They Lost It at the Movies

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

Enter Grizzle, a thug puppy with a black leather-studded collar and orange mohawk. "You wanna fly?" he asks Baxter, holding up a baggie. "I got stuff here that'll make you giggle for a week!" He offers to trade the baggie for a steak or two.

Sooper Puppy runs off to Grandpa, who lectures him: "There's real fun and there's fake fun, and you'd better know the difference. Real fun is when you like yourself enough to realize you can have fun being who you are. Fake fun is when you do risky things like taking drugs."

Mitchell's Sooper Puppy series, now in its third decade, is a classic example of what could be called the "soft sell" method of social guidance filmmaking, one that uses Sesame Street-style characters to discourage drug use. Mitchell says he recognized that in order for kids to listen, he had to speak their language.

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

A self-described "new-agey left-coaster" who admires Ralph Nader, Mitchell believes that anti-drug films are appropriate for youngsters, so long as they don't use scare tactics and intimidation. Though he confesses to having done some anti-drug spots "for the money," he is careful to stress that he's not just a camera for hire. He recently opted out of making a film about bullying, for instance, citing the U.S. military involvement in Iraq. "We were bullying them," he says. "I didn't want to be hypocritical."

In fact, Mitchell can afford to be choosy, at least in part because his films -- the Sooper Puppy and his What Tadoo child-abuse prevention series in particular -- continue to fly off the shelves. The titles are older than many of the kids watching them.

Others in the industry can't afford to heed such ethical considerations. Scott Betz, a senior editor at Avatar, remembers working on a pro-smoking film for a major tobacco company back in the '80s. The in-house film gave "talking points" for the company's employees at a time when the industry was under fierce assault from anti-smoking advocates. He didn't feel great about working on the film, he says, but wasn't about to risk his job by refusing to do so.

"A group of actors -- and they specifically hired actors who knew how to smoke -- were sitting around a round table, all just puffing away like they've got extra lungs to spare, and one of the actors says, 'You know, they've never actually proven lung cancer was caused by smoking. There was speculation, certainly, but they've never proven it.'"

Betz laughs. "So, the idea was that if you're stopped on the street, you're puffing away, and somebody says, 'You know, that causes lung cancer,' you can say, 'Well, that's never been proven.'"

In contrast to Hollywood, where Jeepers Creepers 2 is at the top of the box office one week and gone from the public consciousness the next, social guidance films have incredibly long, stodgy lives. Because it's cheaper and easier to stick with the old films, they get a kind of de facto syndication on classroom Magnavoxes. The Innocent Party, for instance, makes no mention of condoms, yet it was still being shown decades after it was made.

"If it works, why change it?" author Ken Smith says. "Teaching is a big pain in the ass, so, like any job, if you find something that makes your job a little easier, you stick with it."

Which might be okay if the films in question are made by a "forward-think filmmaker," as Mitchell describes himself. Still, even he finds the trend of using the same films year after year troubling. "Information changes. You always need to update everything," he says.

Most teachers say they are allowed to use whichever films they want to in their classrooms, within reason (no porn). Most in St. Louis get their films from the Cooperating School Districts, an educational consortium that supplies educational films to nearly every school district in the city, and whose catalogue is stocked in part by Phoenix. Teachers also buy films from regular video stores, from mail-order catalogs or from advocacy groups. Generally, they're expensive.

"Nobody can afford to buy new videos every year," says Graves, the guidance counselor at Adams Elementary, who shows anti-drug videos to some of the kids she counsels. "When new things come up, I just check out a video. That way I can have a variety." She rents films from the city's public film library downtown, from the school's library and from anywhere else she can get her hands on them.

Whether the films are worth obtaining at all is doubtful, according to New School professor Elizabeth Ellsworth. In her essay "Educational Films Against Critical Pedagogy," Ellsworth argues that the narrative structure of many guidance films "could be described as that of a son learning at the knee of his father. [The viewer is] positioned optically and narratively at the side of the already knowledgeable, white, male, paternal narrator."

But seriously. Sooper Puppy is not the enemy. The influence of social guidance films pales in comparison to the new media that dominate kids' lives. In a culture so saturated with visual images, where kids are understandably confused about whether The Sims or The Bachelor offers a more authentic version of reality, social guidance films are the least of our problems. In fact, kids don't generally learn their morality from guidance videos anymore, Ken Smith says.

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