Friday, December 4, 2009

Rebuilding fragmentary histories

Today's recommendation is Ken Smith's book Mental Hygiene: Better Living Through Classroom Films 1945-1970.
I discovered in late 2001, when I first started college. Looking at Prelinger's online archive, I felt I had discovered something nobody else had ever, ever heard of. I was wrong about that, but the un-selfconsciously obsolescent world of early Cold War "mental hygiene" films was fascinating to me. The damaged films, the cracked audio, the forgotten and insignificant images, the ideology of conformity. The lost and skipped frames.

A few months later, from Googling around, I realized there was a BOOK about these films. That book is Ken Smith's Mental Hygiene: Better Living Through Classroom Films 1945-1970.

Now, flash-forward the better part of a decade. I'm working on a PhD and my dissertation subject will likely be those films. Even now, I cite Ken Smith on most of the work I do. Why?

First, this is virtually the only book written about so-called mental hygiene films. Many other works tangentially mention this subgenre or type of film, which constituted tens of thousands of works. But this is the only one that focuses on it in depth. Second, for a non-academic, Smith has done some absolutely exhaustive, breathtaking research. The book contains capsule summaries of several hundred of the most popular mental hygiene films as well as contemporaneous quotes from sources like Educational Screen and producers of these films. Third, Smith situates the summaries in an excellent historical overview. Fourth, he's just a good writer. I prefer this book to any number of dry academic texts. Smith conveys information in an accessible, entertaining way.

Also, there are pictures.

Like it or not, an entire generation of American students was forced to watch these films. They are a significant part of our culture and history - which is why I study them. As much as I love pretentious art films, they have little connection to the lives of The People (Whatever that is).

This book is great for people who are interested in 20th century American history, ephemera, educational history and history of educational media, new media discousres, and film history or aesthetics. I'd also recommend this book for anyone trying to research independently (which I guess would be most adjunct faculty), because it's a great example of significant research that came into being without, necessarily, institutional validation.

Although this book is not exhaustive and there's still lots to be researched (Mr. Smith: Thanks. That means I can continue with whatever it is I do), it's a wonderful place to start if you are interested in any of the above topics, which is why it's today's recommendation. Ken Smith has also written Junk English , Raw Deal: Horrible and Ironic Stories of Forgotten Americans, Junk English 2 and Ken's Guide to the Bible

all likely to be future Recommendations.


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