When I was young in Amery, Wisconsin, the appearance of a 16mm projector during class brightened the school day considerably; we were going to watch a movie! Some of the films were related to the content of a class; Hemo the Magnificent, presenting the circulatory system, shown in biology class. The school probably owned a print of Hemo, because after we watched it, we took a mimeographed quiz. “Hemo is the Greek word for . . . ?” or “How long does it take the heart to pump a quart of blood?” A film about the life cycle of the gray squirrel and its habits through the different seasons, however, seemed unmotivated by the content of math class. Even at age twelve, I wondered if the teacher needed a break that day and projected whatever random movie happened to be circulating through the small towns of Wisconsin.
As teenagers in Driver’s Education, the instructor subjected us to the infamous shock films about deadly car accidents. Titles such as Highways of Agony and The Last Prom intended to frighten us into safe driving habits and would have been at home in the gore-a-rama drive-in programs of the era.
During the sixth-grade, the whole school assembled in the gymnasium to watch a short produced by the Blue Bird Bus Corporation about the yellow buses that we all rode to school. A one-minute scene of the movie had been shot in front of the Amery Middle School. The crew for the production, apparently tasked with finding a tight circle that a bus could navigate, had chosen our roundabout. The students joked through the film’s first four minutes and then suddenly fell into reverent silence. We sat together inside our school gymnasium watching a projected moving image of the outside of our school, the recognizable roundabout with the American flag blowing in the wind. We cheered as Blue Bird buses executed circles expertly. The excitement was analogous to watching the home movies my parents had shot, but on a more exulted scale. To see one’s familiar surroundings in a film lent them a heightened reality, seemed to render one’s life more real.
From the 1930’s until the mid 1980’s, schools and public libraries purchased 16mm prints from educational film producers. I can still picture the logo, ‘Coronet Films,’ from the title sequence of movies shown in class. Coronet distributed many of the famous social engineering films of the 1950’s that subsequently became fodder for parody. Representative titles include: Fairness for Beginners, Are You Popular?, Self-Conscious Guy and Choosing Your Marriage Partner. The prolific, government-subsidized National Film Board of Canada produced the animated shorts I had shown to my students when I started teaching at the Arts High School. Traditional book publishers like Encyclopedia Britannica and McGraw Hill also had educational film divisions.
In the 1990’s, as digital media began to replace the damage-prone, space-consuming analog formats, libraries and schools deaccessioned their 16mm collections, sometimes simply abandoning the prints in a dumpster. And, thus, a slow transference of these materials occurred from institutional archives to individual collectors.
My friends Matt Bakkom and Mike Dust (the next two projectionists after me at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts) organized public art events under the title National Projects; they adopted their organizational name from Sam Fuller's Underworld, U.S.A. Following the model of pioneering archivist Rick Prelinger, they collected these ephemeral films as a mid-twentieth century folk art form. National Projects staged outdoor summer film series in public parks and regularly projected movies in a downtown Minneapolis bar, functioning like a repertory cinema without a fixed venue.
Mike Dust is tall, speaks in a hushed, self-effacing tone and wears thrift store suits from the early 1960’s. I think of him as the Jimmy Stewart of Minneapolis. To introduce the educational screenings, Mike created a professorial alter ego named Dr. Richard Brinkman as a composite of his fifth-grade science teacher and computer animation pioneer John Whitney. Dr. Brinkman presents programs of thematically related films, leads discussions and even gives quizzes. The theme for a typical screening might be ‘weather.’ Mike scans through his racks of metal film canisters and choose titles such as Weather for Beginners, Inconstant Air and Weather Watchers from 1980, which profiled then-vanguard forecasting technologies and featured time-lapse cloud footage set to a Terminator-style synthesizer score. The program I’ve just described, screened in a bar by a stage professor in a period suit, suggests an ironic, hipster affectation played for laughs. On one level, that’s exactly what it was for the audience. But Mike assumes no attitude of superiority toward the films. On the contrary, he loves educational films; they represent for him an under-appreciated, sometimes eccentric, auteur cinema. Because the directors of these projects worked with small budgets, but with limited oversight, their unique character was often expressed in the movies. As his personal archive grew, Mike identified the distinctive personalities working in educational cinema and sought to collect their movies.
Bernard Wilets is one of Mike’s favorite directors in the genre. Beginning in 1964, Wilets directed almost eighty educational pictures, primarily for Film Associates. He describes his near-complete independence in an interview:
I had control of a project pretty much from beginning to end and I got a lot of autonomy from the companies that I released through. The projects are small enough in scope that I can usually carry them through pretty much myself. I do all the post-production work except for negative cutting because it is really a critical phase of the projects.
Wilets’ education-in-practice was analogous to the contract system in the early Hollywood studios, but on a smaller and more obscure scale. He was able to work regularly, learning every aspect of film production, adapting to a wide variety of assigned subject matter, and by the 1970’s, he had developed a personal style that reflected the dramatic cultural changes of the 1960’s and 70’s. As Wilets himself says, with unselfconscious understatement, “There was a transition in educational films in the late Sixties from rigid formula to more cinematic presentations.”
The strangest Wilets’ film Mike has shown me is Man and the State: Hamilton and Jefferson on Democracy from 1975. In the early 1960’s, this content would have been presented as a dry series of photographic dissolves accompanied by a voiceover and perhaps, if the budget had allowed, a reenactment of a debate between the historical figures in period costume. As his interpretation begins, Wilets himself appears on a minimal, stylized set, as if he's Rod Serling introducing an episode of The Twilight Zone. He draws attention to the fact that what you’re watching is an educational film and that it needs a copyright, which appears as text on the screen across his chest. Wilets, the all-powerful author, then brings Hamilton and Jefferson back to life to debate. Before the arguments begin, however, the resurrected personalities slowly accept the fact they are alive again and express annoyance that the director has meddled in their fate. The scenario plays more like a Pirandello play than a conventional educational movie.
Mike was so impressed by the self-conscious Wilets’ style that, in his current job as director of the media department at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, he shot a project for the museum called Rapid Image Absorption in tribute. His crew constructed a Wilets-like set and he wrote a Wilets-like script to be performed by a Wilets-like actor. It’s unlikely though that museum visitors in 2012, watching this unusual didactic video, appreciated the detailed homage.
When Bernard Wilets describes the transition to more ‘cinematic presentations’ in the late 1960’s, there’s an implied reference to the same influence that transformed the design style of the period: psychedelic drugs. Young filmmakers entered the educational film business in the 1960’s and they brought the experimental Canyon Cinema aesthetic into the field; the style and techniques of the projects reflected the attitudes of hippie modernism. A routine movie about the manufacture of tennis balls transformed into a Roger Corman LSD freak-out scene, shot with fish-eye lenses and frantic telephoto zooming, edited to an imitation Jimi Hendrix soundtrack. A film about cross-country skiing, Skinny Skiing, opens with a man who looks like Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmore, wearing a thin headband and a bright red track suit, striding on his skis in slow motion through a row of birch trees.
I’m a fan of the social science films of the early 1970’s, often bearing titles extended by colons: Guidance for the Seventies: Putting Yourself Together, Communication: The Sender and Fairness for Beginners: The Fairness Game. Sincere, bearded sociologists perch without irony on cubes upholstered in shag carpeting, interviewing middle-aged men about the buried sensitivities of their youth. We first see black and white photographs of these men in the late 1950’s with crewcuts and heavy ‘dad’ glasses, burdened with stodgy social expectations. Then, in liberating contrast, they run naked together on a beach in Northern California with shaggy hair and mutton-chop sideburns in fully saturated Kodachrome color; Dorothy has arrived in Oz! They sit on a cliff top against the setting sun weaving shawls for each other. These films, in style and content, are vivid time capsule documentaries of an era and its social trends, much like the animated drive-in intermission ads I love.
Decades after the institutions abandoned their 16mm print collections, Mike continues his screenings under the auspices of “Dr. Richard Brinkman Presents.” I’d like to think that every city has its secret cinemas and its own Dr. Brinkman, a researcher into the arcane corners of small-scale filmmaking.
Hilde and I are often in attendance at the National Projects studio with other adventurers in the eccentric to help Dr. Brinkman explore films labeled Fields of Space, The Trouble with Women or Bobolink and Bluejay. Some titles are self-evidently descriptive: Kittens: Birth and Growth, Summer is for Kids or Finding Out About Rocks. Others are more inscrutable: Development, Hats Can Be a Scary Thing or Time Is. And there is a rich tradition of the educational film as vicarious travel: 1952 Portrait of Iran, Handicrafts of Belgium and an entire Going Places series narrated by journalist Lowell Thomas.
Dr. Brinkman periodically discovers small art film treasures in the racks of canisters. One day he found that he had two prints of the famous Charles and Ray Eames’ film Powers of Ten. However, when he projected the two prints simultaneously side-by-side, he realized that they weren’t identical. A woman narrated one film, a man the other. There were also visuals differences in the films after a few minutes of running in sync. With a little online research, Dr. Brinkman learned that the print with the woman narrator was made in 1968 as a prototype for the final version from 1977 and is formally called A Rough Sketch for a Proposed Film Dealing with the Powers of Ten and the Relative Size of Things in the Universe. Dr. Brinkman’s pleasure of discovery must have been similar to my Citizen Kane crusader sled revelation during my Lawrence University Film Club days in the early 1980’s.