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In The Pipeline: Revelations on a reel

March 14, 2012|By Chris Epting
  • [Inventor F.A. Dobson tries out his experimental crafts in an image from an old home movie reel.
[Inventor F.A. Dobson tries out his experimental crafts… (Courtesy Jeff Vilencia…)

Jeff Vilencia and Debbie Martinez are self-described "motion picture film cultural archaeologists." What that means, exactly, is that they scour the world for forgotten vintage home movies at swap meets, auctions, storage units, estate sales — wherever an old reel of family film may exist.

For years, they have built an impossibly interesting film library, firm in the belief that the stories told and the histories preserved on home movies represent a unique angle on the American experience — telling, private glimpses into a wide-eyed United States that was just discovering things like Elvis, Kodacolor and, in many cases, Orange County.

Their collection features an inordinate amount of vintage color footage of the OC, with a marvelous emphasis on Huntington Beach. More on that later.

The two film buffs are preservationists and historians as well, taking care to digitize their collection while also, whenever appropriate, reaching out to families that might be interested in learning what happened to their long-gone footage.

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Vilencia, 50-ish, is a filmmaker himself, so he has a deep appreciation for the rich, vibrant colors of these retro "classics," along with a craftsman's pride in gently dealing with the often-decaying celluloid. Many weekends find him and his partner Martinez at the weekly swap meet at Golden West College, searching carefully for the small, bright yellow boxes that often contain treasure: the antiquated reels of film.

Recently at the swap meet, one box, forgotten in a cluttered bin, jumped out at Martinez.

"It was labeled 'Led Zeppelin,'" she told me. "And that's what it was — incredibly rare and beautiful home movie footage of the band Led Zeppelin. It cost a dollar."

And so it enters their archive, along with hundreds of hours of other moving scrapbook images that, while sometimes blurry or abrupt, also represent some deeply personal and profound documentation.

One of the finest examples of this involves their footage of a remarkable gentleman named F.A. Dobson. A nuclear-age inventor who seemed to blend Buckminster Fuller's childlike sense of wonder with the practicality of the Cold War age, Dobson designed hovercrafts, strange and wondrous vehicles that could adapt from water to land instantly, along with a series of fascinating sci-fi toys for children.

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