NORTH ADAMS — Skip Elsheimer helms the AV Geeks Educational Film Archives, which collects old 16mm films, ranging from mid-1960s predictions of what the year 1999 would be like and instructions on appropriate lunchroom behavior, to Army instructions on finding booby traps and public health films urging children to not go to the bathroom outside for fear of worms.
These are the kind of films that any person of a certain age has encountered at some point in life — a lot of Elsheimer’s mo vies were originally seen in schools or businesses — and ve ry often left a vague, odd memory in the mind of the viewer.
He will screen films from his collection tonight at 8 in the Eclipse Mill, Loft No. 101 for a suggested donation of $5.
Elsheimer has put together a show — part of a larger fund-raising and awareness tour — of what he calls “nightmare fodder,” films that he’s had people contact him about, haunted by the sketchy memories of being shown them in grade school, such as “Tooth ache of a Clown,” which aims to lessen anxiety about dentist visits.
“That one is actually meant to soften the fears, but in stopping one fear, they reinforce another fear that kids have, so it’s really poorly conceived,” Elsheimer said.
Elsheimer will also show “The Dirt Witch Cleans Up,” which promotes cleanliness and is by the same filmmakers, adopting a similar horrifying tone and technique.
Elsheimer points to “Cipher in the Snow,” a 1973 film production by Brigham Young University, as one of the most legendary of the films he is showing. He’s always getting phone calls and questions trying to clarify what exactly it was that was seen as a child.
” ‘Cipher in the Snow’ is a very fascinating film that has traumatized an entire generation of kids,” said Elsheimer. “The question I get is ‘I saw this film when I was in the 4th grade that has this kid getting off a school bus and he dies. What is that film? Why did they show that?'”
” ‘Cipher in the Snow’ is that film. The premise of the film is that the little kid dies because nobody loves him. It’s a very strong film meant for parents, for adults, that talks about nurturing a child as just as important as the physical aspects of it. It’s very melodramatic in that regard, but to show it to kids is a travesty.”
Elsheimer will also show “Safe Play – Danger Places” and “Dead Is Dead.”
Elsheimer says that he is discouraging kids from attending the screenings. The hindsight of adulthood is probably a necessary component to walking away unscathed from some of these. It’s the intensity of such films that continues to draw Elsheimer to amassing and screening them.
“That, ultimately, is why I collect the films that I collect,” he said. “Certainly, they’re corny and silly and all that, but there are some deliberate decisions that the filmmakers made, just like a real feature film, and so to think about that critically, think about how they went about trying to accomplish what they wanted to accomplish. Did they succeed? Or did they way over exceed? Did it really go beyond what they could have possibly imagined?”
Elsheimer stands at the center of a movement that understands these classroom and organizational films represent a cultural history of the United States that Hollywood could never hope to match.
“You get to see parts of America, and parts of the Am erican experience, and hear accents that you wouldn’t hear in a Hollywood film,” Els heimer said. “That, I think, is interesting, too. There’s a value to these beyond just what the educational value is. They capture parts of cities and how people lived and how they looked and what clothes they wore and how they spoke in different places.”
Elsheimer began collecting films in the early ‘90s. He was in a band doing noise projects. Seeking stage props at a government auction, he would pick up odd items, from CPR dummies to 16mm projectors. Elsheimer found films to screen on that projector and use in the band performances. Soon he provided the service to other bands, and then finally his own screenings.
“Something clicked in my head, and I started actively looking for them and seeing them show up in school auctions,” he said. “Now, we’re at more than 24,000. I’m a little more selective with collections, because with the collections, there’s a lot of duplication in what I have, and I don’t need the same ‘Fat Albert’ episode over and over and over again.”
The genres that Elsheimer loves the most are religious films that deal with the Apocalypse and venereal disease films.
“I hope to do a book or documentary about the history of venereal disease films, because it’s a fascinating history when you look at it and what it reflects about culture,” Elsheimer said.
Elsheimer says that the world is still rich in collectible films, largely because he’s dealing with a second wave of collection — the people who rescued film collections from institutions that were going to toss them out the first time around are now looking to unload the results of their efforts.
This has coincided with an academic interest in the films — books about them have begun to appear and academics now look at them for their importance to social and cultural history.
Elsheimer’s purpose in em barking on this screening tour is to widen accessibility to the films. His plan is to raise money in order to digitize at least 1,000 films and make them available online (he previously has been able to put 600 titles online)..
“You start getting academics, you start getting researchers, you start getting people who contribute,” said Elsheimer, “who look at the films and add to them, and there’s some creatives out there, documentarians. putting them online suddenly gives them this new life.”
“I love showing the films, but I can’t get to every person out there. And I don’t want them coming to my house, where all of these films are stored, so this is a way to give access to them 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and people can watch them and comment on them, and use them how they want.”
Once Elsheimer is finished with this leg of his mission, he plans to consult with other archives — both private and institutional — and help them use the fundraising model to digitize their collections, as well.
It’s a no-lose situation to make the films available, either for study or amusement, or even source material for artists and musicians. And then there’s the personal element that is hardly ever considered.
“Once I put something online and a filmmaker, contacted me and was super excited to see that there was new life for his films,” Elsheimer said. “He was actually able to show his friends and family the film that he made back in the mid-’60s. I’ve had quite a few interactions with people who were in these films and like ‘Oh my god! I found this film and I’m in it!'”
“I try to get stories from them and share this information because they were small productions and they were made all over the United States. It was literally filmmakers would go to a school and ask who wants to be in this film, and then they would audition people. Well, sometimes they audition them, sometimes they don’t.”
Instructional film is a form that still exists, just in a different way. What we think of as shadowy nightmares from our childhood are still being produced, and the efforts of people like Elsheimer can create a historical thread of the genre through the decades.
“It’s not gone away. It’s not on film anymore, but it’s on DVD or you watch a Web broadcast of something, training videos, training films, school still shows moving images that are education or promotional. That process of transferring information has not changed, it’s still an important and efficient way of getting ideas across, it’s just the medium has changed.”