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Vinzenz Hediger & Patrick Vonderau, Eds. Films that Work: Industrial Film and Productivity of Media.

Vinzenz Hediger & Patrick Vonderau, Eds.

Films that Work: Industrial Film and Productivity of Media

Amsterdam University Press, 2009. 491 pp. Paperback.

To the uninitiated, musty industrial and educational films must seem improbable progenitors of a cult following. But certain of these "sponsored" films, such as those made for General Motors by the Jam Handy Organization, are as riveting and well made as the Hollywood fare of their era.

Jamison "Jam" Handy (1886-1983) is one of the unsung pioneers in visual education acknowledged in Films that Work, whose editors, Vinzenz Hediger and Patrick Vonderau, regard industrial films as "the next big chuck of uncharted territory in cinema studies." The book's 25 essays are sure-footed preliminary steps in mapping this vast, unclaimed territory, which spans Europe and America and encompasses silent films. In the U.S. alone, industrial films number 400,000; add corporate video, "which almost nobody's done serious work on, and you're talking millions of works," notes Rick Prelinger, an innovative archivist and advocate for the preservation of "orphan," or non-Hollywood films.

Viewing industrial films on their own merits, as "art" rather than mundane historical "source material," demands a recalibrated methodology. Traditional criteria, such as the stylistic merits of individual directors, have little or no bearing upon such typically "anonymous" sponsored films, which credit neither directors, writers, nor actors. Even though some uncredited works have a clearly distinguishable voice or reflect a "house style," Prelinger believes that "avoiding the auteur theory" for sponsored films "would be a great leap forward for cinema studies." Assessing sponsored films may be less about aesthetics or style than analyzing the context of their screenings, which differ from film to film. "Some of the Jam Handy films were made for just one person to see," explains Prelinger. "Maybe you're trying to sell a vice president on making a big equipment purchase." Such singularity led Prelinger to consider calling sponsored works "ephemera" when he founded the Prelinger Archives in 1982, an invaluable collection of educational, industrial, advertising, and amateur films.

One useful critical approach advocated in Films that Work is loosely--and sometimes pedantically--labeled "rhetorical." Paradoxically, the compelling rhetorical analysis by Ramon Reichert, "Behaviorism, Animation, and Effective Cinema," eschews the term. Reichert catalogues the persuasive strategies employed in McGraw-Hill management training films. (The company's initial films in the late 1940s were versions of its textbooks geared to reach a wider audience.) Reichert calls his compendium "rules of showing," or "a pedagogy of images." The McGraw-Hill films aim to "popularize knowledge." This they do, says Reichert, by directing and controlling the viewer's gaze through a "surplus of theatricality" that includes animation, special effects, zooms, and wipes. For instance, the zoom, "a gestural method of emphasis," confers special meaning upon an object. This is seen in McGraw-Hill's Internal Organization (1951), which zooms only the upper echelons of an organization chart, thereby forsaking the bottom-dwelling "worker." Furthermore, alternative readings of the chart are prohibited through the univocal/visual expedient of an authoritative voice-over in tandem with animation. Such clean linearity, which admits no interpretative play, is the perfect visual expression of "scientific management"--the dubious promise of efficiency marketed by Frederick Taylor as the means to workplace harmony and prosperity.

In 1912, Frank and Lillian Gilbert, of Cheaper by the Dozen fame, tried to "out-Taylor Taylor" by filming the hand motions of factory workers who built braiding machines used to make shoelaces and electrical insulation. In "Images of Efficiency," Scott Curtis uses the Gilberts' motion studies to probe the rhetoric of the scientific film. The Gilberts lighted upon the New England Butt Company of Providence, Rhode Island, placing workers and their tools in a specially constructed room to better film the lighting conditions (thought to be a key factor in efficiency). To give their motion studies a scientific gloss, the Gilberts always filmed each worker against a background grid pattern, ostensibly to facilitate the measure of movements. (The idea was to examine the film slowly or under a magnifying glass.) However, Curtis ascertained that workers were rarely filmed from angles and heights that would yield accurate measurements. The Gilberts also placed a chronometer in view of the camera to measure the duration of any movement. Gilbert boasted that his motion studies of surgeons used a "microchronometer" that "records times to the millionth of an hour." Curtis politely dismisses this claim as "bluster," noting the incongruity of finding such extraordinarily precise measures of time tied to blatantly inaccurate measures of distance--and that, at any rate, such small measurements would be useless. Curtis concludes that the Gilberts' motion studies were more of a marketing ploy than a scientific tool. Gilbert admittedly used his films to lure new customers, or, as he put it, to "chloroform" potential clients.

Like the Gilberts, Jam Handy was a master salesman, but of an entirely different ethical coloring. Handy described his work as "accelerating education" by putting pictures in people's minds. One of his adages was, "What goes in one eye doesn't go out the other." Thomas Edison confided to Handy his disappointment at seeing the motion picture--which he had envisioned as a revolutionary educational tool-- used as entertainment. Handy replied: "Let me save this daughter of yours from the life of shame to which the motion picture industry has led her." In a career spanning nearly 70 years, the Jam Handy Organization produced some 7,000 motion pictures. "Few if any production units in or out of Hollywood can boast of having produced so many films over such a long period of time under the supervision of just one person," Prelinger notes in "Eccentricity, Education and the Evolution of Corporate Speech." Some of Handy's films reached an estimated 20 to 30 million viewers and were well represented at the New York World's Fairs of 1939 and 1964. The 115 films (from 7 to 40 minutes) Handy made for Chevrolet from 1935 to 1941, for example, were produced expressly for theatrical exhibition and mixed education and entertainment.

For a sampling of Handy-style drama, I direct the viewer to the antiunion film he made for General Motors in 1945: The Open Door: The Story of Jim Baxter, His Family, and His Job. (The film is available online through the Prelinger Archives.) I defy anybody to watch Part I--which ends midstream during a tirade Jim Baxter is unleashing on his boss--without immediately clamoring for the missing Part II. And in a more sentimental vein, Always Tomorrow (1941), the Coca-Cola story seen through the eyes of a Horatio Alger-like bottler, could be mistaken for a Frank Capra feature.

Prelinger argues that this original and idiosyncratic thinker's work merits serious scholarship, calling Handy's style one of a kind. A proper analysis of Handy's "representational strategies would have to consider such attributes as its frequent deployment of animation, including a number of striking, stop-motion animation sequences that recall the work of Oskar Fischinger." That Prelinger's embryonic assessment of Handy's oeuvre--one of Films that Work's highlights--circumvents his own call to side-step the "auteur theory" doesn't really obviate this potential strategy for coming to grips with sponsored films. Rather, it simply points to the profound heterogeneity of this uncolonized supra-genre.

Tony Osborne

Gonzaga University
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Author:Osborne, Tony
Publication:Film & History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2010
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