Don't forget the Motor City

Rick Prelinger uncovers an American story in Lost Landscapes of Detroit

FILM/CULTURE There is the Detroit of mythology, and then there is the reality — half-abandoned, yet rife with some greater potential — beneath the myths. Local archivist Rick Prelinger sets his sights on both in Lost Landscapes of Detroit, an assemblage of private and commercially-produced films spanning from the peak of the Model T to the era of the gas guzzler. As arranged by Prelinger, Lost Landscapes is a provocative counterpoint to the urban portraiture of his Lost Landscapes of San Francisco series. Gazing from both sides of the automobile window, it reveals Hollywood's relationship with the Motor City during the golden age of the movie theater, and the potential and the limits of other obsolescent industries: film and print media. Immersed in a mammoth project involving home movies (he says he's "only" watched 1,200 of the ones he's assembled for it), Prelinger recently discussed Lost Landscapes of Detroit, on the eve of its first West Coast screening.

SFBG One thing I like about your Lost Landscapes programs is their dynamic and open-ended shifts between industrial and home movies, black-and-white and color, silence and sound.

RICK PRELINGER These are assemblies, but also quickie films. I like the form. One thing I'm interested in is elevating unedited material — raw footage — to the same level that something dramatized or contrived might enjoy.

I like to think of home movies as homemade crafts, and you establish that through difference. When you show something industrial, with all the weird tropes we all now know — even if we didn't grow up with them, we see them on The Simpsons — it's a way of building a stronger sense of what is particular to home movies.

SFBG How did Lost Landscapes of Detroit come about?

RP I started traveling to Detroit in 1982 to talk to retirees from production companies there, the biggest of which was Jam Handy. Jam Handy Organization made something like 7,000 motion pictures and tens of thousands of film strips, and no one knows this. They used to say — and it might be apocryphal — that more film was exposed in Detroit than in New York and Hollywood combined. Detroit was within 400 miles of most of the industrial production and most of the population of America. It was a strategic place.

In '82, Detroit was already stressing, there was a recession. For the first time, I saw fast food outlets and banks and suburban malls that were derelict — now we've gotten kind of used to that. I loved the city. I must have gone back 20 times since.

SFBG What was the response like when you screened Lost Landscapes of Detroit in Detroit?

RP We set out 150 chairs, and when it was time for the show, there were 425 people. It was an amazing audience — racially mixed, union people, people from Ann Arbor, people who had moved to Oakland and Macomb County, people coming for the white flight nostalgia thing.

Afterward, there was almost an hour of discussion. One comment that was so great came from the woman who runs the Black Theater program at Wayne State [University]. She said it was a perfect blend of nostalgia and provocation.

I've always been really anti-nostalgic, but you have to acknowledge that nostalgia is a major subjective and social force. It's deeply wired. To inflect that with the idea of provocation worked for me. I don't want [to put together] another America apocalypse movie. Detroit really isn't about all that — there's still 300 or 400,000 people in the city who are going to work 9-to-5.

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