Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Spotlight on... Pop Culture Documentaries

Recently, I watched an exciting documentary on the Documentary Channel about the preservation of American popular culture that spotlighted several incredible museums and collections. The documentary was called Rewind America (2002), and it featured several segments, including a collection of burlesque memorabilia, the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas, and Forrest J Ackerman's legendary collection of science fiction and horror collectibles. The segment on the Liberace Museum was dazzling, but it was the breadth of the sci-fi and horror collection that was really awe-inspiring. The collection took up the entirety of Forrest J Ackerman's house, and it was jam-packed. He would have been a good contender for one of those programs about hoarders had it not been for the uniqueness and collectibility of the huge mass of stuff. Every inch of space was crammed full of movie memorabilia, including original movie posters and props from well-known films of the genre. He even had a special type of shelving system installed to allow for maximum storage of all his science fiction books! I couldn't help but admire both the completeness of the collection and his generosity in sharing it.

The engrossing documentary may have centered on these collections that were vital to, perhaps, fringe interests, but it said a lot about our national identity as a whole. It emphasized the accessibility of the collections; these were collections to be shared with the general public, to celebrate bygone personalities and subjects in the rich legacy of American twentieth-century popular culture. The thing that I love most about pop culture documentaries is that they delve into an aspect (or aspects, as the case may be) of ourselves that we often take for granted: that we love the cheap thrills of crappy b-movies, the campy decadence of celebrity, unhealthy convenience foods. No topic is too low-brow or mundane. They may not be gems, objets d'art, or priceless dinosaur bones, but, at least at one time in our lives, toys and fads, food, advertising, movies, pop music, and our favorite shows were just as vital (or more so) than relics in a museum. And, most importantly, all of these topics are as fun to read and write about as they are to experience first-hand. I was perusing a very dry academic book about the study of popular culture, and the only thing of merit that I took away from it was a very apt and wonderful definition for popular culture: it is the study of having fun. And that's just what pop culture should be. I don't know if I'm merely biased, but when I look at today's pop culture, I find it boring, and I have a hard time believing that I'll look back on the past decade with any sort of nostalgia or affection.

The past can be a dangerous thing to wallow in because it can be very distressing when a beloved aspect of your past fades into oblivion, or, inevitably, is completely snuffed out to make way for 'modernity' and 'progress.' The younger set (not that I'm much older than they) seem to be of the attitude that anything that happened before their birth is not worth knowing about or preserving. As the world is inexorably changing, we need documentarians, be they filmmakers; writers; or archivists (collectors, historians, librarians) to collect, maintain, and distribute our collective memories. Whether these are professionals working in actual libraries, archives, or film preservation labs or just a person with a pile of ephemera and a scanner, I believe this is Very Important Work, and I appreciate their efforts and contributions to preserving any and every aspect of twentieth-century popular culture. I believe we're in danger of losing all the things that made us who we were in the last century, and that, as time passes, so too will our memories of the past wash away. I suppose this can be seen as the mission statement for my blog(s) and Flickr, as well as what I really hope to devote the rest of my life to. I would love to spend the rest of my life preserving and writing about pop culture, and I admire (and envy!) those people who have been able to make a living out of it. Jim Heimann is, especially, a hero of mine. I know nothing about him as an individual, but when I look at the amazing collection of work that he's done for Taschen and Chronicle books (two of the best publishers of pop culture references -- please hire me!), I'm just so grateful for his work (as well as his keen eye for design). His books are works of art. I salute all the other bloggers, writers, archivists, and guardians of the past who feel the same way and who have devoted time, effort, and money into sharing their collections and writing about these precious tokens of the past.

Check out pop culture documentarian Mark McLaughlin's website, which includes, not only Rewind America, but also Hollywood Singing And Dancing (which I saw on PBS) and a few other titles that sound very promising. I know I'm going to be checking out his other works, too! I don't know if this is a link for Rewind America as I can't get it to load. Maybe. Maybe not.

Other pop culture documentaries that I highly recommend:
- Sandwiches That You Will Like (2002) [another link]
- A Hotdog Program (1999)
- An Ice Cream Show (1996)
- Things That Aren't There Anymore (1990)
- Every other documentary by Rick Sebak
- Philly's Favorite Kids Show Hosts (WHYY's Ed Cunningham is responsible for this one.)
- Drive-in Movie Memories (2001)

Many of these are Pennsylvania and Philadelphia-centric, but they're all very entertaining.

Of course, besides PBS, there are excellent shows on the Food Network, the Travel Channel, and the History Channel in this tradition, as well. Can you recommend any other pop culture documentaries (museums, collections, roadside attractions, foods, regional culture, etc.)?

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