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Duck and cower
Fifties propaganda that’s all too timely at the HFA

Caution, Cleanliness, Consumerism: Selections fromthe Prelinger Archives
At the Harvard Film Archive June 20 and 30.

To launch a series called "Cold War Paranoia," the Harvard Film Archive presents this program of short films from the Prelinger Archives, a collection of educational and industrial films. Such films are usually consumed as campy fun, reassuring today’s viewers of the superiority of their own culture to that of the ’50s. But these films deserve to be considered less complacently.

"The Sound of a Stone" (1955) is striking for its forthright and complex look at how the reputation of a small-town high-school teacher is ruined when a book he assigned his pupils is found to be on a list of subversive literature. The film is one of hundreds made by Lawrence, Kansas–based Centron Productions and directed by Herk Harvey, whose only feature film, the 1962 Carnival of Souls, is justly regarded as a one-of-a-kind classic of low-budget creepiness. Harvey’s Centron films can be seen as precursors of Carnival of Souls, with which they share several features: a taste for ambiguity, an interest in outsider protagonists, and the ability to evoke the American Midwest of the period with mixed tenderness and dread. But "The Sound of a Stone" stands on its own as a thoughtful interrogation of the moral and social standards of its era. Despite its insistent doubt and surprisingly dark ending, "The Sound of a Stone" remains hopeful about society's capacity for improvement.

Optimism is also the keynote of "American Look" (1958), made by the Jam Handy Organization for Chevrolet. The film is a grateful celebration of industrial design. The SuperScope framing, both sleek and clunky, defines a world of forms freed from function (furniture, appliances, cookware, and glassware isolated against white floors and walls) — a serene, luxurious universe in gleaming Fiestaware colors. The narrator’s good cheer is unstinting: trends in design reflect the American people’s "freedom of individual choice" and their "ever-improving good taste." The film can be read as surrealism or as the literal projection of a ’50s utopia that today is still (though ironically) embraced as an aesthetic and cultural ideal.

"American Look" is a sober manifesto compared with the giddy futurism of the 1956 fantasia "Design for Dreaming," made by MPO Productions. A woman has a dream in which a masked man in top hat and tails whisks her from her bedroom to General Motors’ Motorama exhibition, where she revels in the new "dream cars," the "Kitchen of Tomorrow," and an electronic highway. Lurid and strident, this promotional musical hints at the oppressiveness of the era’s visions of technology. In the cruder films in the program, ideology comes to the foreground, crowding out aesthetic considerations with its urgent appeals to fear of an unimaginable Otherness.

In "The Terrible Truth" (1951), an anti-narcotics tract dedicated to proving that "nobody is going to stay an occasional user very long," the narrator speculates that the Reds may be sponsoring America’s drug traffic. The excellent "In Our Hands Part Three: How To Lose What We Have" (1950) shows what might happen if Americans voted to throw out the Constitution in favor of "the master state with the master plan." The message of both "Atomic Alert (Elementary Version)" (1951) and "What You Should Know about Biological Warfare" (1952) is: "Use common sense and cooperate with the authorities." In the same vein, "The House in the Middle" (1954) shows how good housekeeping can help you survive an atomic attack.

These films are notable for their disturbing blend of fatalism and optimism — words for which you may well substitute "paranoia" and "naïveté," as long as these terms of rejection don’t keep you from recognizing that the mixture isn’t dated. Fifty years later, the US government is more successful than ever at getting people to adopt a siege mentality while persuading them that they are, in spite of everything, "safe" as long as they buy into the authorities' infallibility, their threat-detection systems, and their pre-emptive wars. The alleged campiness of these films is the sugar with which American hipsters today wash down the awareness that their own society, though every bit as satisfied of its greatness as that of the American ’50s, has lost the power to represent its delusions in propaganda straightforward enough to be viewed without loathing.

Issue Date: June 20 - 26, 2003
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