by Ben Sachs
More surprising is McDonald's: Strange and Beautiful, a corporate film about the fast-food company's relationships with its suppliers. This 20-minute piece serves its function of presenting McDonald's in a positive light, yet the tone is generally modest, focusing on day-to-day concerns rather than the corporation's financial success. The editing, by recently deceased Kartemquin founding partner Jerry Blumenthal, moves smoothly between interviews with McDonald's executives and representatives from other companies, and almost everyone seems relaxed in front of the camera. What emerges is a knowing community portrait, comparable in its perspective (if not its politics) to a Kartemquin classic like The Last Pullman Car. Blumenthal often spoke positively of his work on industrial films, saying they allowed him to practice techniques that he could then apply to movies he cared about. More than a few passages in Friday's program convey the enthusiasm of filmmakers honing their craft.
That the Kartemquin folks could support themselves on industrial films speaks to the vibrancy of Chicago's nontheatrical filmmaking industry, which flourished from the late 1920s to around the early 1990s. Friday's program kicks off a monthlong series, organized by local nonprofit South Side Projections, that looks back at that industry's history, with almost all of the selections screening from 16-millimeter. The emphasis is on educational films, as Chicago pretty much cornered the market on them. As South Side programmer Michael W. Phillips Jr. explained in a recent e-mail, Chicago was the headquarters for numerous companies that specialized in movies for the classroom: Society for Visual Education, Educational Film Library Association, the American Library Association, University Broadcasting Council, and the National School of Visual Education. Two of the biggest producers—Encyclopedia Britannica Films and Coronet Films—even had ties to the U. of C. Also located here were factories for DeVry, Ampro, Victor Animatograph, and Bell & Howell, which manufactured cheap, durable 16-millimeter projectors for classroom use.
"Since these films are from the somewhat distant past, I think it's easy to get at what their intentions were," Phillips wrote of works playing later in the series, which looks at shorts from the 1950s, '60s, and '70s. "Watching them and talking about their biases might inspire us to look more critically at media that are currently used for education." In hindsight, the 1953 short The Living City—playing as part of the program "Urban Renewal and Its Aftermath," which Hoffman will introduce at Black Cinema House on Saturday, May 16—feels like an apologia for the phenomenon of white flight, employing vaguely racist and classist terms to assess the problems of America's inner-city neighborhoods and taking an unambiguously positive view of suburban expansion. Moreover the film's triumphant presentation of high-rise public housing complexes as a positive development for the urban poor now feels distressingly naive. Yet Living City is also surprisingly philosophical for an educational film, asking viewers to consider why American cities evolved the way they did and how urban environments might engender happier lives. Haskell Wexler's direction is comparably ambitious, evoking an epic sweep as it moves between case studies in several different cities (including Chicago), presenting panoramic views of each. This won an Oscar for Best Documentary Short, evidence of the seriousness granted to educational filmmaking in the first few decades of the postwar era.
By the 1970s, the educational filmmaking industry had grown so sophisticated that it began producing auto-critiques. Following The Living City on May 16 is an eye-opening 1973 short called Inner City Dweller: Housing, which considers issues of urban blight from a black perspective. It comes from a series of works produced by Indiana University that aimed to counter the white, middle-class perspective that dominated most educational films until then (as well as many that came later). Made with actors from a black Indianapolis theater company, these films show people in blighted communities struggling to improve their lives, often to no avail. The characters speak openly about their frustrations, and the narration acknowledges the social inequalities that keep black people in poverty. In Housing, we learn that the costs of maintaining generations-old homes in inner-city areas have far exceeded the rise in wages for working-class people. In Inner City Dweller: Work (1972)—playing on a program called "Using Classroom Films to Teach About Race" at South Side Community Art Center on Friday, May 1, at 7 PM—an unemployed father passes a vocational course to become a machinist, only to get laid off a few months later. (The drive to bring new perspectives to educational films also underlies a program commemorating the first classroom films made in Jamaica by Jamaican filmmakers. That takes place at Washington Park Arts Incubator on Saturday, May 9, at 4 PM.)
Like the shorts in the "Kartemquin Members' Work for Hire" program, the Inner-City Dweller films display the influence of contemporaneous developments in theatrical filmmaking. Their gritty atmosphere and semi-improvised dialogue wouldn't be out of place in groundbreaking independent films by George A. Romero or Melvin Van Peebles. One reason Phillips organized this series was to honor the artistry that unsung filmmakers managed to bring to their work. "Vintage educational films are typically remembered as jokes—pedantic, badly acted, boring," he wrote me. "But some of them were really well made and even moving."