By Farran Smith Nehme and Vadim Rizov
Vadim: Watching a smattering of the many educational shorts collected in the How To Be A Man/Woman sets compiled by A/V Geeks, distributed by Kino Lorber and viewable on Fandor, what struck me first was the vast distance between what the ultimate moral was intended to be and how much the film could actually say. In my Austin childhood, the only whiff of euphemism during our sex ed units (pretty much the only time we watched these kind of moralistic industrial movies, aside from fourth grade’s baffling unit on “Finding Your Niche”) was the name of the annual undertaking: “Making Healthy Choices.”
Otherwise, we got started in third grade with a surprisingly blunt video about AIDS, complete with Magic Johnson warning us against the dangers of unprotected intercourse. (Lots of “EWWWWS” ensued.) I suspect the early start had something to do with the many daytime talk shows that were peaking in the mid-90s: “My 10 Year Old Daughter Is A Slut” and variants thereon were regular staples of Montel Williams, Sally Jessy Raphael, Ricki Lake et al.
Farran: Clearly, in Austin, y’all were a bunch of hippies. In Alabama classrooms during the Reagan era, abstinence wasn’t a newfangled buzzword, it was how you’d better be living, or else. These types of films were shown either during physical education class or home economics. I negotiated my way out of PE and I gave up on Home Ec in high school after I was blackballed from the Future Homemakers of America in middle school, due to a regrettable incident where I sort of set the kitchen on fire. So my sole encounter with a sex-education film was biology class, taught by a woman who introduced the evolution unit by telling us she didn’t believe in any of this stuff, but it might be on the SAT, so here goes. The sex ed film focused on human reproduction, depicted via minimal animation showing tadpoles swimming toward large concentric circles. Once the tadpole made contact with the circles–and come to think of it, they may have cut away from that moment, to a fire in a fireplace or the snow against the window–the film was all about the fetus.
Vadim: It’s hard to think of a more euphemistic contrast than The Wonders of Reproduction(1950), which keeps its attention rigidly fixed on fish pregnancies. This is certainly going the long way round.
Watch The Wonders of Reproduction on Fandor:
Farran: The Wonders of Reproduction reminded me of The Wonders of the Ovum or whatever the hell I was shown, in that it was equally nervous about accidentally revealing anything we might want to try ourselves, and equally boring. It gave me new appreciation for Pauline Kael’s line in her review of The Blue Lagoon, where she said the costars’ grapplings were about as erotic as watching guppies mate. I bet, however, that I could show “The Wonders of Reproduction” to my seven-year-old son and he would be fascinated, given his habit of announcing weird animal factoids at the dinner table.
Vadim: Worth Waiting For (1962) is a much more accomplished piece of work than Wonders of Reproduction, but still a thoroughly disingenuous product. I’d totally agree with no one getting married at age 17 (or 20, or 25, but whatever), and this is a pretty reasonable half hour on the disadvantages: the rough economic downward spiral of dropping out of school into a dead-end job with no opportunity for advancement or time for night school, moving back in with parents, stress, etc. But the film utterly neglects to mention that its Mormon backers would also like you to stay unmarried for a while so you can go out into the world to recruit for the Church of Latter Day Saints.
Watch Worth Waiting For on Fandor:
Farran: Worth Waiting For I quite liked, for the rough sincerity of its inexperienced actors, the gritty, unadorned way it’s shot and its details, like the mother-in-law who’s a monument to passive-aggression. You’re right about the missionary aspect, but the larger omission was the whole reason the young couples want to get married: so they can have sex. I appreciated the teacher character, with her full well-traveled life and her boyfriend’s photo in a silver frame, but she’s 26, and it’s assumed she isn’t having sex, either. The difficulty, or what I would call the sheer irrationality, of expecting someone to be a virgin at that age is ignored. It’s Worth Waiting For… Even If It Takes Another Decade or Two.
Saying No (1982), made before I might have encountered it in Home Ec, was a snooze to me, the importunate male so dweebish I wanted the girl to say “No, I can’t sleep with you, your lines are too predictable.”
Watch Saying No on Fandor:
Vadim: I was bemused by it, a pretty typical 15-minute how-to-say-no-for-girls primer. I actually kind of enjoyed the middle segment, a fake call-in sex advice show with random footage of the Golden Gate Bridge and young people around San Francisco, but it’s basically a pro-abstinence tract that can’t even bring itself to say the fatal word until 11 1/2 minutes in.
Far more rancid was Improve Your Personality (1951), which is basically a short lesson on how to be disingenuously nice to get what you want. (Butter up your mom and set the glasses to get access to the car; make your little brother go away by pretending to care about him.)
Farran: I loved Improve Your Personality for the same reasons you hated it. If it weren’t for the date it was made, I’d say the title character of All About Eve watched that one and took notes. “Pretend to be a sweet person”–got it.
Watch Improve Your Personality on Fandor:
My favorite was definitely Dance, Little Children (1961), directed by Herk Harvey of Carnival of Souls fame. It’s really a truncated 50s sci-fi/horror film, the monotonously sincere authorities set against moody, sexed-up scenes of the monstrous threat to us all–in this case, syphilis. The shot that hooked me was of the central girl, coming home from the country-club dance where she went all the way with the film’s Patient Zero. Hervey films her face through a screen door, and there’s such aching sadness in it. It isn’t just a judgmental “she gave up her honor!” moment, the shot evokes all melancholy first times.
I also loved the montage of sex-crazed book covers, although I wonder what poor SeventeenMagazine was doing there. And the sequence where the boys go to the drag races and pick up hard-faced, harsh-laughing girls had a great, genuinely decadent feel to it. So much so, in fact, that the movie probably runs the risk my Alabama teachers feared from showing tadpole meeting circle: It makes what it’s warning against look like a lot of fun.
Watch Dance, Little Children on Fandor:
Vadim: At least there’s a frankness in Dance, Little Children about tracking the sexual partners that spread syphilis; it’s a pretty non-judgmental piece of work about premarital teen sex, and its portrait of guys picking up small-town girls at drag races is pretty eye-opening for the time period. But the only short that made a real non-ironic hit with me was Girls Are Better Than Ever. It’s super-swinging-60s (it reflects current cinematic idioms better than most of the willfully stiff shorts), and it’s blunt about why girls should exercise: to get men! The shot of a camera placed just beneath the bottom of an oversize girl on a bike is really unkind, but at least it’s clear on the point.
Watch Girls Are Better Than Ever on Fandor:
Farran: Girls Are Better Than Ever had a certain verve to it, and the music and the way-back-machine outfits were swingin’, but the overbearing male narrator killed it for me. I also noticed the girl-on-a-bike shot (why oh why must the non-svelte always be subjected to the Butt Cam?) and at that point I wanted to ask Mr. Oracular Voice of Fitness how his ass would look from a zoom lens.
Overall, the film series is quite the sociological artifact, and the shorts had a good many more surprises than I anticipated. I suppose this type of film may become more and more of a lost–well, I hesitate to say art, although several of these films are far from devoid of artistic interest, especially the Hervey. But I don’t know how a classroom film can compete with what’s available on the Internet. What would interest me, by the time my kids hit an age where they’re taking sex ed, would be seeing whether the YouTube revolution prompts a flood of young filmmakers to do their own “issue” films. What will be their approach? I don’t see them tackling fish babies, but I do hope they jettison the Butt Cam.
Vadim: I don’t think they’ll be making instructional films per se. As far as I can see, we’re going to be seeing more and more unsolicited testimonials (like the recent success of the “It Gets Better” YouTube series). As the years pass, it certainly seems like the gap between the entire moral and what the film can red-facedly bring itself to explicitly say is collapsing (in large part, I suspect, thanks to a desire to entirely circumvent teachers like the ones you’ve described). It’s hard to imagine how schools will be able to show these kind of mediated films (that look entirely like instructional videos for Wendy’s, by and large) with any degree of credibility. Though I hope not: it’s a camp archive I always find interesting.
Farran Smith Nehme blogs about movies at The Self Styled Siren, and is co-host of “For the Love of Film Noir: The Film Preservation Blogathon.”
Vadim Rizov is a freelance film writer based in Brooklyn. His work regularly appears in Sight & Sound, the LA Weekly and the AV Club, among others.