Celluloid Zeroes


The Bottle and The Throttle and Mechanized Death could be the working titles of any number of Joel Silver productions. Are You Popular? and Facing Reality sound like possible midseason replacements on the WB. One imagines the producers of The Last Prom or Seduction of the Innocent crossing their fingers for a doe-eyed Party of Five alum to play their damsel in distress. But the titles for most of the educational films in Ken Smith’s recent book, Mental Hygiene: Classroom Films 1945-1970, evoke only the Eisenhower-shadowed era that produced them, summoning a surreal David Lynch-directed universe that oscillates wildly from the square, scrubbed, zonked-out naïveté of instructional movies like Exchanging Greetings and Introductions and How Billy Keeps Clean to the gory paranoia of Drug Abuse: The Chemical Tomb and Highways of Agony.

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 style—they 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 testimonial—either real or fabricated—became 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 One—banned from public classrooms in 1990 by the New York Board of Regents, largely for its inclusion of commercials—ended one recent broadcast with what The Washington Times applauded as “an explicit call for teen abstinence from sexual activity.”

“The pendulum is swinging back,” says Smith, now in the planning stages of a documentary about mental-hygiene filmmakers. “You’ve got sex, you’ve got AIDS, you’ve got drugs. We’re entering the second golden age of guidance films, and 50 years from now we’re going to be laughing again.” Open up the current At Risk Resources catalog of educational films (1-800-99-YOUTH) and you might mistake it for an index to Mental Hygiene: available videos include Managing Your Anger, Bobby (about a champion athlete who tries cocaine and ends up in a coma), and—a title worthy of Dick Wayman—So You Think You’re Going to Live Forever: “For every teenage driver who wants to LIVE!”

“There are some wonderful films out there, but I prefer to do more discussion,” says Dr. Linda Trabman. A teacher at the High School of Telecommunications, Arts and Technology in Brooklyn since 1988, Trabman has taught health education for 29 years. “The health-ed requirement for graduation is only six months long. So even if a film is excellent, I have to think twice before I take away a period to show it. Usually I just show a clip.” Most of these clips, moreover, aren’t even from educational films, because “the kids like to see real-people stuff,” Trabman adds. “I’ll show them something from 20/20. If we’re doing a unit on Tourette’s syndrome, they’ll see Chris Jackson, the basketball player, and say, Yeah, I know someone like that. For the issue of multiple personalities, I’ll show them a scene from Primal Fear or Sybil. That’s the stuff that interests them, and I think it’s a better discussion generator.” Other health-ed teachers in Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island City say that they use snippets from commercial films ranging from And the Band Played On (AIDS), to Rush (drug addiction), The Accused (rape), and This Boy’s Life (alcoholism and domestic abuse).

In short, teachers seem to be deciding what constitutes a “classroom film,” since the movies designated as such aren’t up to the task. As Ken Smith explains, “My point has always been that nothing can be resolved by a 10-minute video. In the years following World War II, people were terrified of the world, and of how to teach their kids to fit into this alien, strange place. So they said, We can’t handle this—let this movie take care of it. And the adults of today are just as scared. But it’s always been a very American thing to solve complex problems through technology.”

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 11, 2000

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