For A/V Geeks grandmaster Skip Elsheimer, life is like an educational
film with a cryptically titillating title -- you never know what
you're going to get. I'm in the basement of Skip's rented house
holding an old 16mm film canister labeled Don't Tell the Cripples
About Sex. Not the most politically correct title for an educational
film, that's for sure. But hell, this is post-modern cultural archeology
after all. There are no limits to the bad taste of America's evolving
"This is an example of a film with a great title, but it wasn't
very interesting," Skip confesses with a resigned smile. "It's essentially
members of a support group with various physical handicaps talking
There are more than 5,000 films in this basement and 3,400 more
upstairs, all sealed in their metal or hard plastic sarcophagi,
rows upon rows, stacked ceiling high in alphabetical order waiting
in rapture to be spooled, projected and resuscitated. The sheer
intensity of this cultural Zeitgeist is overwhelming. I hadn't seen
this many films since the night some of my friends and I sneaked
into the cavernous Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley, Calif, looking
to borrow a print of Jodorowski's Spaghetti Sufi Western El Topo.
Now, standing in this basement in Raleigh, N.C., I felt an impassioned
impulse to vegetate among these forgotten celluloid orphans and
reminisce about the first time a film on the dangers of venereal
disease was projected onto my virginal psyche. How about that first
car safety film? Remember those maimed body parts splattered across
your classroom wall? So many films, so many themes, so may forgotten
memories: dating, food poisoning, fire safety, teen pregnancy, the
evils of communism, mad painters, animal mating rituals, famous
presidents. Skip seemed to have it all and then some: there were
also corporate sponsored films, rectal examination training films,
hygiene films, baking films, cop training films, you name it, there
it was, in all its quirky and potentially dull splendor.
It's hard to believe that not long ago this was the preferred means
for governments and private organizations to visually communicate
educational information to a specific target audience. Television,
videos and the Internet have all contributed to the slow demise
of this distinct cinematic form that once upon a time produced thousands
of films a year. Thankfully, Skip Elsheimer and a precious few like
him across this nation have consecrated their lives to rescuing
these little mirrors of our collective and personal past from the
depths of America's dumpsters. These films reflect a time lived
in the mists of desegregation, imperial wars, cultural and sexual
revolutions coupled with the terror brought by that savage onslaught
of puberty and its festering pimples, neo-fascistic cliqus and repressed
pre-marital sexual desires.
Skip was just telling me how his obsession had slowly taken root
when we heard voices coming from upstairs. His guests had arrived.
When I had called Skip to set up an interview he told me to come
and visit him at his home in Raleigh on a Sunday night. That's when
he privately previews his latest celluloid finds to a roomful of
friends and their guests and chooses some of the material for his
monthly cinematic performance in the Triangle. His Web site (http://www.avgeeks.com/) was filled
with mind-tickling information about his past shows and having already
read some of the titles, I was ready to be tickled.
"I'm actively pursuing films that fit a specific theme," Skip told
me when I asked him if he considered himself a curator. "I'm trying
to create a certain ambiance. Tom Whiteside was doing the Durham
Cinemateque and I started going to his shows and he found out that
I had a collection of films and he suggested that I should show
them. He got me a little bit of money. The first big show that I
did was entitled: Courtship and Safety: You are Playing with
Fire. I had three projectors running at the same time. Two of
the projectors had fire safety films and the middle projector had
courtship and dating films. I would mix the audio back and forth
between them, and so you would have all these amazing serendipitous
events where you would have a couple picnicking and on the other
screen you would see a forest fire. It was a lot of work. I guess
I started with a big bang and I realized that it was really a bit
too intense for everyone involved and I scaled back to two projectors
and finally finished using one."
It was showtime, so we went upstairs where around 10 avid A/V Geeks,
all Generation X'ers, were getting comfortable in plushy sofas along
Skip's rectangular shaped living room that doubled as a mini theater.
The upstairs was as bad as the downstairs. The successful invasion
of the film canisters had body snatched every living corner of the
house. If, to this, you add more than eight years of accumulated
kitschy memorabilia, weird masks, mannequins, eviscerated electronic
equipment and the hundreds of red cylinder shipping tubes belonging
to his roommate who sells an adventure board game by mail, you can
begin to imagine the surreal environmental landscape Skip lives
Skip came upon his first educational film way back in the early
'90s when, with a bunch of folks who were collaborating on various
sound/music projects under the collective banner of Wifflefist (wifflefist.com), he won an auction
consisting of audio visual equipment: old TVs, VCRs, reel-to-reel
tape players and a 16mm film projector. They first tested the projector
with Contraception and Conception, a film someone had bought
at a flea market. That film was silent, so they got another,
Uncle Jerry's Dairy Farm. It worked like a charm and
they were hooked. Not long after that they bought 500 more for just
$50. Since Skip was the one running the projector, he started cataloguing
them. Something clicked in his head, like an impulsive reflex and
from them on it started getting easier and easier to get stuff.
Skip soon realized that some of these films had more than just
wallpaper value. "Originally when we were watching these films it
was a kind of a corny effect, making fun of the people," Skip explained.
"I didn't really look at them in any type of academic sense. After
a while, I started seeing them more regularly and realizing that
a lot of these films I didn't want to show while the band was playing.
I wanted to show them so that you could hear the sound and the dialogue.
So I started transitioning, saying, I'll show these films while
the band is playing but I want to show this one between bands because
it has its own merits. Then it got to the point where I would be
the opening act before a band and do a half hour show."
Back in Skip's monoplex, everyone's ready to be audiovisually geeked
into retro-ecstasy. Before the lights go down, Skip announces a
surprise: the person who sold him this latest batch of STD educational
films on eBay had thrown in a free stag film into the mix. (A "stag
film" is a short XXX porn flick that was the required form of entertainment
at bachelor parties until the advent of the call-in stripper.) Skip
wanted to know if we wanted to see it before or after the STD films.
We decided to play it safe and see it after.
The first film, entitled More Common Than Measles and Mumps,
was produced in 1972 by the Canadian National Health Board was an
animated story about two not very bright working-class students
sent on a mission to investigate venereal diseases. The style was
absurd, minimalist and informative, and our two young heroes looked
more like a walking penises, except that they were purple and green.
The second film was a dramatic short called The Lunatic;
made by Centron, a company that's been making educational films
since the '40s. They've made some other classic VD films: Innocent
Victim and Dance Little Children. The Lunatic
was relatively well made with a cheesy '70s acid rock soundtrack,
artsy camera angles and a cast of performances ranging from good
to over the top that included: the sensitive teenage girl who gets
VD from her older boyfriend, a freaky painter with wild hair and
chops, and the African-American health clinic worker with an afro.
It was classic. We finished with Panties For Sale, the early
1940s scratchy and faded black-and-white stag film, starring, in
a surprising feminist twist, a traveling panty saleswoman who knocks
on the door of a guy who's fiddling with his diddle in the shower.
After some scary abstract and expressionistic close ups, the couple
tenderly hugs on the sofa. I almost had tears in my eyes.
The promised chocolate cookies were served during intermission
and the conversation switched to the spelling of the word "invagination"
as it relates to medical examinations of any folded body cavities,
armpits, etc. To our great disappointment after a quick search on
the Web we found out that invagination.com had already been
snatched. Oh, well."
The second part of the show was considerably less controversial.
We watched a "pulse taking" demonstration film and I learned that
humans have two jugular veins. Then came a cute animated short "The
Wizard," made in the '80s, about an existentially depressed little
mouse who asks a Wizard to transform him into another animal. There
are some psychedelic fantasy sequences that include butterflies
and ants with mouse heads attached to them. In the end, nature prevails
and the mouse learns that it's OK to be who you are. The feature
presentation was an episode from a 1980s BBC documentary series
on China called Heart of the Dragon. The episode was titled
"Understanding" and dealt with the intersection of modern and traditional
Chinese medicine. Beautifully shot and narrated with that impeccable
accent the Brits do so well, it was the perfect ending to a thoroughly
satisfying and refreshing evening at the movies.
After everyone had left, I asked Skip about his curating choices.
"Different films appeal to me for different reasons: some are just
funny to watch, the dialogue, the clothing, the mannerisms," he
told me while putting away his paraphernalia. "Others, like venereal
disease films, I look at a little bit deeper. I know the subject,
the history behind it, I know the challenges of talking about it:
how does the filmmaker get the message across without stepping on
toes, what are the limits of the permissible? Looking at different
films on the same subject from the same year or same company, I
can appreciate the specific style that different filmmakers, various
companies or a certain series has."
Skip's fascination with STD films is the product of a confluence
of elliptical events in his life. By pure chance, as a junior in
college, he stumbled upon a booklet published by the American Social
Hygiene Association. "I looked at it," Skip later told me on the
phone, "and it was filled with all this wonderful and weird information
about venereal disease. One article was titled: VD Control in
Atomic Bombed Areas. It was captivating and it was my introduction
to looking at a science journal for a specific audience. "Many years
later he began working for the National Aids Hotline. The hotline
was run by the American Social Health Organization, which used to
be called the American Social Hygiene Association. He wound up doing
some research for them on the type of films that they had made.
Skip is still doing research and is planning to write a book on
this very American subject matter. Meanwhile, he continues his struggle
to self-finance his acquisitions and find a suitable fireproof home
for his invaluable treasure trove. Check out his monthly screening,
blow your mind and support those orphaned memories of your past
with a laugh and a couple of dollars. You won't regret it.
In honor of Groundhog Day, the A/V Geeks present The Mole
People, a classic sci-fi film about scientists who stumble upon
ancient civilization that lives underground (show up early for a
film short from the A/V Geeks archive), Friday, Feb. 2, 7 p.m.,
at the MUSEUM OF NATURAL SCIENCES, 11 W. Jones St., Raleigh.
733-7450, ext. 503.