A few years ago, thanks to an appearance on Irwin's show, I discovered the AV Geeks, whose study and collection of classroom and industrial 16mm films remains unrivaled. I immediately ordered way too many videos, and conspired to bring the man behind this collection, Skip Elsheimer, to show some of his favorite films at the movie theatre I was programming in Boston. Just being able to see these films is a delight, but Skip's presence makes them even better. He not only drops the knowledge, but kicks off every live show with a vintage filmstrip that he makes the audience members take turns reading out loud (just like in those old school days). Here's a sample. Download Quicktime file (40mb)
The best thing about Skip, other than just being an incredibly nice guy, is that he is out to expose these films to as many people as possible. That means staging inspired theme screenings - like showing movies about school bus safety on a moving school bus, or a series of films about meat in a sausage factory. He then makes many of his programs available for order on DVD. And in his generous sharity (is that really a word?), Skip also has many films available for download from the Internet Archive, or you can just watch them on-line via YouTube or Google Video.
I was a member of the AV Club in Junior High, so educational films mean so much more to me than just some camp silliness. In many ways, films like these shaped my life - or unshaped it, depending on my reaction to the film. They can be beautiful, disturbing, meaningful, head-scratching, and even painfully dull, but there's one word that rarely gets used to describe them: Art. And that's what they are. Education crossed with art. Or whatever.
Two AV Geeks shows hit New York this past weekend, one at Anthology Film Archives and one at the glamorous Spiegeltent (where he played along with previous blog faves The Found Footage Festival). It reminded me again how much I love Skip and all the energy he puts into preserving our childish 16mm past. So, in honor of the hopefully ever-growing AV Geeks cult, here are a few of my favorite films from his collection for your enjoyment.
Shake Hands with Danger (1980)
This has long been my favorite of all the AV Geeks' films, a safety film made by the Caterpillar heavy equipment manufacturing company, which gives many examples of on-the-job accidents that may befall a construction worker. It's a gem not only because of the obvious gore and shock value, but because, well, it's just darn good! The film is made by the kings of industrial films, Centron Productions, and is directed by Herk Harvey, maker of the horror classic Carnival of Souls (he even has a cameo in this film as an angry foreman). Centron knew how to get gang of rowdy construction workers to pay attention to their safety film: real-life characters, actual on-the-job situations, a narrator as homey and friendly as Will Rogers, and a truly catchy country music soundtrack. This is the polar opposite of Wendy's Grill Skills. Instead of laughing at the film, you'll totally be laughing with it.
Video: YouTube link, Internet Archive link (you can download file here)
Shake Hands with Danger song (mp3)
Drugs Are Like That (1979)
Singer, anti-gay activist, orange juice spokeswoman, and general know-it-all Anita Bryant narrated a series of PSA's for Florida television in the 1970s, that spelled out exactly how drugs are like any number of childish activities: sucking on a pacifier, taking a swim, going for the cookies, walking down the street. For added shock value the PSAs were then edited together with bridging footage of two antagonistic kids playing with Legos and talking all about drugs. The end result is so ambiguous that it's hard to tell whether this film is anti-drugs or pro-drugs. Let's just say that if you watch this film and are utterly confused that, yeah, drugs are like that.
Video: Google Video link, Internet Archive
Drugs Are Like That theme, performed by Thy Changing Image (mp3)
Sudden Birth (1966)
Perhaps one of the AV Geeks most visceral finds, and also one of the most sublime. This training video put out by the Berkley Police Department is filled with laugh out loud moments: sub-Ed Wood style acting, absurdly simplistic instructions ("Remember: keep calm"), and period charm. But then, just when you're lulled into a sense of nostalgic security, all hell breaks loose as the water breaks and a poor woman actually gives birth in the back of a cop car. I can't help but wonder if the child grew up to see this film, and if they were insulted that their birth was captured for the sake of such C-grade filmmaking.
Video: Internet Archive link
Check the Neck (late 60s)
From right here in our own back yard, the Lost Chords of New Jersey helped make this instructional video for police and firemen about the special needs of those with laryngectomees. That is, victims of throat cancer (usually from smoking), whose larynx has been removed and replaced by a small hole in the neck. So, don't try mouth to mouth...check the neck! This film is actually quite informative and it is notable that most victims found a way to speak without the electric voice boxes so popular today. But is that picnic scene really necessary?
Video: Quicktime (49mb), Google Video link
Why Doesn't Cathy Eat Breakfast? (1972)
Cathy certainly has spunk, but our persistent narrator can't get anything out of her. The question is almost like a zen koan. There really is no answer.
Video: Quicktime (44mb), YouTube link
This is a rather simple tour of a plastic factory (several, by the looks of it), showing the process for making a whole range of plastic items. Director Terry Sanders went on to do a slew of short documentary films, and is married to Freida Lee Mock (who runs the documentary department at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences), so he's no slouch. But what really sells this film is the electronic soundtrack from pioneering electronic musician Carl Stone. The film print is a little washed out, but this is still a hypnotic piece of work.
Video: Quicktime (35mb), YouTube link
Carl Stone soundtrack (mp3)