If I move in scale from the Oak Street Cinema (312 seats) to The Trylon Microcinema (92 seats) the next logical step in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area would be to a subculture of individual collectors with a library of prints and no fixed venue in which to screen. Fellow film fanatic, Mike Dust, is one such aficionado who satisfies his particular habit with the ‘educational’ film. Following the model of pioneering archivist Rick Prelinger, Mike and his fellow enthusiasts treat these ephemeral films as a mid-twentieth century folk art form, celebrating the notable auteurs of the field.
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 an educational film. Some of the prints were obviously related to the content of a class; “Hemo the Magnificent” for instance, a movie about the circulatory system shown in biology class. I suspect that the school owned a copy of this film, because after we watched it, we received 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 throughout the four seasons, however, seemed unmotivated by the content of math class. Even at age twelve I wondered if the teacher had needed a break that day and had projected whatever random print happened to be circulating through the small towns of Wisconsin.
Later, as teenagers in Driver’s Education, the instructor subjected us to the infamous shock films depicting the aftermath of deadly car accidents. These movies, with titles such as “Highways of Agony” and “The Last Prom,” were 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, I recall the whole school population assembling in the gymnasium to watch a short movie produced by the Blue Bird Bus Corporation, a pedestrian demonstration picture about the yellow buses that we all rode to and from school. A one-minute portion of the movie had been shot in front of the Amery Middle School. The film crew for the production had presumably been tasked with finding a tight circle that a bus could navigate and had chosen our roundabout. The students joked restlessly through the film’s first four minutes and then suddenly fell into a reverent silence. We sat together inside of our school gymnasium watching a projected movie 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 tight 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 movie lent them a heightened reality. Ironically, representation on film seemed to render one’s life more real.
From the 1930’s until the mid 1980’s, universities and public libraries purchased 16mm prints from educational film producers. I can still clearly picture the logo for ‘Coronet Films’ from the title sequence of movies projected in the Amery schools. Coronet distributed many of the famous social engineering films of the 1950’s that subsequently became fodder for ironic 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 films 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 divisions in the educational film business.
In the 1990’s, as digital media began to replace the damage-prone, space-consuming analog formats, libraries and schools deaccessioned their 16mm film collections, sometimes simply abandoning the prints in a dumpster. And, thus, a slow transference of these materials occurred from institutional libraries and archives to individual collectors.
National Projects was the name under which my friends Matt Bakkom and Mike Dust organized public art events. (Matt and Mike, incidentally, were the next two projectionists in succession after me at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.) They’d adopted their organizational title from the Sam Fuller film “Underworld, U.S.A.” National Projects staged outdoor summer film series in public parks and Mike regularly projected movies from their growing collection in a downtown Minneapolis bar. Mike Dust is tall, speaks in a hushed, self-effacing tone and wears suits from the early 1960’s that he collected in thrift stores during the 1980’s; I think of him as the Jimmy Stewart of Minneapolis. To introduce the educational film 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 presented a weekly program of thematically related films, led discussions and even administered quizzes. The theme for a typical screening might be ‘weather.’ Mike would scan through his racks of metal film canisters and choose titles such as “Weather for Beginners,” “Weather: Understanding Precipitation,” “Inconstant Air” and the exciting “Weather Watchers” from 1980, which profiled then-vanguard forecasting technologies and featured turbulent, time-lapse cloud footage set to a pulsating, Terminator-style synthesizer score.
The program that I’ve just described, screened in a bar by a stage professor in a period suit, suggests an arch, hipster affectation played for laughs with an attitude of condescending irony. In one sense that’s exactly what it was for the audience. But that characterization implies that Mike Dust assumed an attitude of superiority toward the films, which couldn’t be further from his intentions. Mike loves educational films; they represent for him a neglected and under-appreciated auteur cinema, much of it stylistically eccentric and also reflective of the era in which it was made. He has developed the same appreciation for these films that I have for drive-in intermission films and movie trailers. Because the directors of these projects worked within small budgets, but with limited oversight, their peculiar individuality was often expressed in the style of the movies. As Mike’s personal archive grew, he began to identify some of 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 relative independence in the production process 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 ‘director under contract’ system in the Hollywood studios of the 1920’s through the 1950’s, 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 subject matter, and by the 1970’s, he had developed a personal style that also 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.”
One of the strangest Wilets’ films Mike has shown me, that reflects this transition well, is “Man and the State: Hamilton and Jefferson on Democracy” from 1975. In the early 1960’s this movie would have been made as a dry series of photographic dissolves accompanied by a voiceover narrative and perhaps, if the budget had allowed, a sincere reenactment of a debate between the historical figures in period costume. As his film begins, Wilets himself appears on a minimal, stylized set, adopting the attitude of 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, as if channeling the modernist tactics of Luigi Pirandello, then brings Hamilton and Jefferson back to life to debate. Before the arguments begin, however, the resurrected personalities slowly accept that they are alive again and express annoyance that the director has meddled in their fates.
Mike was so impressed by the mid-1970’s self-conscious Wilets’ style that, in his current job as director of the media department at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, he shot an educational project for the museum called "Rapid Image Absorption" in the same manner. 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 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 also an implication of the same influence that transformed the design style of the period: psychedelic drugs. Young filmmakers entered the business of making educational films in the 1960’s and they brought the experimental Canyon Cinema aesthetic to bear upon their work; educational films began to reflect the attitudes of hippie modernism. A routine movie about the manufacture of tennis balls was thus transformed into a Roger Corman LSD freak-out scene, shot with fish-eye lenses and frantic telephoto zooming and 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 personally drawn to 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.” In these movies, sincere bearded sociologists perch without irony on cubes upholstered in shag carpeting, interviewing middle-aged men about the buried and native sensitivities of their youth. We first see black and white photographs of these men in the late 1950’s wearing heavy, black-rimmed, ‘dad’ glasses, burdened with that era’s social expectations. Then, in sudden dramatic contrast, they are shown running naked together on a beach in Northern California with shaggy hair and mutton-chop sideburns in fully saturated Kodachrome color. 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.
Twenty years after the universities and libraries 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 auteur filmmaking.
Hilde and I are often in attendance at the National Projects studio with groups of movie enthusiasts and 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.” There is a rich category of 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 stacks. 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 recognized that they weren’t exactly the same. A woman narrated one film, a man the other. The two versions were visually identical to a certain point and then departed from strict synchronization. After 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 specifically entitled “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 akin to my “Citizen Kane” crusader sled revelation during my Film Club days in the early 1980’s.