One look at a rickety old reel film projector, and you're back in high school health class watching low-budget corny movies -- complete with wobbly music and hairs dancing across scratchy pictures -- meant to educate us about the dangers of automobiles or the mechanics of sex years after such information would have been useful. Those who have seen Cipher in the Snow will never forget the boy who walks off a bus and does a face-plant in a drift, dead, it turns out, because nobody loved him. The film was intended to show that every kid is valuable, but instead it fostered nightmares well into adulthood -- and parents worry PlayStation's Grand Theft Auto emotionally stunts our youth?
Skip Elsheimer is the man to see to confront these repressed memories. He's collected nearly 12,000 "ephemeral films," educational and industrial movies made for a very specific audience or a very specific time.
He's got a soft spot for venereal disease films, and plans to write a book on the history, you know, when he gets around to it. In his collection, he has a silent VD flick from 1918 and an animated one by Disney. But the best gem snagged from Uncle Walt's vaults has to be White Wilderness: Lemmings, a nature documentary that ends with the famed mass suicide of the furry creatures. Not realizing this antisurvival skill was an obvious myth, the impatient filmmakers, it was later revealed, gave the pets a little assist over the cliff.
Elsheimer used to try to make arty montages and project his finds behind rock bands until he realized these films spoke for themselves. Now he acts more as curator, assembling them into different shows. Sometimes he does themes, but for his third trip down to Houston from his home base of North Carolina, he'll simply show his best acquisitions of the past year.
One film in "The Best of A/V Geeks III" does a freeze frame with cheesy horror music each time a health infraction occurs at a dog-food plant, eventually culminating in the death of a beloved pet. In "The Lunatic," a hippie travels from city to city infecting girls with VD; the title song alone is worth the price of admission. But no kitschy nostalgia trip could be complete without a film laden with outdated 1950s mores. This compilation's prized artifact gives tips for girls in want of dates (hint: be helpful and employ good hygiene). Other items may surprise you: A 1967 sex ed film is amazingly frank about how to talk to kids about the dirty deed.
Elsheimer's interest in instructional cinema began as simple amusement at the bad acting and clumsily executed propaganda. Yet he's accidentally fallen into the role of film historian. "Our cultural heritage is locked up in these little cans," he says. Aside from the obvious evolution of gender roles, these films show dramatic changes in our views on everything from corporations to the military: VD films from World War I warn that unhealthy soldiers won't be able to fight (gasp!).
But then, some things never change. "Porn is older than legitimate cinema," says Elsheimer, who has some reels predating talkies. "These films are physical evidence people were having sex." Who woulda thunk it?
When history's this much fun, you'll wonder why you slept through these films the first time.
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