Panorama Ephemera

PANORAMA EPHEMERA (made by Rick Prelinger, 2004, 89:35 min., color and black and white) is composed of sequences drawn from a wide variety of ephemeral (industrial, advertising, educational and amateur) films, touring conflicted North American landscapes. The films' often-skewed visions reconstruct a history filled with horror and hope, unreeling in familiar and unexpected ways.

PANORAMA EPHEMERA focuses on familiar and mythical activities and images in America (1626-1978). Its cast includes children, animals, farmers, industrial workers, superheroes, pioneers heading West, crash test dummies, and many others. Many creatures, objects, and substances that often seem too familiar to notice take center stage, including pigs, corn, water, telephones, fire, and rice. At first resembling a compilation, it soon reveals itself as a journey through American landscape and history, and the story begins to emerge between the sequences.

The film consists of 64 self-contained film sequences ranging from 5 seconds to 4 minutes in length arranged into a narrative. Unlike many films made using archival footage, it's primarily a combination of sequences rather than a collage of individual shots. While other found-footage or archival films speak as if in words, syllables or even phonemes, PANORAMA EPHEMERA speaks in sentences and paragraphs.

A DVD-quality version of PANORAMA EPHEMERA may be downloaded at no cost from the Internet Archive.

It is released under a Creative Commons "Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike" license, and may be freely shown, copied, or distributed according to the terms of this license.


2010: Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, Missoula, Montana
2008: Economics of the Commons Conference, de Balie, Amsterdam
2007: Illuminated Corridor, San Francisco (with new musical score composed and conducted by Gino Robair
2007: Arteleku, Donostia-San Sebastian, Spain
2007: Wattis Institute, California College of Arts, San Francisco (as installation)
2006: Pittsburgh Filmmakers
2006: University of Georgia
2005: Charlotte Street Theatre, London
2005: Guild Theater, Northwest Film and Video Center, Portland, Oregon
2005: Creative Commons launch, Torino, Italy
November 3-13, 2005: Leeds International Film Festival, U.K.
October 28, 2005: Northwest Film and Video Center, Guild Theatre, Portland, Ore.
October 24, 2005: Hillside Club, 2286 Cedar Street, Berkeley, Calif.
May 25, 2005: Provisions Library, Washington, DC
May 15, 2005: Chicago Filmmakers
April 30, 2005: Harvard Film Archive, Cambridge, Mass.
April 4, 2005: REDCAT Theater, Los Angeles
February 25-27, 2005: True/False Film Festival, Columbia, Missouri
February-March 2005: Adelaide Film Festival
January 26-February 6, 2005: International Film Festival Rotterdam
December 4, 2004: Other Cinema, San Francisco
November 30, 2004: Virginia Film Society, Charlottesville
October 15 & 29, 2004: New Zealand Film Archive, Wellington
October 7, 2004: New York Center for Architecture
September 20, 2004: Anthology Film Archives, New York City
September 20, 2004: Charles Mansion, Lexington, Kentucky
July 10, 2004: Dallas Video Festival
June 13, 2004: San Francisco Cinematheque
April 16, 2004: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (as work in progress)



Manohla Dargis in The New York Times, April 4, 2005 (reprinted below)

Steve Anderson in Res magazine, January-February 2005 (pdf).

Jim Knipfel in New York Press, October 12, 2004

Thom Powers in Boston Globe, December 12, 2004.

Annalee Newitz in San Francisco Bay Guardian, September 15-21, 2004.

In Snippets, An America That Ducked and Covered

New York Times: Published April 4, 2005

Once upon a time, the Saturday matinee represented Mass for many American children, the one day of the week when they could freely worship at the altar of the gods of cinema. For many young audiences, the matinee also offered sweet relief from another, generally less pleasurable movie experience, one that often occurred during science, history or, if you were really unlucky, health class. That was when, accompanied by a volley of shushing from the teacher and titters of classmates, legions of America's future leaders learned how to become good citizens, when to duck and cover in case of a nuclear attack, and why they should never, ever have sex.

For more than two decades, the archivist Rick Prelinger has been collecting these kinds of educational films alongside a wealth of similarly derelict material, including advertising, amateur, documentary and industrial movies, most made by unknown auteurs, some by the likes of the documentary filmmaker Willard Van Dyke. Over the years, Mr. Prelinger has preserved these extraordinary artifacts, which he has poetically christened ephemeral films, in various formats, including CD-ROM. (The Library of Congress now owns the 48,000 titles in the Prelinger Collection.) A fierce opponent of what he sees as overly restrictive federal copyright law, Mr. Prelinger has even made some films available online (, which is where you can find his collage feature, "Panorama Ephemera." The film is screening tonight in Los Angeles at the Redcat performance space, in the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Beautiful and bizarre, "Panorama Ephemera" weaves together 64 black-and-white and generally faded color film sequences that taken together create a compelling narrative of our collective conscious. The feature is loosely bookended by battered snippets of a 1940's black-and-white interview in which two people, Clare and Don, who have undergone hypnosis are repeatedly interrogated by an unseen narrator. "Are you sound asleep, Clare?" the narrator asks. "Don, are you sound asleep?"

Mr. Prelinger slyly suggests that Clare and Don are not only very much asleep, but that they are also our on-screen surrogates, as blissfully unaware as the men, women and children who were the original target audience for these 64 films extolling the glories of gelatin and electric typewriters, "a common heritage and common destiny," and a well-tended garden brought to you by your friendly neighborhood chemical company.

Soon after we meet Clare and Don, the film cuts to an extended peek at a Hormel processing plant, where slaughtered pigs are turned into hams and gelatin. In an unmodulated, comfortingly stentorian male voice, the kind that invariably accompanies these films, the narrator explains how the animals are transformed into food through an industrial process no longer called butchering but rather "the disassembly of the pork." Like many industrial and educational films, the Hormel scenes have a slow, almost somnolent quality (you can imagine Clare and Don gently nodding off just about now), an effect underscored by the mechanized, radically dehumanized movements of the workers who, by methodically whittling the animals down to their useful, salable parts, are also of course holding up a mirror to their own lives.

As the dream, or perhaps the nightmare, continues, "Panorama Ephemera" guides us across a strange, unnervingly familiar landscape. Among the multiple attractions are hypnotically striking newsreel images of Berkeley going up in flames in the 1920's, a mouth-dropping clip from the 1950's in which a narrator asks if a well-maintained home can withstand an atomic blast better than an untidy one (yes, it can!) and a hilarious 1970's bit with a superhero called Safety Woman who advises a young boy - the only black person in this otherwise ephemeral white world - on the value of being "Aware, Alert, Alive!" These three words could be the motto for a country so obsessed with safety, so plagued by fear and so deeply in the grip of a soothing collective dream that it is a wonder that Clare and Don ever do wake up.




September 14, 2005