Sunday, January 20, 2013

Meet the A/V Geeks Part 1

Skip Elsheimer's A/V Geeks is where classroom, industrial, and ephemeral films go for a second life in the digital age. Perhaps the most vast genre of orphan films in film history, it's also one that keeps on giving. Caches of 16mm films keep turning in public and private collections, approximately 100 miles worth of film that is still in need of proper restoration. Elsheimer's Indiegogo fundraising campaign has raised almost $20,000, but still needs the help of viewers like you. As a contributor to the campaign, I received my choice of 10 DVD's from the A/V Geeks website, which arrived in a package with an A/V Geeks sticker and my new favorite T-shirt, as well as the opportunity to vote for which films on a list I felt should be given digitizing priority. It seemed like a good time to review this impressive sampling of the Geeks' plentiful offerings, which I will do over the course of several blogs. This is only a taste of the amazing stuff in need of digitization and preservation. Click the banners to check out the A/V Geeks website and the 100 Miles of Film Fundraising Campaign.

Best of the Digitizing Campaign

A special disc included with the package of 10 discs was this generous helping of short films considered the cream of the crop of the recently digitized 16mm films, including a good number I personally voted for. With no focus on genre or film type, this gives a good idea of the wide variety of films being preserved by the A/V Geeks. All of them can be seen at, the best depository of public domain films, television, and radio in the world.

All Girl Melody Makers (c. 1941), part of Castle Films' Music Album series, stars Dave Schooler and his 21 Swinghearts performing three songs, "Tchaikowskiana", "Pavanne", and "In an Eighteenth Century Drawing Room", and true to the title, all of the band members are women, decked out in garish dresses as they play seemingly every instrument known to man. Schooler and his ladies appeared in a number of soundies (musical shorts in the 40s and 50s), the novelty naturally being that this bandleader was surrounded by dames who could play swing music as good as any man. Well...almost. They're at least as talented as any upper-tier high school band.

Narrated by Beaumont Newhall, the former curator of George Eastman House, Ansel Adams, Photographer (1957) is kind of meta in that it's a short preserved through crowd sourcing...produced by a man who was part of one of the greatest preservation houses in the country. His wife wrote the film, and it was photographed and directed by renowned documentary cinematographer David Myers (Woodstock, Marjoe), who also shot George Lucas' THX-1138. Clearly this film has quite a few pedigrees behind it, and it's a rare glimpse into the world of Adams, one of the most unique artists of the modern era. We see him playing the piano in his San Francisco home before packing up his car with multiple cameras and their equipment, heading to the beach to capture oceanic vistas, then returning home to process the film in his lab. An incredible sampling of his work is also included and savored by Myers' camera, in glorious black and white.

We shift to color with Facts About Projection (Second Edition) (1959), a film digitized by the A/V Geeks for A/V geeks! Learn through animation and demonstration the proper use of a film projector, a skill clearly needed in the digital age. In all seriousness, there is something quaint and admirable about seeing someone cleaning, preparing, and running a projector with hands-on precision. Norma A. Barts, the director of the A/V department of Niles Township High School in Skokie, IL is credited as the educational consultant, and it's probable the classroom scenes in the film were shot there. Producer Robert Longini, based out of Chicago, had an interesting career as an Army photographer and documentary filmmaker during WWII before becoming an instructor at Chicago's Institute of Design. He died three years after this film was produced at age 47.

Even with the Encyclopedia Britannica logo attached, Mother Cat and Her Baby Skunks (1958) has barely any educational value, so it must have been an especially fun treat for bored kids in a classroom tired of learning. I think a bit more credit should be given to the ephemeral film crews who had to work with animals, as they do here, creating an entire narrative out of disembodied close-ups of the title "protagonist" and other random snippets of nature photography. Mother Cat and her two kittens Blackie and Sandy (guess what colors they are) live on a farm with German shepherd Rex, but out in the wilds of the woods, when a hawk eyes three baby skunks whose mother has disappeared as his next meal, she whisks them back to her family box and suckles them to her teet, the animal kingdom's version of adoption.

A bizarre 1967 commercial for the Opel Kadett station wagon from Buick stars Alan Hale, Jr., the trusty ol' Skipper on "Gilligan's Island", dressed in character as he drives through a jungle with animals as passengers. Yeah, it's weird...the GM brand car is even branded "the mini-brute". A second Opel Kadett commercial follows, showing a female drive in the 1969 model trying to beat an elephant to a parking spot. I guess this is the mini-brute angle? A third and final commercial, again for the 1969 model, sells the car in a bizarre auto show featuring garishly outfitted elephants and women with bee heads. Does anyone remember this car?

One of the most valuable pieces of film in this digitization project is 11 minutes of silent footage of the Perry St. School, an unidentified elementary school. We see crossing guards, kids pledging allegiance to a flag on a desk, teachers using flash cards, kids reading books and coloring at their desks, collecting their milk and snack, painting a wall mural, playing instruments in music class, and other daily activities of a classroom, all in vibrant color, circa the early 1960s. One little girl who visits the school nurse looks identical to Sally Draper on "Mad Men". It's possible this footage was shot to project for prospective pupils and their parents, though there may have been other purposes for filming these scenes. All the kids are dressed to the nines and behave perfectly, though rarely acknowledging the camera, and it must have been shot in the fall or winter, as gloves and hats are worn to go outside and play.

Produced by prolific Coronet Films, Propaganda Techniques (1949) offers some interesting looks into how candidates for political office work towards getting elected, using a local town's mayoral election as an example. A reporter questions the campaign manager of the winning candidate about whether his re-election was a win for good government or for good propaganda. The manager argues that it is a win for both, but goes into greater detail about the tactics used to persuade voters into voting for his candidate, including "glittering generalities", "card-stacking", "name-calling", "plain folks", and "band wagon", explaining these industry jargon terms for us Joe Public's who buy this hucksterism hook, line and sinker. This 10-minute short is missing the credits and jumps in a few spots.

Not only your standard school classrooms were home to 16mm projectors. Sunday school classrooms would take in a movie once in a while, perhaps one like The Protestant Radio Commission's The Parable of the Prodigal Son, one told in the cheapest way possible: marionettes. And not just any marionettes, but the Mabel Beaton Marionettes, familiar to many children of this era as the puppets used in a popular TV movie, The Spirit of Christmas, containing puppet-cast versions of "The Nativity" and "The Night Before Christmas". Something Weird offers this unusual television special, produced by Bell Telephone Company. But before Mabel and her husband Les achieved Christmas puppet immortality, she published the book Marionettes: A Hobby for Everyone, leading to the couple producing a series of nine films for the National Council of Churches in a New Rochelle, NY studio, aided by their puppeteer friends and using marionettes to bring Bible stories to life for young children. This is one of those. I would love to see the rest! They made two more classroom films, Santa's Rocketship and Mayflower Mouse, the latter distributed under the title The Story of the Pilgrims before hanging up their puppet strings. It's magical discoveries like this film that vividly illustrate the important work of A/V Geeks.

With a title like Vidtronics Demo (c. 1968), this film could be anything. Thankfully for me, it turned out to be a groovy 5-minute 60s demonstration of cinema technology! A swinging chick dances against the background, awash in psychedelic colors, also seen in white silhouette. Arte Johnson shows up in his "Laugh-In" military helmet, a fat comedian who I should recognize is smashed with a pie, and our dancing girl goes from dancing to skating in a big warehouse. Finally, to clarify just what this short promo reel is actually selling, credits for "chroma-key mix", "multiple split images", "compound mix with HS-200", "single frame animation", "reverse motion", "freeze-frame", and "programmed repeat motion HS-200" are splashed before our eyes. The music, by popular jingles composer Hugh Heller, is amazing, and is available on the very rare Hellers LP "Singers, Talkers, Players, Swingers, and Doers" under the title "Take 46". I want it on my iPod! This is probably my favorite digitized film on the disc. I could play it on a loop all day and never get tired of it. And what is Vidtronics? Today it's considered the pioneer in video editing, graphics, and transfers, founded in 1966 by Technicolor and going out of business exactly 20 years later, but try as I might, very little info can be gleaned of this company's history and impact on the industry.

The disc is closed out with McGraw-Hill Text-Films' Who's Right (1954), one of a series of films based on the book "Marriage for Moderns" by Henry A. Bowman, the chairman of Division of Home and Family and Department of Marriage Education at Stephens College in Columbia, MO. New York-based writer/director Irving Jacoby was, like Chicago-based Robert Longini, an Army documentary filmmaker during WWII before forming the company Affiliated Film Producers with three other ex-Army cameramen (including Willard Van Dyke). He is best-known for his mental health documentaries, produced for Manhattan's Mental Health Board, and taught film at City College before the war. Affiliated Film Producers was enlisted to produce all of the "Marriage for Moderns" films for McGraw-Hill, including "Choosing for Happiness" and "This Charming Couple", both directed by Van Dyke, as well as "Marriage Today", "Jealousy", "It Takes All Kinds", and "Who's Boss". This film's cinematographer/editor, Richard Leacock, would go on to shoot Monterey Pop (1968), work with Norman Mailer on his notorious Maidstone (1970), and team with D.A. Pennebaker to salvage what was left of Godard's abandoned 1 P.M. (1972). The whole AFP gang also made educational films about juvenile delinquency and family life. Almost all of them are on

"Spoiled! Selfish! Self-centered! This woman believes the sun should rise and set according to her needs!" Some of the most vicious dialogue ever uttered by a narrator in an educational film is heard in the first few minutes of Who's Right! And he doesn't just attack the wife of the house, the man of the house is branded a "tyrant of medieval mold." It turns out that the narrator is just relating how this husband and wife see each other after a particularly heated argument over money, 11 months into their marriage. Through inner monologues, we hear what they continue to think about each other as they pace their respective rooms. Wife Honey's concerns are purely superficial, focused on clothes and jewelry, while husband Frank misses his friends and kvetches about his job. We see the squabble that led to their explosive disagreement. Who's right? Who cares? This is what booze and swinging is for. But just wait till you find out who the narrator is!

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