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Culture

Oddball Films: San Francisco's Archive for Extraordinary Cinema

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You may not realize it, but you already know Oddball Films. If you've seen the film Blade Runner or the hit Amazon show Transparent or the episode of Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown filmed in Oman, you've seen clips from the legendary San Francisco archive.

Stephen Parr, Oddball's founder and director, has been collecting and organizing celluloid most of his life. He's accumulated roughly 50,000 film prints and 25,000 analog video and audio tapes in over a dozen formats. They're all kept safe and snug at Oddball Films HQ on Capp Street in the Mission. "I have a very clear idea of the kinds of materials that I wish to collect, archive and distribute," says Parr.

At Oddball, you won't find mainstream films or simple panoramic shots of iconic landmarks. Oddball rescues eccentric imagery from film and provides a home for "bastard" movies without provenance or pedigree. "It's the difference between reading a generic news item and something that has some journalistic integrity, something that goes far deeper into the content," Parr explains. Oddball's archives are full of commercials from the 1960s, film of Japanese religious celebrations, documentaries of violence and on-air interviews with revolutionaries. You can search through and watch (for free) more than 20,000 clips from their collection.

Stephen Parr, visionary director of Oddball FilmsCourtesy of Anthony Kurtz/Oddball Films.

After more than 30 years of collecting, archiving and licensing materials, Oddball Films has earned a global reputation. They regularly receive new collections from countries as diverse as India, Ukraine, Germany, Japan and Australia. They inherit collections from schools, libraries and other institutions that no longer screen or distribute films. The laundry list of companies that have licensed their footage for everything from TV commercials to music videos is just as impressive and ranges from news organizations (BBC), film heavyweights (Dreamworks) and documentary producers (National Geographic). Even the band Motley Crue has been an Oddball client.Parr has hosted more than 1,200 different film programs at their archive. This year, they've begun a new program, Cinema Soiree, in which an author, filmmaker, historian or archivist hosts a thematic film event. On May 25, "The Holy Haight: How the 60s Counterculture Changed American Religion Forever" will feature cultural historian Erik Davis and clips of spiritual carnivals and rock star gurus. On June 13, Parr will take part in SF Docfest, with "Sonic Oddities," a two-hour compilation of cult film and music at the Roxie.

Oddball's mission is not just archiving endangered material—such as the 25,000 feet of African wildlife films from the 1970s featuring animals on the brink of extinction today—but ensuring their preservation. Of the materials Parr and his staff works with, film is the longest lasting medium. Video tape, he says, presents a larger challenge because the equipment for showing it has become obsolete. And while they are involved in an ongoing process of digitizing their materials for easier distribution, that medium, too, will become increasingly problematic due to inevitable changes in visual and audio technologies. Oddball Films is working hard to assure that their archive doesn't succumb to irrelevance. "We are really working with the future," says Parr. "We're evolving with our new technology, as well as preserving the older technologies. We're preparing for the digital dark ages." // "Sonic Oddities" June 13, 7:15pm ($12 tickets, available online) at the Roxie, 3117 16th St. (Mission), sfindie.com; oddballfilms.com.

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