They Lost It at the Movies

Classroom films have come a long way from those cheesy old duck-and-cover flicks. Or have they?

Michael Apple, John Bascom Professor of Education at the University of Wisconsin, agrees. "Kids have a huge amount of information about this stuff already," Apple observes. "For example, many kids that smoke pot are acing their SATs. So you have to connect this stuff with better videos and better discussions."

Apple objects not just to the message, but in many cases, to the style. The earliest mental-hygiene filmmakers were nervous about emulating Hollywood in style. "They didn't want to be too much like Hollywood, because Hollywood was part of the problem. Hollywood was bad!" Smith notes. But starting in the '50s, directors such as Art Wolf (The Bully, The Outsider and Gossip) began to ape the Hollywood formula that reigns today: more drama, less nuance.

"We live in a culture that sponsors the notion that if it's not entertaining, it's not important, and where surface counts more than depth," Apple says. "'Give it to me fast, make it seem like TV, I don't want to spend a lot of time understanding the subject in detail.'

Tom Carlson
Harper Barnes at home in the Central West End at 66
Jennifer Silverberg
Harper Barnes at home in the Central West End at 66

"The anti-drinking videos -- that show the actual bodies after an accident where underage kids have been drinking and partying -- can be extremely powerful to kids," Apple continues. "But unless it's followed up with serious discussion, it can become like one more horror movie."

Kapree Graves, guidance counselor at Adams Elementary School in south St. Louis, counters that the flashy style is often necessary in order for many kids to learn.

"Videos capture their attention, and that's what you want. Because if you don't get their attention, nine times out of ten they're not going to get the main idea. You have to capture their attention with some animated colorful video, because they won't get it from a book, or if you're just sitting there talking about it."

But, Graves says, the end of the tape shouldn't be the end of the story. "An issue may be glossed over if a teacher just leaves a video on to teach -- you can't do that. I show it, and then we discuss it, so if there is anything that was glossed over, hopefully it'll come back up in our discussion." She says most teachers make sure to follow up films with some discussion.

Betsy Foy, assistant director of student health and counseling at Washington University, believes guidance films can play a useful role in education, alongside live speakers and other resource materials. When she comes across good films, ones that present sound information in a responsible manner, she snatches them up. But she admits they're few and far between.

That's not to say that good social guidance films don't get made. Phoenix's Molly's Pilgrim won an Academy Award in 1985 for best live-action short. The film, about a Russian Jew who comes to the United States to escape persecution, stresses the importance of religious tolerance. Not surprisingly, Phoenix employees seem especially proud of Molly's Pilgrim, perhaps believing it to be proof of the genre's artistic legitimacy.

J. Gary Mitchell didn't set out to become a social guidance filmmaking god. The producer and director of the Sooper Puppy films -- some of Phoenix's top sellers -- moved to Hollywood in the early '60s to be an actor. Although he studied with Leonard Nimoy, he soured on the profession when he "realized that actors don't have any self-determination."

In the back of his mind he hoped to direct, but he didn't get that chance for a few more years, after a chance meeting -- while rock-climbing, of all things -- with a producer who had his own educational film company. The producer hired him for $100 a week and set him up with some equipment. "He gave me a script, a Bolex camera, a tripod and ten rolls of film and said, 'Here. Go make a ten-minute movie,'" Mitchell recalls.

The scripts he received had titles like How to be Good, How to Not Get into Trouble, and Riding Your Bicycle Safely. He found local kids off the street or in schools, filmed them and got their parents to sign waivers. He then turned his footage over to the producer, who added the voice-over narration. The work perfectly suited his desire for self-determination.

By 1969 Mitchell was producing his own films, using cameras borrowed from a friend. But he never saw this work as his ticket back to Hollywood. "I never got to a place where I felt like I had that much important to say," he explains. "I liked educational films, because they're short and sweet. You get an idea, you get it together and if everything goes well, you can have a finished fifteen-minute product ready to send to the marketplace in four months."

With the Sooper Puppy series, Mitchell, now 65, set out to create a character that could be used to educate across a spectrum of issues, from self-esteem to drinking to recycling. Thus was born Baxter, a lovable puppet mutt in a red cape. Sooper Puppy: Flying High deals with what happens when good puppies get mixed up with bad puppies carrying baggies. The film opens with Baxter talking with his grandfather, who tells him he can do anything he wants if he sets his mind to it. Baxter bounces around the neighborhood announcing his desire to fly.

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