Sex (Ed): The Movie (First Run Features, NR)

sex_ed_75The film clips provide little windows into societal attitudes of not that long ago, and seeing this evidence for yourself is far more useful than hearing someone else talk about it.



I don’t know how it’s done these days, but for veterans of the public school system, industrials provided some of the most bizarre and sometimes inadvertently humorous moments in our education. An industrial is a film made not for theatrical release but for some other purpose, such as job training, advertising, or education and social guidance. Robert Altman got his start making industrials, and you can see them parodied to this day on The Simpsons.

Educational industrials covered all sorts of topics, from the importance of saving money (with a little guidance from Ben Franklin) to instructions on how to survive an atom bomb attack. For real cringe-worthiness, you can’t beat the midcentury sex-ed. films. They’re a little time capsule of the ambivalence of the times as they try to balance competing interests including the post-war embrace of conformity, a general fear and loathing of teenage culture, and an honest and public-spirited desire to get useful information to people who might need it.

Sex (Ed): The Movie, from first time director Brenda Goodman, is a light-hearted tribute to sex-ed. Industrials, including generous clips from a number of films, allowing the audience to see for themselves what was considered appropriate and informative for the innocent minds of a few generations ago. Had Karl Marx been around to see any of these, he would have noted that they, like capitalism, contain the seeds of their own destruction, as they have become parodies of themselves and today deliver a message opposite of what was intended. There’s no better way to put down an authoritarian force than by laughing at it, and you could enjoy watching Sex (Ed): The Movie purely for its entertainment value.

Goodman has something more serious in mind, however. The film clips provide little windows into societal attitudes of not that long ago—homosexuals are predators seeking young male victims, girls that have sex are sluts, and nice girls should “pay back” their dates by inviting them home for brownies and milk—and seeing this evidence for yourself is far more useful than hearing someone else talk about it. These films raise another issue—were mid-century Americans so squeamish about sexuality that it was necessary to outsource teaching about it to the likes of Walt Disney and company?

The real hero of Sex (Ed): The Movie is Rick Prelinger, founder of the Prelinger Archives, a collection of some 60,000 industrial and other films (a selection which are available through the Internet Archive). Prelinger appears frequently in this film, along with a host of other interviewees commenting on their own experience with sex-ed. in the not so distant past. Clips of a group of girls at a sex-ed. class today suggest that not much has changed: schools want to appear to do the right thing without giving the students any real information, let alone acknowledging them as sexual beings or presenting sexuality as a normal, nay pleasurable, aspect of life.

Extras on the disc include four deleted scenes and two complete short films: “A Respectable Neighborhood” (1961) and “Masturbatory Story, or Coming of Age” (1976). The former is a fictionalized story (directed by Irvin Kershner, who also directed The Empire Strikes Back, and starring Ed Platt of Get Smart fame) meant to impress on the audience that the scourge of venereal disease can strike even nice people living in nice neighborhoods, particularly when slutty women are involved. It also provides a little overview of the contact tracing system used to investigate outbreaks and gives a nice shout-out to the public health system. “Masturbatory Story” is a truly bizarre short film that uses a talking blues and still photographs (including an adult man clearly meant to be playing a child’s role) to introduce or celebrate the joys of masturbation, and it’s the kind of thing you could not make up if you tried. | Sarah Boslaugh

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