Cinema Ephemera: The Festival of Useful Film

by Jonathan MacDonald


ephemeral (adj.) – lasting a very short time; short-lived; transitory:
the ephemeral joys of childhood.

Useful. Sponsored. Academic. Industrial. Educational. Persuasive. Functional. Ephemeral.

These are some of the words which have been used to describe the unique media on display in Baltimore this past weekend. Organized by local Dwight Swanson, Cinema Ephemera: The Festival of Useful Film was a gathering of wonderfully passionate archival professionals, hobbyists, artists, and academics. The sheer variety of films on display this weekend makes the label “ephemeral film” a somewhat unwieldy one. Home movies of rural Kentucky were shown alongside midcentury peepshow erotica. A jingle-filled film promoting the Glamorama laundromat franchise was at home adjacent to newsreel footage of forced deportations in the southwest from 1953. Perhaps what unites these diverse films is how, until recently, they have flown under the radar of serious consideration. Rick Prelinger (in attendance) began advocating for their preservation in the 1980s. Gradually, the archival community responded. Sincere scholarly interest in this material has in truth lagged until this decade.

The general consensus among the editors and authors of the collected scholarly works Useful Cinema and Learning with the Lights Off (published 2011 and 2012, respectively) is that these films have remained unexamined in part due to prejudice of film scholars.[1]  Ask yourself the following question: Which 1954 film is more “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” (to borrow the National Film Registry’s language), Cecil B. DeMille’s religious epic The Ten Commandments or the Jam Handy organization’s sponsored film Aluminum on the March?

Like most rational people, you probably chose The Ten Commandments without hesitation. While these two pieces do occupy the same medium, they exist as vastly different cultural and historical documents and should be evaluated using different criteria. Aluminum on the March and its relatives can answer hundreds of questions about American society in 1954 (and truthfully only a few of them have to do with aluminum) that The Ten Commandments cannot. While the sponsored film might be of interest to scholars of history or culture, they also have an aesthetic value that should not be entirely dismissed.

Perhaps we should rethink this question. As documents of both utility and aesthetic, what can we learn from ephemeral film that we cannot learn from large-scale theatrical film?

There are obvious differences between the major motion picture industry and the sponsored/ephemeral film industry. Films now categorized as “ephemeral” seldom ran longer than fifteen or twenty minutes. Their budgets were much smaller. Their acting was often stilted; effects minimal; cinematography frequently uninspired. Their stories (if they had stories) were often unentertaining.

But to return to the idea of what is “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” there is serious consideration to make for the ephemeral. As an industry parallel to Hollywood, the industrial and educational film market developed its own cinematographic styles, storytelling techniques, and reflected (or refracted) contemporary culture with at least as much precision.

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Cinema Ephemera’s organizers, presenters, and attendees gathered to celebrate these films in their native 16mm. Many of these films have aged poorly–sometimes literally–and now read as cornball. For instance (courtesy of collectors Cinema Bomar from Houston, Texas) we saw Maine Barbecue, a 1950s tourism spot for the state of Maine which unironically praised the state’s natural beauty alongside its “bland” cuisine. This film was followed by a crowd favorite titled Profit: A Lure / A Risk (1977), a now-jarring Blaxploitation musical film designed to sell the idea of free enterprise and entrepreneurship to minority students in 1970s and 80s Texas. To borrow a phrase from the Ig Noble Prize organization, many of the films we saw first made you laugh, and then made you think.

Perhaps using the designation useful is helpful in considering this cinematic form. Advertisements, educational films, movie trailers, documentaries, and home movies–all on display this weekend–were created with a functional purpose. They promoted products, engaged in blatant pedagogy, and worked as storehouses for family memories. Consulting this filmed record of history allows us to ask and answer questions about culture, class, race, gender, as well as questions which interest scholars of film as an aesthetic medium.

This was perhaps best showcased at the festival’s Baltimorama film and subsequent discussion panel on Sunday afternoon. Siobhan Hagan, of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Moving Image Archive, created the titular film from hundreds of slice-of-life filmed documents of Baltimore’s experience during the twentieth century. Chronology was rightfully abandoned in favor of thematic and geographic consistency. In one notable instance, this collage showcased home movie footage of a 1930s parade float commemorating (somewhat grotesquely) the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904. Hagan sequenced this to precede incredible archival footage of the fire’s aftermath, showing the smouldering ruins of the city. What do we make of this pairing? I was personally overwhelmed with questions about historical memory: in what ways did residents remember the fire? Do they still remember it? The individual shooting the footage in 1930–what did it mean to them to engage with their city’s past in this way?

Baltimorama patched together a holistic image of the lifecycle of urban space. The city of Baltimore was shown over the course of nearly a century, shot from every conceivable angle. We watched the city from above as it shed old buildings through controlled demolition, while seemingly dozens of promises of new development and urban renewal came and went. We saw Baltimore residents living in their own collapsing neighborhoods, visited infrequently by philanthropists and bureaucrats espousing broken-window theories. The film hit notes beyond heartbreak and nostalgia, as it also contained lighter moments pulled from eccentric local-interest news. Baltimorama was a truly wonderful non-narrative documentary of a pulsing, lurching, and frequently stumbling city, a place where the contradiction of optimism and pessimism resolve into something wholly unique.

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The festival ended on a more uplifting note with Rick Prelinger’s exhibition of his 2013 film titled No More Road Trips? Comprising thousands of home movies, taken from ninety-something families, No More Road Trips? tells the story of the American family navigating the vast continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific. No More Road Trips? eschews chronological order in favor of geographical order. Home movies from the 1920s run next to material taken from the late 1970s. As our chronology skips around, we get a sense of the gradual democratization of the home movie, though the material we see undoubtedly skews towards documents of the white and affluent.

No More Road Trips? begins in New York and takes us state-by-state until we arrive in Los Angeles. Along the way we visit diners and roadside attractions, we pull off the road for picnics, and we record hotel rooms and parking lots. Each city we drive into feels different. Each change in environment is captured from inside a moving vehicle, as individuals use cameras to both survey their landscape and to preserve it. Two of the twentieth century’s most culturally powerful technologies–film and the automobile–work in tandem as great distances are overcome and great sights are captured forever.

Rick Prelinger subverts cinematic tradition by exhibiting No More Road Trips? as an interactive movie. There is no recorded sound or superimposed soundtrack. Microphone in hand, Rick guides us through the images we see, providing context for the images and occasionally the individuals behind the camera. He prompts the audience with questions–Where are we? Does anyone know what we are seeing?–and welcomes questions and interpersonal chatter from the film viewers. This makes each showing of No More Road Trips a unique and engaging experience, though if the film ever circulates outside of special exhibitions it will certainly need some sort of commentary track to even attempt to capture the live experience.

Other than these wonderful remixed and repurposed films, most of the festival consisted of projections of whole 16 mm original film. Collectors from around the country showed up to explore themes of space and place. A/V Geeks’ Skip Elsheimer, out of Raleigh, NC, reasserted his title as master of the wonderfully obscure with the 1977 film Mark of the Clown, in which–no kidding–an entire church congregation is transformed into clowns and proceed to perform profane clown-themed Christian rituals. Oddball Films, a collection out of San Francisco, showcased films centered around transient living and displayed an original trailer for Easy Rider and a wonderful 17 minute experimental film which captured an entire coast-to-coast highway journey in a series of quick-moving stills. Secret Cinema, out of Philadelphia, showcased local Philly adverts and celebrations of Philadelphia identity. Zampano’s Playhouse, from Cambridge, MA, showcased the aforementioned vintage pornography, while Brian L. Frye (producer of the 2013 documentary Our Nixon) exhibited amateur films from Kentucky and Ohio. We celebrated the 30th anniversary of the cult documentary Heavy Metal Parking Lot with its creator and Bowie, Maryland native, Jeff Krulik, and we congregated in a warehouse to view six simultaneous projectors scored by live music.

Another highlight came Saturday afternoon. Jasmyn Castro, of the African American Home Movie Archive and the soon-to-be-opened Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, showcased a number of ephemeral films and selections from interwar black cinema. Black Protest, a classroom film from 1975, was a short documentary primer for students learning about the Civil Rights Movement. It offered a glimpse into how mid-70s schools might have portrayed contentious social and political issues, but it also spoke to many problematic issues which American society has yet to resolve. Castro’s own film, Narratives, combined Great Depression-era interviews of formerly enslaved people with midcentury African American family home movies, to moving effect.

Much of what was on display at Cinema Ephemera complicates and enriches our understanding of the motion picture culture of twentieth century America. While I am a long convert to the ephemeral film’s value as a historical document, I still found that this festival broadened my cinematic horizon in exciting ways. If an event like Cinema Ephemera (or any screening of this kind of material) comes across your radar, attending it will be well worth your time.


[1] Charles R. Acland and Haidee Wasson, eds., Useful Cinema (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011); Devin Orgeron, Marsha Orgeron, and Dan Streible, eds., Learning With the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

Thanks to the organizers and presenters at Cinema Ephemera for a wonderful weekend. See a full list of presenters and screened films here.

Images retrieved from the Cinema Ephemera Facebook page. Thanks to Noelle Egan for designing the festival poster.

An earlier version of this piece misidentified Jeff Krulik as being from Baltimore.

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