Reefer Madness and Blood On The Pavement

Kage Baker grew up in an era of educational shorts. (As did I, for that matter.) They were tiny mini-movies with abysmal production values, used to illustrate all manner of the aspects of modern life – dating, driving, grocery shopping, drug use, sex. How to brush your teeth, make jelly, interact with farm animals, survive the coming nuclear apocalypse.

They were especially shown to adolescents in junior high and high school. I think they were made by people who had a secret nihilism agenda, and were designed to discourage us from ever breeding. Or possibly, they were intended to get us to kill ourselves before we got the chance or privacy to reproduce.

The government made thousands of them, for both civilian and military education; some astonishing epics of propaganda and poor film-making came out of WWII. But the Feds had a vague idea that indoctrination films ought to be watchable, and so they hired some actual film makers: Disney. The Warner Brothers animation team. Walt Kelly, Chuck Jones, Hanna-Barbera. The run of the mill films, though, were usually produced by police forces, departments of social services, and industry promotion commissions. They employed an awful lot of film students, brothers-in-law, and guys someone knew who happened to own a movie camera …

The most famous of these nowadays is probably Reefer Madness, resurrected during the 1960’s and shown to general hilarity on college campuses. I know that’s where I saw it, and you could barely make out the screen for the pot smoke … not many of us managed to get high during it, though, because we were laughing too hard to inhale. Whether or not you agree with the film’s anti-drug stance, it is one of the worst movies ever made – they could have been working from the script of Gone With the Wind, and it would still be an awful film.

Another all-time favourite, shown to millions of kids in Driver’s Ed classes, was Blood on the Pavement. That one began with a warning that sensitive kids shouldn’t watch it all the way through (no one ever left), and ended with  blood flooding across a highway from a crushed car … I forget if the accident was due to DUI, loud rock n’ roll or prior sex when the car had been parked somewhere, but one thing was clear: it was the driver’s fault and now they were dead.

Even in those more innocent days 45 years ago, even in an audience composed entirely of Catholic school girls, the main response was giggles. Though Kage carried a small tattooed blot on one knee for the rest of her life, where a snickering classmate lost control of her fountain pen and stabbed Kage in mid-thrash.

I’ve been writing this between hysterical laughing fits of my own. On this dull, grey, cold Saturday in Los Angeles, we are whiling away the afternoon with a Mystery Science 3000 DVD. It’s entirely made from these ridiculous shorts, just the sort of wretchedly made and acted B&W film we were forced to watch in assemblies in our school years. My nephew Michael treasures this DVD – it’s his only experience with this particular genre of educational movie (kids watch other things in forced assemblies now) and they are reducing him to helpless jelly. Tom Crow and Company make the films a hell of a lot more entertaining than our whispered asides to one another in darkened auditoriums decades ago.

MST3 was one of Kage’s favourite shows, as well. Talking to the screen, making your own narrative, was a game we’d played all our lives – as most people have. Growing up in an industry household, and then spending our adulthood immersed in improvisational theatre, we were used to an exceptional standard of commenting on the screen. Heck, we were regular devotees at the old Tiffany Theatre screenings of Rocky Horror on Sunset Boulevard, which was surely the very crown and flower of interactive audience participation! MST3 is a worthy descendent of those insane nights …

So here we sit, laughing until we’ve scared the cats and Harry is bugling happily from the back of a chair. Nice way to spend a dull, grey, cold Saturday. Nicest day of the week, in fact. No heavy philosophy, no bad news, no serious discussions – just laughing until our ribs hurt, Turkish Delight to hand and bagels with cream cheese in the offing for dinner.

Sloth and comfort, sugar and butter fat. Way to go, man.

About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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6 Responses to Reefer Madness and Blood On The Pavement

  1. My mother finished high school in 1948 at a very refined academy for girls just outside of Memphis, Tennessee, called Ward Belmont. I gather it’s reasonably well accredited. Anyway, every Sunday morning’s assembly, she explained to me, began with the headmistress addressing the girls as “All my little virgins.” The girls–who were doubtless all or nearly all, in my mother’s opinion, utterly virginal–thought this was hysterical though of course they never laughed in Assembly. Your description of all those Catholic school girls giggling at the hysterical message and irredeemable bad acting in Reefer madness made me think of that. 🙂

    Anyway, it sounds like you had a day to recharge and restock, to put the anger and frustrations of the past week on a back burner, and laugh with some of the best people you know. Press on! After all, tomorrow is another day. 😉

  2. Medrith says:

    My husband was once the Quality Assurance manager for a fairly major pharmaceutical company. He insists that John Cleese made a series of serious management training films in the 80’s and that none of the other managers understood why he could not get through any of them without breaking up.

  3. Roger says:

    Hehehe. Remember them well . . . . there was a Driver’s Ed film that included a brain dissection showing an alcoholic brain and a social-drinker-after-legal-age brain. In our television production class we made a parody with an animal brain from the meat market. (BTW: we had 1 inch reel-to-reel video tape back then, black and white cameras the size of a rural mailbox on tripod dollies and an effects generator with tubes and our different effects! ). In our video the scientist somberly sliced the brain into slabs while moralizing, then somberly put some mustard on bread and casually — but sternly — ate a brain sandwich. 8-o

  4. Kate says:

    These were and are some of the funniest movies ever. I cannot believe there was ever a juvenile audience dumb enough to be convinced by them. Only purblind adults could have taken these things seriously. One of my personal favourite bits of advice from one of the dating ones was, “Never sit on a boy’s lap without something at least the thickness of a phone book between you.” I think it was intended as some sort of Bloodless Castrator, like veterinarians use …

  5. Ooh, was it the MST3K short set with the little kid rodeo? I love that one…

  6. Kate says:

    Yes, it was, Laura! it was hilarious.

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