Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Mental Hygiene

Written by Ken Smith, Mental Hygieve is a survey of the US classroom film from its beginnings around the end of the Second World War, when concerns over the impact of the depression and the war on the nation's youth began to belatedly be addressed, to its end around 1970, when film-makers inability to adapt to an approach of showing rather than telling rendered their work increasingly out of touch with their target audience.

Following an general overview / introduction to the form and a time-line of significant events and films, the book divides into three main sections, on genres, film-makers and the films themselves.

The genres encompass "fitting in," or conformance with social norms, mores and rules of etiquette, with much that seems ridiculously over-the-top from half a century or more distance; "cautionary tales"; dating do's and don'ts; "girls only," or menstruation; drugs; sex education; "bloody highways," with real accident footage and methods of gathering it that wouldn't be out of place in an Italian mondo film; and "sneaky sponsors," ranging from manufacturers of sanitary towels, to the meat and dairy industry, to insurance companies, to the Mormon church.

Four key film-makers, three based in the Midwest, are discussed, namely Coronet, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Sid Davis and Centron, with Smith bringing out their distinctive personalities and styles. For example, Encyclopaedia Britannica productions eschewed music, while Davis's films tended towards sensationalistic, downbeat endings of a "do as you're told or you'll be dead" sort. (Centron meanwhile was the company Henk Hervey of Carnival of Souls fame worked for; seemingly he made his only feature film while on vacation.)

Over 250 films are reviewed, in all the sub-genres and from all the producers discussed in the preding chapters, outlining the content of each film and points of significance, amusement or trivia interest, along with choice lines: "What Jimmy didn't know was that Ralph was sick. A sickness that was not visible like smallpox, but not less dangerous and contagious. You see, Ralph was a homosexual."

That almost all the films discussed are of US origin gives the discussion coherence and provides an insight into the collective psyche of the country in the quarter century following World War II. (Those looking for a comparative study with other countries are thus going to have to do the work for themselves - assuming that comparable output has not suffered a similar fate to the countless hundreds of US titles not included here that Smith indicates have been lost, discarded or destroyed.)

From the presumably representative sample available, the vast majority of the films produced were aimed squarely at white, middle class America and were dedicated to promoting social conformity.

Uncomfortable issues around gender, class, race and sexuality so evident today were never really raised, with the assumption always being that it was the individual who had to adjust themselves, their attitudes and behaviour to fit into the one true American Way.

The brevity of the films and their need to work for a wide audience precluded complexity, with issues usually being addressed in straightforwardly black and white terms, without little sense of ambiguity or nuance especially in the earlier films. This said, it was also sometimes expected that teachers would be using the films as a springboard for discussion, with Smith questioning how far this happened in practice.

It is also important to remember that these films were not bankrolled by the US government as propaganda, as had been the case with adult educational films of the New Deal and Second World War that preceded them. Rather, they were produced by private enterprises, sometimes for sponsors with a particular product or message to sell, but more often than not without. Moreover, while some of the film-makers were clearly motivated in the first instance by profit, others, like Davis, seem to have had a genuine belief in their work and the messages it was promulgating.

Omissions prove equally telling: Films about the dangers of VD invariably emphasised syphilis rather than gonorrhoea, despite the fact that the latter disease was seven times as prevalent, and never mentioned prevention in the form of the condom. Films about road safety foregrounded the responsibilities of the individual driver rather than those of the Detroit auto manufacturers, who were more interested in developing "muscle car" engines than safer vehicles until the publication of Ralph Nader's seminal and self-explanatory Unsafe at Any Speed in the mid-1960s. Films about drugs inevitably presented the one-sided, sensationalist Reefer Madness style accounts with the supposed vox pops of actual youthful users actually scripted and delivered by actors.

Conveying conformity also entailed its own contradictions. On the one hand the films promoted the message that you should be like everyone else, but on the other hand you should also resist peer pressure around drugs, alcohol, driving too fast, going too far sexually and so on. Likewise, the films never seem to have made it clear how different life in the US was from the despised USSR when being different was not an option: Yes, you could be a part of the consumer society, but what if you had other ideas about your life or the kind of things that you should be free to consume?

An interesting and informative read, Mental Hygiene encouraged me to revisit my Educational Archives box set and start wondering what's else like it is out there in the likes of the Prelinger Archives.


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