Thursday, May 01, 2008

Have 20,000 Films, Will Travel

Written for PIQ Magazine, May 2008

While America’s favorite movie of all time might be Titanic by James Cameron, for 16mm film collector Skip Elsheimer it’s Pride on Parade by Oscar Meyer, a 1979 morale-boosting film made to increase the productivity of assembly line workers by comparing their synchronized activities with those of a high school marching band. Images of festooned, high-stepping musicians are juxtaposed with weary looking Oscar Meyer team members in lab coats and plastic shower caps as they sort, inspect and package baloney and hotdogs. See the similarity?

It’s the search for these sorts of “huh?” moments that makes collecting 16mm PSAs, educational, training, and industrial films an obsession for Skip Elsheimer, founder of the A/V Geeks archive. Did anyone in the Oscar Meyer production crew notice the weak smiles of the workers and the porno-like quality of the assembly-line footage with rhythmically bouncing hot dogs? (Skip says the trade term for this is “assembly line porn”.) These bad ideas gone good are common among 20th century informational films, like another of Skip’s finds, Shake Hands with Danger (1980)--a cautionary tale of heavy machinery accidents and careless operators, set to a catchy country and western song about severed fingers.

Shake hands with danger
Meet a guy who oughta know

I used to laugh at safety

Now they call me... Three-Finger Joe

After watching so many safety films you would think some of it would have rubbed off, but Skip’s house in Raleigh, North Carolina is piled high with potential hazards. His bungalow is home to 20,000+ film prints, assorted projectors, a Telecine (for transferring films to digital formats), a large collection of film strips and their accompanying (beeeeep) cassette tapes, as well as his supportive girlfriend Germaine Fodor (and her own collection of original handicrafts like a Toast-chee pillow she made for Skip after their first date), not to mention their rescued and disabled iguana Judy, who roams free, at about one inch per hour.

In the 1990s, Skip was a member of the Raleigh-based music/performance art collective, Wifflefist—known for live audio/visual mash-ups of media history, such as their Hee Haw/Lawrence Welk Show show. This was a continuation of Skip’s childhood interest in puppet shows and drama club. While searching for material for one of their gigs, the group acquired a large quantity of discarded 16mm films at a local flea market. This passing fancy for Wifflefist, which disbanded in 1998, eventually became Skip’s full time pursuit. The datedness and campy fashions were part of the initial appeal of the films, but as time passed, Skip grew to appreciate their more subtle qualities—experimental camera work, imbedded sociological meaning, and unintentional works of art. A recent find from the latter category is titled Tire Rigging Demo (no date)—with stunning close up shots of car tires rolling and bouncing over mountainous terrain accompanied by exhilarating production music. Skip guesses this test film was made to demonstrate an ad agency’s “new rig” to potential automobile industry clients, the first clue being that it was recovered from a dumpster outside of an ad agency in Los Angeles.

How Skip amassed over 1,000 films per year can be explained by the 1980s technological shift from film to video. As VHS tapes became the preferred teaching format of libraries and archives, entire collections of 16mm ephemeral films from the 1930s-1980s were phased out of school systems and public libraries nationwide, with no time or money to consider transferring or preservation. Skip says, “They needed the room to replace old teaching machines--16mm projectors and films—with new teaching machines-- computers. Often I would need to pick up an entire room of films and shelving to make way for PCs.” There was a kind of film free-for-all for anyone who could reduce a librarian’s laborious trips to the waste bin. Now Skip makes special road trips to distant states to save de-accessioned films (he’s like the EMS of celluloid), and occasionally rounds out his collection with a rare title or two purchased from Ebay—though he dislikes the online auction house overall because “it sucks my time, and my money.” While the films may mostly be free for the asking, the habit of collecting is not. Skip’s decision to buy an eight-bedroom former Raleigh boarding house for storage purposes, and pour his life savings into purchasing, picking-up, and refurbishing a coke machine-size, 1000 lb. Telecine was the price he paid to keep up with his obsession. In the last three years he has finally cobbled together enough income through film transfers, stock footage licensing, public screenings, talks, and DVD sales via his publisher Fantoma to quit his day job as a funny and affable phone support technician for Alien Skin Software. International tech support has lost a rare asset while film history has gained an archivist.

Today, Skip is part of a small circle of well-known 16mm collectors in the U.S., among them, Rick Prelinger of Prelinger Archives, who Skip cites as a major influence. Rick began collecting ephemeral films about a decade before Skip, and made national news in 2002 when the majority of his films (over 120,000 individual cans) were acquired by the Library of Congress. Rick and Skip both contribute to the website, free distribution of public domain films--and have been spokespersons for film preservation, orphan films, copyright and ownership issues. Skip says the two met circa 1993 when he was trying to sell films (unknowingly) to a client of Rick’s, namely, Mystery Science Theater. Skip sent along a list of titles to MST, which they then forwarded to Rick. Rick did a little reconnaissance by calling Skip and inquiring if he had a copy of the sought after title Soapy The Germ Fighter (1951). Skip did, and the friendship commenced. Since then Skip has successfully licensed footage to television shows like Wonder Showzen, VH1, and The History Channel.

What really distinguishes Skip from other collectors is his signature A/V Geeks film screenings that are participatory, performative, raucous, and generally take place in unusual settings (although he has regular screenings at two Raleigh mainstays--the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science, and an Irish Pub called Tir Na Nog.) He has shown school bus safety films on a moving school bus, cafeteria manners films in a Middle School cafeteria, films about drinking in a micro-brewery, films about insects and pesticides on a farm, creepy religious films in a church, boat safety films on a boat, films about meat in a sausage factory, films about winter in the middle of a gruelingly hot, humid summer, and films about fathers for Father's Day hosted by Skip and his dad. Major institutions like Anthology Film Archives, New York, George Eastman House, Rochester, and the American Museum of the Moving Image, Long Island City have also opened their doors and their theaters to him.

You can see the broad appeal when you read about the shows in Skip’s own words.

And A Puppet Shall Lead Them: For some reason, somebody in charge felt that they could get their point across better if they used a puppet. Nevermind how distracting, ludicrous and somewhat creepy it all looks. Join the A/V Geeks for a night of 16mm films where the puppets know best. Films included: The Toymaker, Santa Claus and Punch and Judy, Parents: Who Needs Them? and What Is A Family?

Small Furry Animals And The Sins Of Man: Who said that animals can't sin?!? A look into a world where dogs are bigots, lemmings commit suicide and rats perform heinous crimes against nature. These films come from a school system near you for your entertainment. All you have to do is figure out what the lesson was supposed to be.. Films included: Hoppy the Bunny, Frank and his Dog, Skipper Learns a Lesson, Disney's White Wilderness: Lemmings (excerpt), Ratapolis (excerpt) and Squeak the Squirrel.

Food: It's What for Dinner: 16mm educational films that deal with food and food preparation. Delightful, delicious and good for you too! Or is it? Films include Why Eat Our Vegetables, Keeping Food Safe To Eat, Tasting Party, Short Order Cookery, Pride on Parade, Outbreak of Salmonella Infection and The Art of Cake Decorating with Norman Wilton.

Huh?: Whoever made these films had a point to make. They wrote a script, involved dozens of people and spent lots of money. So, why is it that these films don't make any sense? Films include: Easy Way Out, Appy's Adventures, Curious Habits of Man, Day the Milk Was Turned Off, Punctuation: Colon, Semicolon, and Question Marks.

What every one of the A/V Geeks events includes, regardless of location, is a kick-off participatory read-a-long film strip on subjects like Why Aren’t I Popular? and What Troubles A Troublemaker? Audience members read one line of the text while Skip congratulates them on their solid reading skills. This sets the classroom tone and helps bring those who remember back to their school days.

Today Skip is heavily involved with the recently inaugurated International Home Movie Day, and is also helping to digitize and put online other institution’s film collections, like the Academic Film Archive of North America and University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Museum (with over 600 anthropology and archeology films). In his most monumental task to date, Skip was hired by NASA to put their entire collection of film and video on the Internet. He says he doesn’t collect films just to own them, but rather, “to reintroduce these films to the public. Their real value is in showing them to people.”

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