LEARNING TO BE HUMAN

The late 60s and early 70s were not only a magical time for naturalism in feature films and
documentaries; the low-budget, less-linear, against-the-grain, often dark realism of New Hollywood, cinema verité and the avant garde—also worked its way into the rarefied theater of the classroom. Coinciding with progressive developments in education and psychology, adolescent educational films of the social guidance variety were no longer solely comprised of stagey set-ups with clear, moralistic directives. In the era of feminism, civil rights and the anti-war movement, educational films were also breaking away from the patriarchal narrative with ambiguous, irresolute plots featuring discontent children and their complex emotions and contradictory behaviors. This nondidactic openness was meant
to spark thought, discussion and presumably in many cases, intense feelings among their captive, impressionable audiences.

With funny, half-improvised scenes that alternate between children just being children and children acting like they think children would, the realistic quandaries of The Bike and The Lost Puppy are the gentler entries here, compared to emotional bombshells like The Boy Who Liked Deer—one of two educational films directed by Barbara Loden years after her brilliant Wanda (1970). The Boy’s counterpoint of tenderness versus mischief is shockingly ambushed by an anguished ending which probably scarred many an unsuspecting youth (though the rebellious film also makes a point that Jason is indifferent to his teacher’s showing the mind-blowing classroom staple An Occurrence at Owl Creek
Bridge [1962]). Featuring a different kind of shock value, the deceptively low-key, psychological puzzle piece I Walk Away in the Rain revels in its enigmaticness; both its succinct argument pro non-achievement and the sung refrain of the title will stay with you long after class is over. Equally haunting is the dark, experimental Silent Snow, Secret Snow—based on Conrad Aiken’s short story. It enters into
astonishingly expressionistic, poetic territory in its dreamy, slightly horrific navigation of a boy’s complex inner world. Finally, the most fun in our Sleeping Giant classroom this year, The Fur Coat Club playfully depicts the exciting, creative (and latent sexual) side of naughtiness and would never be screened in classrooms today.

Less infamous than the gore and emotional manipulation of driver’s ed films and less campy than dated mid-century lessons on topics like hygiene or manners, these films are tucked away in their own strange section of our cinematic library, and also perhaps in the deeper chambers of many adults’ psyches. The faded and scratched marvels you’ll watch today are just a few examples of what remains one of cinema’s curious, earnest and uniquely beautiful phenomena. – Brittany Gravely

Special thanks to Liz Coffey, Tim Massett, Mark Johnson, John Quackenbush and the Harvard Film Archive.

The Fur Coat Club (1973,  dir. Joan Micklin Silver, 18 min. 16mm)

The Lost Puppy (1970), dir. George H. McQuilkin, 13 min.16mm)

The Bike (1969, dir. George H. McQuilkin, 13 min.)

The Boy Who Liked Deer (1975, dir. Barbara Loden, 18 min.16mm)

I Walk Away in the Rain (1968, dirs. David Gleissman; Don G. Williams, 11 min.16mm)

Silent Snow, Secret Snow (1966, dir. Gene Kearney, 17 min.35mm)