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DVD SAVANT
Separate Releases:

Religion
& Patriotism
The Educational Archives

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Fantoma has returned from the world of educational-instructional films with volumes 5 and 6 of their The Educational Archives series. The previous compliations Sex and Drugs & Social Engineering 101, and Driver's Ed. & On the Job were both highly entertaining and good thought pieces to peruse the distinctions between documentaries and propaganda, not to mention a society that gives any authority with a film budget license to spread its point of view into our schools.

The subjects of Religion and Patriotism are a little tougher to work with in these tense days, as criticism of any facet of either can be considered a hate crime or treason. As a rule, most of the films in each category scrupulously avoid controversy. Most are easily dismissed as too simplistic, and sometimes downright insulting. The religious filmmakers especially relied on the intimidating film media to do most of their work: "Gee, if they put it in a film, it must be true."

Once again, Fantoma's 'instructionally streamlined' presentation puts the films in a fine frame. Each disc comes with a little flyer designed like a vintage public service handout and the menu systems have friendly academy countdown leaders and cute graphics to recreate the correct audiovisual atmosphere. Rather gimmicky but fun is a second audio track for each film labeled 'classroom experience', that mixes the audio with the sound of a clattering movie projector, complete with clicks and snaps for torn film.


Religion
Fantoma
1941 - 1984 / b&w & color / 1:33 flat full frame / 10 educational films
DVD Menu and Package design Derrick Scocchera
DVD curator Skip Elsheimer
DVD Producers Ian Hendrie, Derrick Scocchera

The Breakdown:

The Door to Heaven (1941, 10 min) Charles O. Baptista. This simplistic message film is shot on dimestore sets but has a clarity of purpose that might have gotten a positive response from congregations, especially those who like their wisdom dispensed in small aphorisms: "Discipline is the door to character." The door to heaven is just a door, but the people we see entering (a little too zombie-like for my taste) are governed by a million rules. The spiel has the logic of a good sermon, starting with a rich man who can't take his money bags through the door. It's almost Jean Cocteau time, when a guy carting a big box labeled 'Sin' just can't seem to pass through either. By the time we're down to abstract concepts, the various things that won't go through the door are written on pieces of paper. But the basic message comes through: "Christ is the only door." It's cute in retrospect, but is more conducive to indoctrination than deep thought.

Carnivorous Plants (1955, 10 min) Moody Institute of Science. This is a bona-fide science film with a sneaky religious stinger in the tail. It starts out as a rather interesting short on Venus flytraps and other bug-eating vegetation but slowly starts to slip religious terminology into the mix, until the narrator decides that next to God's creation, we're pitiful pretenders - comparing a crude mechanical trap to the tiny macrobic predators in a drop of water. "All Man does, God did first" is the message, encouraging us to follow every statement about Man, with the proviso that we owe it all to the patent holder.

Atomic Energy Can Be a Blessing (1952, 28 min) Christopher. Snagging Fred MacMurray as a guest host, the Christopers' priest-guide Father James Keller has a great hook to deliver an extremely fuzzy message about atomic power. The lecture turns into a wandering survey of the atom industry. All the scientific stuff is just too complicated to explain and every concept is described in kindergarten, "Don't ask us more" terms. First we see some unconvincing demos of all the healing (?) done by our friend the Atom, then we're treated to a crudely-inserted clip from an earlier Christophers film about a father and daughter witnessing an Atom blast on the desert. The priest eventually gets the idea across that good Christians should go into the Atom biz, so as to assure the continued positive uses of the Atom (as if scientists could influence policy!) and to avoid the Ba-ad uses, like the Bomb. Very sincere, very flaky, and rather näive.

Stalked (1969, 28 min) The Lutheran Church. A real oddity. A Hollander named Rolf Forsberg apparently talked the Lutherans into backing a 35mm abstract art film with movie star Jack Hawkins, co-starring Saeed Jaffrey, with Hawkins' voice (had he lost it by this time?) supplied by Barry Sullivan. It's like a Twilight Zone episode: Hawkins leaves his cruel Wax Museum to go home to an empty world in Holland, where he's haunted by a Jesus character in wooden shoes. Huh? There's some bizarre Christ symbolism at the end, and he returns happily to his carnival life. How any of this relates to any aim its Church sponsors might have is a mystery.

Turn the Other Cheek (1958, 14 min) Family Films. Playing like a stilted 50s sitcom, this little lesson in religious civics shows how good Bible teaching (always from Dad; Mom is just an adoring onlooker and cake-baker) leads a little girl through a squabble. The still-problematic Turn the Other Cheek story sure works when it comes to petty problems, but the story insists that it's our duty to use it our whole lives. I hope the daughter gets through High School in one piece.

Of Heaven and Home (1963, 30 min) Brigham Young University. This is a big production, a dramatic story meant to inspire Mormon religious leaders who do something called Home Teaching as part of their apprenticeship. It basically involves inviting one's self into a non-meeting-attending family and 'getting involved' like a family member, which to me seems like unwanted company dropping in whenever it wants to stick their nose in one's affairs. In the homogenous, harmonious society to which the Mormons aspire, it's simple neighborly concern. The acting is very good, and the whole story reminds us of those early 60s feature films about idealistic preachers, like One Man's Way starring Don Murray.

Getting Ready Morally (1951, 10 min) Coronet. Poor drafted kids going off to the Korean War were apparently having emotional breakdowns the moment they left Mom's doorstep, so this installment in a longer series prepped them for the temptations they would soon encounter. It actually might have helped some clueless GI's get a handle on their personalities, by giving them the courage to assert their own values instead of falling into the hands of gamblers and fornicators in the ranks. A good selection.

New Doorways to Learning (1953, 20 min) Cathedral Films. Fancy stock footage and elaborate studio-level production values grace this promo for Religious films. Actors like Robert Armstrong & Lyle Talbot show up in clips to show how dramatic films can be used in church venues. The costume recreations are pretty good, too. This one ends with a shot of the old Cathedral Films building that used to be in Burbank.

Teenage Challenge (1958, 28 min) William F. Claxton. Another well produced show, this looks like it was meant to be slipped into a TV station's evening lineup. Several likeable teen characters battle over the hero's attempt to do the right thing and spread his faith. He's told his otherwise excellent theme paper can't be entered in a school contest because religion is too 'controversial.' After weathering a ribbing from unenlightened schoolmates, his message gets out, and he doesn't lose his girlfriend after all. "God needs you to care for others" is a nice message in general, but if I recall correctly, in my 1960s public school the atmosphere was quite the opposite - student writing about faith was more apt to be read in front of the class than discouraged. Half our faculty saw themselves as closet preachers, anyway. Starts with a pungent voiceover, that I think is read by the talent from The Outer Limits only with a little less irony.

Youth Suicide Fantasy (1984, 28 min) Ending the collection on a depressing note, this video-transferred to film barrage of loaded opinions and bad logic from two annoying (but telegenically appealing) brother spokesmen makes a scattershot, hysteria-ridden case against all Rock Music, even taking the time to say Country Music is no good too. With a barrage of stills and album covers the speakers condemn Boy George, Elvis & Alan Freed, Paul McCartney, John Lennon and everyone else you ever heard of. Kiss is defined as Knights In Service to Satan, and Rock is linked to every sin including teen suicide without anything resembling a cause and effect argument. The hectoring is really aimed at getting listeners to reject anything and everything in the culture, thus becoming more receptive to the narrow views of church con-men like these guys, who assume their listeners will accept their views on subjects like homosexuality without question. The scary thing about this final installment in the collection is that it shows how the media/viewer dynamic has changed: today, all we get are rabid Thought Monitors telling us how to think, and screaming at us with irrational arguments.

An added Film strip shows a little story about a boy who learns to be good by helping other people. It's well-meaning, but must have driven kids in Sunday School to tears of boredom.

Were we ever this innocent? I'd like to believe that only the very simple-minded could seriously engage with the content of some of these pictures, but they're no more obvious, really, than much of the for-profit religious television programming we have now. Even when their motives are wishy-washy, the religious men who made some of the films above strike me as being sincere and unselfish.

The paper insert for Religion is a parody of one of those tiny evangelical Christian comics that implore us through bizarre parables to give our lives to Christ. A big Devil greets us on the cover: "One Way Ticket to Hell!"



Patriotism
Fantoma
1945 - 1976 / Color & B&W / 1:33 flat / 13 educational films
DVD Menu and Package design Derrick Scocchera
DVD curator Skip Elsheimer
DVD Producers Ian Hendrie, Derrick Scocchera

These Patriotic films start with a number of fairly refreshing shows extolling the virtues of our Republic, and encouraging us to ask questions. Then the selection slides into the realm of anti-Red populist propaganda. Naturally they're a barometer of their time and not necessarily any yardstick toward today's attitudes - unless you're the kind of person who thinks that things haven't changed much and only the packaging has become slicker.

The Breakdown:

Despotism (1945, 10 min) Encyclopedia Britannica, is an interesting part-animated examination of the difference between a free society and a despotic one, using a number of relative values to indicate how free a country is. Its main positive idea is that no country can call itself completely free, and even despotic countries may have some freedoms working. This is refreshing because the terminology used cuts out the -ism labels and gets down to hard facts. Curiously, the objective standards raised here put today's America in the 'at risk' category: our information system is quickly being consolidated into one source of control, and an emergency has allowed our executive to override constitutional guarantees of illegal search & seizure, and imprisonment without trial or counsel.

Great Rights (1963, 13 min) is an animated short subject in which June Foray supplies the voice of a girl who wants to know what the Bill of Rights really guarantees. Her father has a dream where his rights are suspended, an animated nightmare of totalitarian oppression. A little dippy, but very effective in showing what's important about the original Founder's documents.

Day of Thanksgiving (1951, 12 min) Centron. Finally, a Herk Harvey production! I don't know if he had anything to do with it, but this examination of all the things we have to be thankful for around the holiday turkey is kind of a bore. The acting is okay, but the direction is stiff and the camera not always in focus.

Patriotism (1972, 9 min) Bob Crane of Autofocus talks to little kids about what patriotism means. Well-shot, but kind of a pointless exercise - who is it for, kids or adults?

Duck & Cover (1951, 9 min) The famous Nuclear scare film, telling kids they can avoid being incinerated in a nuclear blast by tucking their heads down under their desks. The backbone of the satirical docu, The Atomic Cafe, and despairing in the extreme. Lies our government told us, for our own good.

You Can Change the World (1952, 28 min) Christophers. This time the religious moviemakers hit it big by enlisting a whole room-ful of big names. Jack Benny and Rochester invite Paul Douglas, Irene Dunne, Ann Blythe, Loretta Young and William Holden to hear Father James Keller tell them the soggy idea that the "1% that wants to destroy America" can be countered, if we all just encourage people to ... I'm not sure what he wants us to do. A phone call to an absent Bob Hope adds more oomph to the argument - hey, celebrities everywhere want to defend America ... uh ... how exactly? The expertly directed and written show, which even gives subtle bits of comedy business to Jack and Paul, tells us by implication that the country is under seige by desperate Commies, and anybody decent naturally will side with the complete consensus shown in this gathering of 'ordinary' neighbors. Father Keller's line readings are much better this time around even though his message is an undigested optimism. It's difficult to tell which celebrities signed on to this oddity to help crush Communism, and which were urged by their agents to participate as insurance against the blacklist. Hey, folks, this is pretty good evidence of the linkage between religion and political intolerance in the ... oh, pardon, I forgot to stay off the soapbox.

200 (1976, 3 min) Psychedelic animation illustrates the glory of the Bicentennial with a potourri of imagery thrown at us roughly in the style of Yellow Submarine. The flag is entangled in Peace signs, and someone let the film be shown. I'll salute that.

Getting Ready Emotionally (1951, 10 min) A prequel to Getting Ready Morally, above, this dreary show tells young soldier candidates in 50,000 unnecessary words to get their act together if they want to be successful soldiers. 'Listen to adults' is something kids never heard before, but less disturbing than the advice to 'start taking the rules, advice, and counsel of one's teachers and parents, as if they were military orders.' Yikes.

In Our Hands: How We Got What We Have (1950, 21 min) The American Economic Foundation. A big steel company promotes a 'hands off industry' agenda by making the wild argument that anyone against Big Industry policies wants us to go back before there were factories and towns, to hardscrabble caveman days. Illustrating a wildly illogical argument, a husband and wife are forced to live off the pre-industrial wilderness until they bargain with a tool-maker and make some progress. Thus the modern industrial toolmakers are seen as the center of civilization, and you better believe it. Well produced, with some heavy-duty philosophical smearing of Native Americans as dopes who didn't deserve America because they didn't develop it. Nasty capitalist propaganda, this. The title would be a good intro for David Byrne: "How did I get here? This is not my beautiful house!"

Freedom Comes High (1944, 13 min) Treasury Department. Made during the war, this drama has Barbara Britton receive the ultimate bad telegram from the Navy department, after reading several letters from hubby Michael Craig, who is fighting armadas of Japanese in the South Pacific. The message telling us the sacrifice is worthwhile might do good for the fighting effort, but a lot of war widows must have had a different reaction to this pap. With solid studio production values, this was probably used by lower-rung talent to angle for better studio jobs.

Mission Sonic Boom (1959, 10 min) A condescending Colonel on a flight line of F-104s leads us on a long and boring explanation of sonic booms, and then assures us that they're not a nuisance or a health hazard, but the Sound of Security. The physics lesson is okay but the short subject expects us to be in awe of the Air Force's weapon-toys. Anybody who doesn't like their windows broken or eardrums blown out needs a good visit from the F.B.I..

Red Nightmare (1962, 28 min) Here's the #1 camp classic of anti-Commie films, the one that uses Jack Webb as our guide into a world that combines 1984 with Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The basic idea, that Commies are no longer human beings but automatons dispensing oppressive rhetoric, makes it easier to demonize the enemy. This supposedly was once an hour long and carried a different title ... I wonder if it still exists that way.

Pledge of Allegiance (1971, 7 min) Oxford films. Kids reciting the Pledge of Allegiance begin a visual roundup of citizens displaying flags, marching bands and finally flag-embossed spacecraft flying to the moon, where astronauts plant the stars and stripes really forever. The imagery and sentiment are okay but the flag is treated as a sacred object and not as a symbol for other concepts. Pagan idolatry! Shot in Los Angeles at the Wilton Place School and the County Museum of Art.

A film strip bonus is Our American Heritage by The Reader's Digest, which spells out in about 40 slides the basic virtues of our American system. One of them is that nobody can be arrested and held without trial or explanation. It's followed by a picture of a medieval prisoner with the caption, "prisoners used to be imprisoned for months or even years, without knowing why." When a reactionary mag like The Reader's Digest is telling us that our policies have gone too far, I think it's significant.

Religion and Patriotism aren't the laugh riot that were the earlier entries in the Educational Archives, but they're a treasure trove of prime-source film documentation of historical attitudes and trends. Of excellent help are the on-screen notes provided by Skip Eisenheimer, explaining what is known about the source, intent, and impact of the films without jumping to subjective conclusions, as Savant has taken the liberty of doing above. Hopefully the purchasers who buy these two separate discs to get Red Nightmare and Duck and Cover will investigate some of the others as well.


Fantoma's discs of Religion and Patriotism are a collection of surviving prints of old movies that were never considered candidates for archival preservation: they're Ephemeral Films, a name that archivist Rick Prelinger (a contributor) coined. Therefore, many of them are just as faded or scratched as they were when we saw them in school, run ragged through 16mm projectors. Although none is in pristine condition, all are intact. Comparing their sometimes icky color and lo-fi sound to more adequately preserved films isn't at all fair. Once again, Fantoma deserves kudos for packaging these unique films so creatively.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, the separate releases
Religon and Patriotism rate:
Short subjects: Excellent
Video: Excellent, it's the film prints transferred that vary from worn to really, really worn.
Sound: 16mm optical tracks, not exactly sonic perfection, admittedly.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 29, 2003


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