Published October 23, 2000
Minute for minute, propaganda movies are far more interesting than almost any regular film. Instead of the distractions of narrative, the minor pleasures of aesthetics and the delicacy of thespian expression, you get a film that tells you exactly what its makers want you to think. More often than not, the propaganda-maker is a cinematic incompetent, thrusting his zoom lens wildly in and out and cutting with general disregard for coherency or elegance of locution. Often the propaganda or educational film assumes a weird rebus-like interlinking of voice and image. The narrator might say, “This habit will lead to death” and lo!–we see an image of a graveyard.
There’s no one to actually get these films out of archives for the public to see–except, of course, the Robert Beck Memorial Cinema at Collective Unconscious. Enticed by promises of GOP propaganda (“Hoist the Republicans on their own petards in rare films that they made themselves”), I made the trek down to the Lower East Side last Tuesday night to see what the Grand Old Party had committed to film.
Preceding the GOP fest was the 1972 warning film Consumer Power Credit, notable mainly for a black-haired Ralph Nader and the centrality of a Freudian psychoanalyst named Isidore Ziferstein. Ziferstein is the moral center of the film, relating credit to infantine oral fixation. “The person who feels helpless or impotent,” he informs us, “is given a feeling of omnipotence” by the rush of credit. Nader is treated with the respect of multiple camera angles, but the true highlight of the short is two polyester-clad repo men who confess to us that they “used to take pots and pans just to be spiteful.” To which they add, “But we love people.”
A 1940 Wendell Wilkie campaign film shows that Republican rhetoric has remained frighteningly static for over 60 years. While the working-man visuals could have been ripped from a leftist labor doc, the voice-over (in an extinct newsreel accent) spouts the GOP party line: taxes too high, government too big. Suggestions that the government can do anything besides sponsor the military are left by the wayside. The most outrageous moment is when the narrator informs us, “France had a New Deal, and it has paid the price for it in blood” over images of war and parading Nazi troops.
By far the strangest film on the program was the Illinois Chamber of Commerce’s 1974 attempt at a free-enterprise version of the Twilight Zone, appropriately entitled The Day Business Stood Still. Harry Dean Stanton, fresh off the highs of Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop and The Cockfighter, must have been dough-strapped to accept his starring role as the Illinois Everyman who wakes up one day to find his electricity out, the phones dead, and the faucets dry. He drives to work and finds the doors locked and the parking lot empty, so he finds the house of his boss, who tells him, “This is the day business stood still.”
After a catalogue of empty workplaces, still docksides, vacant factories, and a shut-down McDonalds (which elicited cheers from the audience), Stanton and his family get a re-education session from the company president. The suits must have seriously feared that traces of the radical left had somehow found their way into the hearts and minds of 1974 middle America. Stanton is informed that “it’s ordinary citizens like you who can undermine the free enterprise system.”
Rounding out the GOP fare was an excerpt from a 1960 documentary, notable for its revelation that Nixon spent the last week of that presidential campaign in Alaska, and a rather chilling (given Reagan’s support of Central American death squads) right-wing foundation’s prognosis of Marxism in Latin America from 1980. The program finished with the 1932 Betty Boop for President, which itself ends with an image of a foaming glass of beer–goodbye, Prohibition.
The Robert Beck Memorial Cinema is located at 145 Ludlow Street. Programs run Tuesdays at 9 p.m.
I just discovered this article on line. I am doing a new inventory and Googled “The Day Business Died” to see if there was any new information about it on line. This is all I found. I imagine the writer got to the Collective Unconscious late and missed me introducing the program. It included some of my favorite films from my archive.