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.