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Smith's drolly funny, historically astute introduction to the genre divides the social-guidance movies of the '40s, '50s, and '60s into seven overlapping categories (Fitting In, Cautionary Tales, Dating, Girls Only, Drugs, Sex Education, and Bloody Highways) to better study them as, he writes in Mental Hygiene, "tools of social engineering, created to shape the behavior of their audiences. . . . Like a polio sugar cube or a measles shot, [they] were conceived as preventative medicine."
"The mental-hygiene film embraced the notion that you could make a dramatic, Hollywood-esque treatment of a social problem," says Smith in an interview with the Voice. "You didn't have a range of options; you were either right or wrong." And if you were wrong, you were invariably punished, with means that ranged from social ostracization (in Are You Popular?, lover's-lane veteran Ginny is shunned in the cafeteria), to a derelict future in a shabby rented room (Nick's fate if he doesn't comb his hair and figure out a life plan in Benefits of Looking Ahead), to the harsh penalties meted out by the no-budget schlock masterpieces of social-guidance producer extraordinaire Sid Davis, who sent most wayward teens either to juvie or a grisly, off-camera death.
"Sid Davis wanted to warn kids what would happen if they went down the wrong track," says Skip Elsheimer, a collector and programmer of 16mm educational films (check out his Web site). "He told these horrible tales because he thought that was the only way he could get his point across." Davis also dabbled in highway-safety movies, perhaps the most extreme form of the retributive social-guidance film. The undisputed master of the highway-splatter show was one Dick Wayman, who employed gruesome documentary-style tactics to discourage speeding and drunk driving. Horror crash movies were still being made into the early '80s (and shown in classrooms long afterward), and many antidrug and STD-prevention films of the '70s piggybacked on Wayman's shock-doc techniques. (This writer will be forever haunted by an antidrug film in which a heroin addict of undetermined authenticity vomits up what appear to be several milkshakes and an unspecified internal organ.) "In the '70s the movies start going vérité, where you're not sure if what you're seeing is real or dramatized," says Elsheimer.
Smith's book wraps up near the advent of the Nixon administration because, as he says, "once the '70s kicked in there was more acceptance that the world was complex. The kids weren't paying attention anymore to the old stylethey were laughing at these films because they were so painfully two-dimensional." According to Elsheimer, this shift is best illustrated by changes in "VD movies": "In the '40s and '50s, the emphasis was on the destruction of the family. If you have sex, you'll get syphilis, you'll go crazy, or you'll be sterile and you'll let down the American family ideal. By the '70s, the movies were saying, You're out there, you have sex, so go get yourself checked out, OK?"
Elsheimer, who is currently researching a book on the VD subgenre (which includes VD: Every 30 Seconds and Disney's VD Attack Plan), continues, "There was also a shift in who is giving you the information. In the '60s, it's a doctor in a white coat sitting behind a desk. In the '70s, it's kids, either real or actors, telling their stories." The educational film as first-person testimonialeither real or fabricatedbecame the norm during the '80s. One startling early example is the Disney-produced video A Time to Tell (1985), featuring a support group for teen survivors of rape and incest. And as the AIDS epidemic continued unabated through the decade, HIV-positive teens told their stories for the camera, in videos such as In Our Own Words (1996).
But even in such a sensitive production, the host feels compelled to tell her audience, "I wish as a teenager I had valued myself more. If I had, I would have postponed sex." A personal moral judgment is prioritized over providing actual information, as in films of yore. Likewise, the "girl gang" classroom films briefly popular in the late '80s and early '90s demonize sex (at least for young females) via a strict formula: Girl who is "different" in some way (in 1986's Have You Tried Talking to Patty?, she's deaf; in 1991's Just Friends, she's new in town) joins a gang (differentiated mostly by their hairstyles; sometimes they smoke) to boost her self-esteem, is promptly placed in a compromising sexual situation (kissing, basically), suffers some form of humiliation as a consequence, and realizes the error of her ways. And the much maligned Channel Onebanned from public classrooms in 1990 by the New York Board of Regents, largely for its inclusion of commercialsended one recent broadcast with what The Washington Times applauded as "an explicit call for teen abstinence from sexual activity."