The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Wednesday, September 18, 2002
MOVIE REVIEWS: "All films eventually become documentaries." I'm not sure who said that first, but it was posted next to one of the shelves at
Cinefile, my favorite local video store when I lived in Los Angeles. If you're not sure what the quote means, you should examine the "ephemeral" movies collected by Rick Prelinger, many of which can now be viewed online. His archives range from the capitalist realism of Master Hands, a Riefenstahlian tribute to the auto assembly line, to Perversion for Profit, a Charles Keating-financed anti-porn flick that includes the classic line, "Very few blind people join the nudist colonies." There is also a rich collection of classroom films.

The last group brings back memories. When I was in elementary school in North Carolina, from 1976 to 1982, the A/V department's movie collection was inexplicably skewed toward already anachronistic artifacts of the 1950s. I would watch these pictures built around the story frame of a "typical day" -- films about dental hygiene and the like -- and I'd wonder just whose day was supposed to be like this.

The most puzzling screening that I remember had to do with railroad safety. Chapel Hill, you see, was not exactly rife with trains. Nonetheless, a heavily accented man introduced the film with a stock speech, no doubt written with more-rural districts in mind, about how "Every year, lots of kids, just like you, are hurt or killed playing at the railroad tracks." Then came the movie, memorable mostly for its forceful admonitions not to throw rocks at trains. "Remember, that engineer might not be your dad, but he's someone's dad" -- cut now to a man in a hospital bed, half his face covered with a bandage, a distraught son moping by his bedside. I can't speak for all the kids at Glenwood Elementary, but it had never occured to me to throw a rock at a train, and I'd never heard anyone else discussing it either. If anything, the movie was putting ideas in people's heads. Good thing there weren't any trains nearby to throw rocks at.

I don't want to give the impression that the school's materials were entirely geared toward rural children of the 1950s. In an effort to be "relevant," an awful lot of the storybooks in my second-grade classroom seemed to involve the lives of black kids in northern inner cities. Since we were in North Carolina, these books resembled the actual lives of none of us, black or white.

Anyway. My favorite classroom movie was probably either Telezonia, a quasi-psychedelic paean to the telephone system, or an animated fable, title unfortunately forgotten, about a rude little boy who quite literally turns into a pig. I can still remember vividly the weird scene in Telezonia in which the protagonists discover that there's no Q or Z on their phone dial. Instantly, two excessively jolly people -- one dressed as the letter Q, the other as the letter Z -- enter the scene. "That's right!" they exclaim. "But you'll still see us later! In the telephone directory!"

As for the pig movie: It really freaked me out. Especially the part where the boy reveals to his mom that he's turned into a pig, and instead of reacting the way a normal mother would, she turns on a TV show about astronauts and explains that they aren't rude little pigs, no sir, not if they want to go into space.

The pig picture was a perennial; they showed it to us almost every year. In the second grade, one of our teachers, Mrs. Ponder, introduced it this way: "We're about to see a movie."

(Sounds of excitement and happiness from the class.)

"This movie is about a little boy named Johnny."

(Sounds of jaded disappointment from the class.)

"And something's going to happen to Johnny."

(Sounds of renewed interest from the class.)

At this point, a light bulb appears over my head: I suddenly know what movie they're going to show us. I lean over to my friend Jim. "He's going to turn into a pig," I say.

"What?" he replies.

I repeat myself, a little louder: "He's going to turn into a pig." He too repeats himself -- "What?" -- and I realize that he has not failed to understand me; he's failed to believe me.

But just then, a little pig head starts bouncing around on the screen, and the film's theme song begins: "Never - ever - be - a - pig! - oink! - oink! - oink!" Jim's face changes expression, and for once in my young life, I feel somewhat ahead of the game.

posted by Jesse 5:48 PM
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