Ephemeral films, resurrected on the Web

Given the ephemeral nature of the Web, it can be interesting to note just how much of the ephemeral is actually being preserved and (perhaps as important) made widely available by the Web. From long-forgotten product packaging and period postcards to family photos and even East German Paper Shopping Bags, the Web is jammed with items that would have been lost forever to attics and museum warehouses without the advent of online distribution. Probably the most entertaining exhibits in this category feature ephemeral films - ads and movies produced for a specific time and purpose, with little or no thought to long-term relevance or preservation - and this week we look at two central repositories of the transitory in motion pictures. You won't find "Citizen Kane" here, but you already know who Rosebud is anyway.

The first of these online resources is a very recent addition to the Web, and one which has attracted a fair amount of attention since its February launch. As the name implies, the National Archives on Google Video project is a cooperative effort as the two organizations make roughly 100 films available for online viewing or download - meaning that not only can people see the films without making a trip to the Archives in Washington, they are free to keep personal copies of anything that piques their interest. A pilot program, there is no official word of more films being added to this first compilation, but talks of "exploring the possibilities of expanding the online film collection" certainly sound promising.

Of course, there's plenty to see even in the preliminary anthology, and heading the list are 15 of the more than 250 films made by NASA's Office of Public Affairs between 1962 and 1981. These (mostly) half-hour presentations include a 1963 biography of John Glenn, a truncated 1969 documentary about the Apollo 11 mission, and a '67 essay on the challenges of photographing the moon in anticipation of a manned lunar landing. (Hint: Try shooting a candy apple while you and it are on different cars on an amusement park ride.) Of course, for dramatic effect, one can't beat the unmistakable presence of Orson Welles, who guides viewers through the 1975 production, "Who's Out There?" (And who better to ask that question than the man who panicked thousands with his interpretation of "War of the Worlds"?)

Although these videos used the most advanced animations and highest quality imagery available at the time, they demonstrate that major progress has been made in movie production as well as extraterrestrial exploration, but they also convey the enthusiasm and anticipation that accompanied the space program at the time. Meanwhile, for those of us ... of a certain age ... who were occasionally treated to classroom films as opposed to classroom videos, the dated production values will elicit a twinge of nostalgia even if we never saw these particular titles.

For those of a different certain age, the United States government-financed United Newsreels, created for overseas consumption during World War II, could possibly spark a few memories of their own. Produced by the Office of War Information, these 10-minute films are nothing if not resolutely optimistic in their depictions of Allied endeavors - true to the rules of propaganda on both sides of any war. (In fact, the thought occurred to me while watching many of the newsreels that these very scenes could have just as easily appeared in the propaganda films of the German, Italian, Japanese, or Russian forces.) Still, even a one-sided portrayal of events has its own historical significance, and the impact of much of the footage, captured in the field by military combat photographers, is no less compelling for the earnest background music and lack of journalistic objectivity.

Finally, taking us back to the classroom, a collection of short films, produced by the Department of the Interior between 1916 and 1970, introduce viewers to national parks, reclamation projects, the "conquest of the Colorado River" (i.e., the Boulder Dam), and efforts to reintroduce "Children in the City" to the great outdoors.

The videos themselves are embedded into browser pages, begin playing almost immediately, and once completely loaded, allow the viewer to skip ahead to any point in the narrative. If you prefer viewing offline, or your connection is slow enough that you'd rather have your computer wait for the files while you do something else, download options are available for playback on Mac and Windows PCs, Video iPods, and Sony PSPs. (And for the truly dedicated audience, Google offers the option of automatically playing all the videos in a given category in an uninterrupted multifeature marathon.)

While the Google/NARA films are only recent additions to the Web, those familiar with the Internet Archive will know that that organization's Moving Image Archive has been online for years - and, with material coming from multiple sources, has both a larger collection and a wider variety of material on hand.

The 'crown jewel' of the MIA is the Prelinger Archive, which has been noted in this space before, but whose existence is well worth mentioning again. With almost 2,000 films gathered over 20 years, the Prelinger Archive has a spectacular collection of video artifacts that range from television commercials, to coverage of the Hindenburg disaster, to the infamous cold-war classic, "Duck And Cover" - which has been downloaded nearly a quarter of a million times. From 1940s social hygiene films (Are You Popular?), to a two-part '50s sitcom showing young women how to land young men with the increased consumption of electricity, from the generically inspiring Your Name Here, to the surreal Relaxed Wife (promoting the tranquilizer Atarax), and the equally surreal Design for Dreaming (a 1956 General Motors/Frigidaire production that looks like a cross between "An American in Paris" and an outtake from "Twin Peaks"), the Prelinger Archive presents an almost inexhaustible supply of both motion picture history and amusement.

But there's more to the MIA than the Prelinger Archive. More than two dozen additional collections offer such options as Open Source Movies submitted by the online community, the Election 2004 Video Archive, and the Net Cafe and Computer Chronicles television series. In a theatrical vein, there are collections of vintage cartoons and movie trailers, Cinemocracy and Universal Newsreels for additional wartime footage, and more than 600 short and Feature Films that have made their way into the public domain - including such titles as "Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe," Charlie Chaplin's "The Kid," Buster Keaton's "Paleface," and "Night of the Living Dead." ("Plan 9 From Outer Space" had been posted here as well, but it is currently unavailable due to "issues with the item's content.")

As you might have gathered, this week's article could easily evolve into nothing more than a list of lists, so I'll stop myself here and just say that this small sample should give you some idea of the breadth of material available. In terms of viewing options, the Moving Image Archive offers its content both in streaming MPEG and RealVideo formats, as well as downloadable RealVideo, DivX, and MPEG files of various sizes. As with the NARA films, downloading and viewing offline will be the only practical option for dial-up users, but as long as you're not spending every waking hour on your computer, you can probably schedule sufficient time for a few downloads.

After all, you wouldn't want to miss "Radar Men From The Moon," would you?

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