Film and Television Features

Rick Prelinger Presents "No More Road Trips?"

On February 21, 2015, writer, filmmaker, and archivist Rick Prelinger made an appearance at the Chazen Art Museum's Elvehjem auditorium in Madison to screen his eighty-minute compilation of home movie footage entitled No More Road Trips?  By promising a real-time commentary with digital projection of the silent documentary, Prelinger additionally encouraged audience participation throughout as response to the titular question.

After a brief statement from Amy Sloper, Head Archivist at Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, Prelinger prefaced the presentation with the sentimental concept of the road trip as a baby boomer initiative.  In constructing a loosely chronological and geographical tapestry of home movies (or, as Prelinger would prefer to label them, "diaries") across the United States from the late 1920s through the early 1970s, No More Road Trips? uniquely examines nostalgia's place in historical context, especially with the changing nature of mobility in today's culture.  As definitions of relationships have evolved, the traditional family unit, for one, has less of a hold on youth of today than it did in the heart of the twentieth century.  Secondly, the economy is now largely service-based as opposed to one driven by manufacturing, which has led to the decimation of rural communities as well as widespread unstable employment.  And lastly, while capturing digital video today is considerably easier and cheaper (Prelinger revealed that independent 8mm and 16mm development costs were $1,400 per hour at their onset), travel by car is considerably more expensive due to maintenance, gasoline, and tolls.

Prelinger situates the starting marker of No More Road Trips? at an old Pennsylvania oil well site with a team of workers acknowledging the candid camera; it then skips to a Massachusetts family vacationing in their RV in 1946 that could easily serve as a segment of an educational film of its era with idiomatic voiceover, as the youngest boy in the family ignores the natural sights for the panels of his Red Ryder comic book.  Prelinger amusingly interjected with the appropriate parallel to any parents in attendance: "Don't criticize your child for looking at his/her phone."  The cinematic route continues to an Atlantic City beach in '49 and then to a scene in NYC circa 1953 with food carts, street traffic, and neon signs.  The film's lack of specificity in these areas forces the viewer to project their own romanticized images of the periphery to complete the scenes.  As someone born in the '80s, these places seem both disconcertingly familiar and distant at once- strikingly authentic and lived-in, yet as part of a recreated period set-piece in a modern movie.

Cutting through the landmarks of the Lincoln Memorial and National Mall in early 1970s D.C. with disparate images of a young girl pledging allegiance and a man flying high on an actual jetpack, the footage rewinds to 1920 with a very plainly photographed Pennsylvania railroad (perhaps the Reading) and the Allegheny Mountain Tunnel on the PA Turnpike in 1940 before trekking to a rural picnic as an elderly man sips from a "Spring of Youth" (as a rickety sign indicates) at New River Gorge in West Virginia.  With each cut in the footage, he is seen progressively younger- an unusually skilled and humorous piece of editing for such typically amateur documentation.  Prelinger was quick to express his appreciation for POV tracking shots from vehicles that run throughout the feature; during one that creeps through a late 1950s street in Lima, Ohio, he pointed out the signature takes of Henry Fleischer, "the great formalist," a hobbyist who is known to have plotted a series of slow tracking shots from a vehicle that mimicked a camera dolly.

As the film rounds the bend to Middle America during the days of the Dust Bowl in 1942, a young boy is seen wandering in front of a movie house that's screening John Ford's Steamboat 'Round the Bend (1935).  After taking interstate routes 54 and 77 to Texas and jumping ahead a few decades, a sightseer visually traces the exact route of JFK's motorcade in Dallas in the fateful 1963.  The significance of the Zapruder film, the most famous home movie documentation in US history, looms large here, suggesting the inherent value in moving images versus still photography to provoke the public at-large's initial intrigue into conspiracy theories.  Heading into the deep recesses of the West to White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, Prelinger proposed a fruitful prompt to potential filmmakers in the crowd about the militarization of landscape in the American West.  This severity is contrasted by a string of tourist attractions and natural wonders in NM and Arizona alike before finding the neon lights of Vegas captured in the gaze of perpetual twilight.  The journey ends in Southern California's sunny Los Angeles for a glimpse of traffic gridlock, recalling an earlier comment Prelinger made about the illusion of "the good 'ol days."  In essence, this film's collage of footage both proves and disproves the notion.  Long-standing institutions like Capitol Records and Paramount Pictures make cameos (including a large panoramic spread of Saul Bass' original Vertigo poster from 1958).

Upon its conclusion, Prelinger, with great sensitivity, discussed his decision to exclude potential culturally offensive and intimate scenes (Native Americans being paid to perform ceremonial dances as well as moments between girlfriend/boyfriend behind closed doors).  A couple audience members inquired about the acquisition of the material, which is often personally offered to Prelinger to scan.  In some cases, home movies can be found at garage sales, thrift shops, and eBay auctions; however, part of the footage's identity and significance is lost through the abandonment in these sales several degrees detached from their original cinematographer.  Ultimately, it is Prelinger's intention to use color correction to enhance detail within the footage, not in the terms of traditional film restoration.  Preserving the quality/wear is integral to a sincere document of an era.  In this way, I reflected upon the face of my own birth era, which is easily recognizable through certain color schemes and fashionable patterns but also in camera technology, pop cultural relics, automobile models, architecture, etc., eternally serving as an accurate method of appraising things beyond the initial pull of nostalgia.  With the looseness of No More Road Trips?, Prelinger has developed a most interesting silent essay film anthology that sparks fond individual recollections while at the same time functioning as a gaze into our collective consciousness.  Perhaps the road trip is slowly dying, but historical preservation is alive and well in Prelinger's innovative initiative.

For more information, look to his own Prelinger Archives, a collection of industrial, advertising, educational and amateur films that the Library of Congress acquired in 2002, twenty years after its founding in 1982.