Archiving the Future

There’s a whole genre of “archival” film that doesn’t get the same attention as the new prints of classic films that tour the art houses. These are the educational and industrial films, what film archivist Rick Prelinger calls “ephemeral films.” Some of these have become classics, such as the 1950s-era “duck and cover” bomb scare films, but most will remain anonymous and will never get any sort of wide exposure. At worst, they are campy exploitation films that work as long-form advertisements for their corporate sponsors. At best, they are campy distillations of the attitudes (and hairstyles) of the times when they were made.

Very few people know who actually owns the copyrights to these 16mm job-training or science movies, and fewer people care, which gives independent filmmakers the freedom to patch together some awesome “found footage” movies without fear of lawsuit. This type of film is often distributed by the experimental film label Peripheral Produce or Craig Baldwin’s Other Cinema.

It also allows for a nice quarterly exhibition series at Northwest Film Forum in Seattle called Search and Rescue. This month I saw two movies from 35 years ago, each one presumably about the future we are now living in, but both more reflective of the time in which they were made.

The first film was Future Shock, based on the book of the same name that I saw on my parents’ bookshelf when I was a kid, and maybe your parents had it too. Apparently, at the time it was written, science was advancing so quickly that people didn’t know how to react, sending them into a state of shock and affecting society at very fundamental levels (nuclear families breaking down, artificial intelligence developing, young adults becoming nomadic, body parts being replaced with plastic). Though some of the concerns still apply today, in the context of the film they are hopelessly dated. The best thing is that the movie was narrated by Orson Welles, the consummate indie filmmaker, who invited the filmmakers into the house he was staying in while the owners vacationed in the Mediterranean somewhere.

The second film was In Search of Ancient Astronauts, narrated by Rod Serling. It’s based on the book Chariots of the Gods, and re-edited from a German “documentary” that was made from the book. On a basic level, it takes the 1970s space program and applies the look and style of rockets and such to cave paintings and ancient stone carvings. Unaware that space suits and communications antennae could become so small that they would be practically invisible, this documentary examines the construction of the Egyptian pyramids, the carved heads on Easter Island, the Mayan calendar and some ancient cave paintings in such a way that there could be no other explanation than alien visitors. Watching it today, you can totally see that they are drawing conclusions based on yesterday’s advanced technology.

Done on relatively small budgets, both movies managed to get classic, recognizable voices to narrate their pieces (and in the case of Future Shock, to get one to appear on-screen), and both pertain to talk about the future. But as we all probably know by now, thanks to science-fiction films and literature, whenever we talk about the future we are talking about today. The concerns are just heightened. Just watch any old Star Trek and you’ll see.

Of course, when we talk about the past, we do so through the filter of today, and that is one reason why preserving documents and documentaries from years gone by is important. These industrial and educational films not only record hairstyles and clothing styles from previous eras, they also record the fears and attitudes of the day. Only with the distance of time can we see how they sum up the era.

If you ever notice a local group showing old industrial films (I know several other people in Seattle who do it every now and again, so you’ve got to have somebody with keys to your library or church’s vault of 16mm films), I recommend going to see them, not just to see how people lived and thought in decades past, but to recognize that many of our current thoughts and ideas will be similarly dated in 20 to 30 years.


Andy Spletzer believes that the current blog culture will be looked upon as something very quaint two decades from now.