a time machine, like a Dr. Who 'Tardis' built for a thousand or more people as a kind of dimensional-travel tour bus. This curated, time-tunnel, joy flight experience does indeed connect us with long-dead fellow citizens and the city they once inhabited. Reunited through the cargo cult-like shared mesmeric space of the HD digital projection, history collapses in a consensual phantasmagoric somnambulistic séance of the silver screen. Past/present/future melds in some new hybrid archival space of public dreaming.

This illusion was strangely reinforced, in the recent incarnation of LOST LANDSCAPES at the Castro Theatre, by the grandeur of the building itself.The Castro Theatre is [one of our only still standing] restored 1920s picture palace in the city, a remarkable space with a remarkable history, adorned with luminous yards of orange-red curtain, gilt frescoes, and a fantastic old, pipe organ. The live organist emerges from the depths of the stage via trapdoor on cue.

Inside this "roaring twenties" shrine to the [modernist technological cinema], the ninety-odd years since the Castro was built collapsed into itself in light of Prelinger's awesome collection of footage. Past and present, public and private fused together in this event.

Reunited by virtue of the cargo cult-like shared mesmeric space of the HD digital projection history collapses in a consensual phantasmagoric, somnambulistic séance of the silver screen. Past/present/future melds in some new hybrid archival space of public dreaming.

When it comes to governance of memory, a central premise of science fiction classic; Philip K. Dick's "We can Remember it for You Wholesale" comes to mind. In this story, the main character pays for a company to administer an artificial memory of a holiday to him, while he remains prone on a bed, unconscious. The experience feels as real to the character himself as it would if he had physically gone on the virtual vacation.

With LOST LANDSCAPES, Richard Prelinger and the Long Now Foundation have packaged a memory holiday for shared consumption to a packed house of the ready and willing.

One of a series now, the event is almost expected and usually sells out. What is the continued appeal? What prompts this desired injunction to publicly remember? Is there obligation involved, perhaps; that we 'must remember this' lest the value of the San Francisco we have and hold disappears, along with everything else held dear? The projected images of Playland near Ocean Beach, a venue long since demolished to make way for...well, not much at all as it has turned out, [suggest this kind of pending absence.] Poignantly, all that remains of those once halcyon, more proletarian uses of the ocean front, is a camera-obscura. It stands as if keeping vigil over a spot once enjoyed by throngs of fun seekers. Where many a tourist cine camera once whirred in unison looking out to the ocean, only this one large camera, a public room, remains today. It is an anachronism, from that time, big enough to walk in, a silent sentinel to social seeing.

As I watch the ghostly images of San Francisco's past, fascinated with the spectacle of a world long gone and never to return, another Science Fiction moment, from the film SOYLENT GREEN, flits in. It's the scene where a near-death Edward G. Robinson is willingly "checking out" from society and the whole experience is packaged with the comfort and efficiencey of the luxury hotel. He awaits his institutionally administered euthanasia, and lying on a gurney dressed in his favorite color, the effects of poison kick in. During all this, the actor is treated to an IMAX-style surround-sound panoramas of 'the world as it was' prior to overpopulation and excessive environmental pollution.

Rick's films are not intended in any way to be such a morbid cinematic calming agent, but this is strangely the effect they have, in part, for me at least. The choice of images, the order of playback, the strange ritual of the willing audience-cum-participants shouting their comments [as they recognize events, places and buildings] in the otherwise often very quiet auditorium speak to [a kind of event that existed] a long-ago time when acts of public communion were the stuff of church and picture theatre as genuinely shared public space. This notion of the city-that-we-know - a privatized theme-park of commercial alienation -- now merges weirdly with one that has long since disappeared, and in a sense, the hybrid unity of these two extreme versions of San Francisco--one personal and remembered and one commercialized and themed -- this pan-temporal combination-- serves to provide a kind of intense continuity-of-the-mind in the viewer. It is relaxing - like a mineral bath of hot spring water.

This notion of the city that we know - a privatized theme-park of commercial alienation now merges weirdly with the one that has long since disappeared and in a sense, this hybrid unity of these two extreme versions of San Francisco, this pan-temporal combination serves to provide a kind of intense sense of continuity-of-the-mind in the viewer.

As the films unfold, one after the other, on one long reel, the audience is invited to participate in commenting, chiming in, calling out if they recognize any of scenes in the films. This time the collection included the usual selection of home movie shots of the streets of the city, some in 16mm color, others in black and white and the unique inclusion of rear-projection plates from Hollywood movies all shot in San Francisco. This unintentionally archival material shows an Embarcadero of austere functional maritime service, slowly giving way to urban freeway development around Third Street. One amazing shot, taken from a camera car looking forward, shows the unfinished freeway on ramp that would later become the Third Street entry to Hwy 101.

The question for me is not so much whether the appeal of LOST LANDSCAPES lies in a fascination with decades-old home movies and official so-called "orphan" films depicting San Francisco, but rather, if the act of 'remembering in public' is a form of entertainment in and of itself, a kind of secular prayer, or ritual, moreover one which, like the rather disturbing (for me at least) "Burning Man" event, or the more Jeffersonian "Maker Faire" rewards a sense of the self-motivated, carnivalesque and even narcissistic identity. Looking for 'connections' between then and now, or seeking a continuity with the past is emblematic of the broader American sense of republic - or public - something that is one and the same with civic identity. In other words, its enough to live in San Francisco, to see in the faces and gestures of those on film from years ago as fellow citizens, separated by the gulfs of time and convention rather than of space.

This easy communion with our fellow citizens of old up there on the big screen is reinforced by the privatized aspects of Prelinger's emphasis upon home movies. Time, like class should never, in theory at least, separate us. Thus without an official more European-style centralized formal mediation, the images of LOST LANDSCAPES float free as the private recordings of families and groups, passed on like heirlooms to a living room now grown to include thousands of people. These are private ghosts on public display.

Dynamism and kinesis, those old modernist feelings and attributes of technology, are also just plainly fascinating, however---the very physicality of the often unnervingly clearly-shown streets; the vehicles, buildings and structures; the people in their out of fashion clothes. There is also, from a filmmaker's perspective, the mugging at the camera, the stopping and the staring, the strangely timeless minute gestures of acknowledgement of the importance of the idea of being photographed. These sampled events, cut from time to drift today before us like the flotsam of time; the events that happened in them, around them, through them, present themselves to us today as irrefutable evidence that the past did indeed actually happen. This, in and of itself, is a kind of miracle, that like all aspects of modernity, takes time to take in.

Film and architecture and technology fuse for us together in LOST LANDSCAPES in new configurations; melding the tempo of frames per second, the intermittent mechanism of the claw, the shutter, the film plane and the steady staccato of nitrate through the gate. The modern gesture of their coming together, then as now, has this inevitable, performative, mechanistic and unmistakably lived aspect. The people in the films float through them as passers-by, and we pass by the film as if (as Marx said of historians and their view of history) it were the present happening at some other time.


Notes to self:

1) As someone who has arrived at San Francisco via other countries, the obsessive collector sensibility as applied to San Francisco evidenced by Lost Landscapes contrasts with the approach to public memory in the UK and Australia - there this sort of thing would be handled by public institutions like libraries, or agencies whose job it is to mediate official memory.

2) Archives, collections, are part of the recycling mindset where re-use and re-interpretation and the act of choosing is itself the product.

3) Film as a sampling method - the mundane and everyday are transformed into that which they once were but are now (by virtue of having been delivered to our time today), much, much more. The gaze of the present-day viewer invests time with something it could never have had for itself back then - the knowledge of hindsight. Cut me a slice of time, Pete.

4) Nostalgia needs to be rethought not as sentimental longing for a long-lost fragile past, but rather a utopian act of performing the past as if it were the present happening at some other time.

5) Prelinger is often connecting the past with the present in his voice-overs as if to remind the audience that found footage is emblematic of a continuity of time, not a sealed-off product, metered out for profit.

6) There is sense of obligation to watching these old films - "You must remember this "- The public performance of urban memory - like a war memorial to peacetime events - lest we forget our hard drives? The audience comes looking for an experience akin to time travel - the curated collections entertain through the novelty of surprise shots of mundane events made interesting by the passage of time. A poetry of the mundane.

7) Lacan - "The big other" - some truth out there that we might utilize as a way to validate our own existence. That if you slow the film down enough, or identify enough things within the frame, the footage might reveal something Connection, continuity, rhetoric of the 'long now' - preoccupation with preservation, legacy, retrieval, memory and posterity. To the extent that Rick is really the star of the show, his material his support - much like Windsor McKay painting Gertie the Dinosaur on a chalkboard, and performing with his material.

8) Decadence is the process by which the audience gets what it expects in a technically proficient way. The series is plagued by its own success - Prelinger must now come up with new material all the time in order to satisfy what has become an annual ritual, played out for its own sake to appease the appetites of the mainly professional class audience, who enjoy the flattery of self-recognition in the faces and gestures of middle class San Franciscans past. As a site for the concentrated self-scrutiny and hedonism of its target audience, the show must find a balance between novelty and predictability.

9) Packing houses with crowds eager to see the selections of the curator with a golden eye, the Lost Landscapes run the risk of losing themselves in whimsy. The ritual of memory and the cult-like nature of counterculture institutions like the Long Now foundation rest upon the notion that the act of understanding time is in and of itself a specialized area of expertise. It takes a Stewart Brand to act as living embodiments of the continuity between the Trips festival and today. He is his own archive.

10) LOST LANDSCAPES from a most cynical perspective simply reinforces the notion that by virtue of having happened in a place that is valued by those that live there. There is something of the spirit of the real estate owner's appreciation society at play in these ritualized events of public memory. Location, location, location.

11) What is of interest in these films, other than the fact they happen in a place deemed important by those that live there? As someone not from San Francisco, or even the USA, these questions beg themselves. I know what makes SF important to those who live here, but should not the act of assuming that to live somewhere automatically confers that place with a mystery those who filmed it could not have predicted or been able to foresee? No amateur film maker with a Bell & Howell 16mm filmo could ever have foreseen his or her footage being shown in public to packed houses, and this fact alone makes the process of seeing it slightly embarrassing. Surely these shots, that framing, this building, these cars-on-the-side-of-the-street speak to more than evidence of events-unfolding-in-time. Theatre as time-machine.

Rick Prelinger and cohorts are feature guests at the Other Cinema March 17, 2012 show!

David Cox is a filmmaker and regular contributor to Otherzine where he also first published the ten part novel, 'Dr. Yes'.

David Cox website