Stephen Parr’s Oddball Film Archives is just that. Located in the Mission District of San Francisco, his loft contains over 50,000 films. His 16mm film cans are piled in countless columns on massive shelves. Many of them require a ladder to access. Those who visit his space invariably leave with a sense of awe. Besides its celluloid holdings, the warehouse has old library card cabinets, chrome beauty salon hair driers, and display cases filled with retro ephemera. Imagine a Library of Alexandria for kitsch.
Unlike many institutional film archives, Stephen does not collect Hollywood features. Instead, his sprawling catalog consists of cinematic marginalia. That includes everything from Cold War propaganda films to home movies to porn loops to 1960s lawnmower ads to God knows what else. If you want to find an instructional film from the U.S. Navy on how to give an enema, call Stephen.
So how the hell did you start collecting all this…stuff?
Good question. I used to make montages and create visual environments for galleries, music acts and nightclubs and was looking for raw footage-images that were created on film. The other reason is that I loved the tactile feeling and visual projection of film. It also lasts hundreds of years. Video tapes, DVD’s, even hard drives and digital media all need to be migrated to be preserved.
When I started collecting film, it was impossible to purchase films about the subjects that interested me. Archives were super straight-laced and other collectors were hobbyists, borderline fetishists or hoarders. So I decided to build my own archive.
My company Oddball Film+Video provides research and stock footage from producers all over the world from television programs like “Mythbusters” to docs like Alex Gibney’s “Magic Bus” (about Ken Kesey), Whitney Smith’s upcoming film “Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston” to feature films like Gus Van Sant’s “Milk.” We’ve worked with musical acts as diverse as Kiss and Motley Crue to DJ Shadow and the B******e Surfers.
Tell us about the most interesting film you have acquired in the last month?
I turn curators loose in this palace and they help me discover and rediscover films. Someone just pointed out I had a copy of the 1926 French silent experimental film “Ménilmontant” by Dimitri Kirsanoff on my shelf! But the copy of Cocteau’s “Orpheus” was the find of the month.
You hold a weekly screening series of films from your archive. Tell us about the most interesting program you presented this year.
The best shows are the ones I never find time to produce or are just so far out that I know no one would attend. However, a few months ago I finally decided to do a difficult, over-the-top edition of Strange Sinema (#39). Strange Sinema is a monthly series I started 3 1/2 years ago. It showcases oddities from the archive: new finds, absurd, bizarre, offbeat and just plain STRANGE films. I found myself holding back, plugging in things that may have been strange to other people but not really expansive to my mind. I was telling the audience things like “If I were to really show strange films you wouldn’t stay long – if you came at all.” Well, someone dared me too and I did. I screened some real strange stuff. The program included films like “Steamers” (amateur films of guys riding miniature replicas of steam locomotives),
“Lipstick/Red Shoes Outtakes” (double-screen projection of porno fetish outtakes and lipstick loops), “Le Monde Du Schizophrene” (a surreal film produced by the Sandoz Pharmaceutical Company who manufactured LSD), “Pinky Lee” (1950s clips of the hyperkinetic kid show host that inspired Pee Wee Herman) and I finally pulled out the old chestnut “Giving an Enema” from the U.S. Navy. The show turned out to be a gas. People loved the clips and the double projections. I’m working on edition #44 now.
Describe the ickiest film in your collection. I nominate your eye surgery film from the Mayo Clinic but you probably have your own favorite.
That eye surgery film is rough, it beats out the foot surgery one from my podiatry collection but for me it’s gotta be any faded fleshy pink porn film from the 70s. You know those silent or out-of-sync stags shot with one camera in a living room somewhere in Southern California? They look like butcher shop outtakes or alien medical experiments. One more film comes to mind: “Rabies in a Human Patient.” I mean how could someone make a clinically sterile film of someone foaming at the mouth from Rabies and dying. It’s an awful film.
I heard about an interesting side project you started on the SF punk scene in the 1980s. Tell us more about that.
The project is tentatively titled the San Francisco Performance Archive. It’s an ongoing archival and digital preservation project documenting San Francisco’s underground art, music and performance scene in the late 1970s and 1980s. The project currently involves the scanning, digital restoration, archiving and rehousing of over 5000 paper-based artifacts, including event posters, invitations, press releases, photographs, tickets and other related ephemera. In addition, I have some 1/2” reel to reel videotapes, 35mm slides and audiotapes of events I’ve produced as well as documentation of other San Francisco events that took place during this time.
I was an events promoter for 15 years. I ran after hours clubs, performance spaces, literary readings, live burlesque and smut shows, avant-garde art performances, and more. While I see the project as essentially an online resource, I’m considering a media book too. It’s a work in progress and open- ended.
What is the most important cinematic discovery you have made in the last five years?
Oh there’s lots of discoveries, all equally important depending on your academic and filmic perspective. I uncovered “San Francisco in Cinemascope” (featured on the Home Movie Day DVD), an amazing 1961 amateur film shot by a doctor.
Two years ago, we discovered the missing portion of filmmaker Peter Clifton’s long-lost Easybeats film “Easy Come, Easy Go” (1967) and returned it to him. My personal favorite discovery has to be “Blackie the Wonder Horse” (1936), a film documenting a horse (“Blackie”) that swam the Golden Gate towing a non-swimmer to settle a bet. It’s shot like a newsreel. It’s the prototypical oddball only-in-San Francisco, publicity stunt type of film.
You may have an even more extensive collection of porn than the Vatican. Tell us about the most ridiculous scene in one of your stag films.
Ridiculous? Well all porn is ridiculous. For me the dumber the better since all porn — even the kind made for “couples” — is a joke. I mean it’s porn. It’s for jerking off to. Hmm..lemme think.. I have a film showing a woman masturbating with a Time Magazine. Richard Nixon is on the cover! That’s pretty ridiculous. I have another film called “The Doll Shop” that features a bunch of “adult dolls” with giant wind up keys on their backs. The shop owner winds them up then they start f*****g.
Stephen screens films from his collection most Fridays and Saturdays. Pay him a visit next time you visit San Francisco.