History In The Raw

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When I was in school in the 1950s, audiovisual aids were still pretty primitive: jittery 16-mm movies shown on a battered pull-down screen, using an ancient projector whose eccentricities were understood only by the pale initiates of the AV club. Educational films were most often shown in science classes, usually lent free by industrial firms looking for recruits.

The big, gray cans of film turned up at the school on a tight but mysterious schedule of their own, so that just when we were about to begin dissecting frogs, we would take an unexpected hour out to see a movie on glassblowing or pouring molten steel. The classroom was dark and warm. The projector’s loud, steady whir was restful. Even the teacher often dozed—altogether a nice break.

. The history films we saw were still less riveting: earnest, costumed playlets, usually, made on minuscule budgets. I remember one film in which Lincoln and Douglas debated the spread of slavery before an excited mob of three.

In the last few years, of course, the VCR has made everyone a member of the AV club; more and more schoolrooms are now arranged around small screens, and distributors are scrambling to provide material to fill them.

Last winter the New York-based CEL Communications, Inc., unveiled what it calls The Video Encyclopedia of the 20th Century , a set of seventy-five hour-long cassettes made up of 2,217 brief clips. Its producers’ intention for the series is “to develop an educational resource that’s literally as indispensable to the learning process as a dictionary.” This is a lofty goal.

So is its cost—eighty-five hundred dollars per set.

Certainly the idea seems sound—a well-indexed collection of taped scenes and events and personalities that will help make modern history vivid for a student generation bored with the bloodlessness of standard textbooks and already accustomed to getting its information from television. At the push of the Play button, students can glimpse San Francisco after the earthquake, Lindbergh landing in Paris, John Glenn returning safely from his circuit of the globe.

The sequences—the longest run about ten minutes, most are two minutes or less—are arranged in roughly chronological order, beginning with Little Egypt’s alarmingly wobbly dance at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and ending with the accession to power of the Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev just last year. A massive, cross-referenced index provides the location of each clip —though a lot of reversing and fastforwarding is still required to pinpoint it exactly. And partly because much of the footage is silent (except for speeches and interviews), background material is provided for each sequence so that a teacher can cobble up his or her own narration to suit the special needs of the class. New cassettes are promised annually to bring the series up to date, and sometimes to include older material that only recently has come to light.

But after working with the indexes and commentaries and watching several hours of tape, I’m sorry to have to report that the series falls sadly short of what it might have been.

Despite its new, more dignified garb —each cassette comes in a classy maroon box with gold stamping—this is a repackaged version of Videotape News Library , which the same firm has been leasing to local TV news departments for years. Compiled for the most part from snippets of old newsreels, supplemented by low-cost footage from various sources, mostly governmental, it was meant to provide overworked news directors with instant access to background material for a breaking story or for a daily one-minute feature on “What Happened Today in History” (in fact, the new index still includes a section organized by dates).

Much of the raw material is compelling, and 1 envy the students who will now be able to produce their own inhouse historical documentaries on, say, presidential inaugurations (all of them since McKinley’s are here), or women’s fashions (the fashion show was a newsreel staple for fifty years, and there are scores of them in the collection).

It is great fun, too, to be able to summon up great events and important personages at will. I was especially struck by the earliest sequences on the cassettes, simply because it will always seem astonishing to me that there should exist any motion-picture film of, say, returning Spanish-American War veterans stepping up Broadway in 1898, or the traffic streaming past London’s Marble Arch two years earlier than that—two dozen different kinds of horse-drawn vehicles, from lumbering double-decked streetcars to spidery little runabouts driven by swells in top hats, with a lonely bobby waving vaguely at the flood as it breaks over him.

And even a few feet of well-chosen film can often convey more about a person than can whole chapters of conventional biography. No writer, for example, has ever captured the hyperkinetic, heedless side of Theodore Roosevelt’s personality quite so well as does a single brief sequence made at Sagamore Hill: TR stumps across the lawn and into the woods, ax in hand, flings off his jacket, and assaults a slender tree, chopping furiously until it falls—unfortunately, toward the camera.