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It’s ‘Mental Hygiene’ time at the AMMI

Ladies hankering to learn a new dress pattern and fine fellas wishing to master the intricacies of good sportsmanship should form a straight, orderly line for "Mental Hygiene : Social Guidance Films 1945-1970," the next film retrospective at the American Museum of the Moving Image, running Jan. 8-23.

"We've presented series like this one before and we bring it back because it's always popular with audiences, here," said AMMI curator David Schwartz. "These series, however, can't be presented often because the films themselves are rare and in delicate condition. Our museum is one of the few places that can screen these films without doing extensive damage, but every time they are shown, the films will suffer from some wear."

As a result, "Mental Hygiene " features a number of films that haven't been seen in decades, coinciding with the recent release of a witty, well-researched companion book to the series by Ken Smith, "Mental Hygiene : Classroom Films 1945-1970 (Blast Books, 1999).

"I first came across these films working for the Comedy Channel as a continuity writer," said Smith in a phone interview from his New Jersey home. "That means I got to write great lines like, 'And now back to our show'... it was a pretty low-level position, needless to say."

With experience as a film editor, however, Smith was assigned the additional task of splicing vintage classroom film footage and inserting it throughout Comedy Channel programming to provide punchline punctuation.

"In addition to these films being extremely funny, I also realized these films unintentionally revealed a great deal about American society both then and now and therefore had a darker comic significance. And I've always been drawn to darkly comic material," said Smith, also the author of various other tongue-in-cheek tomes such as "Ken's Guide to the Bible," "Raw Deal," "Horrible and Ironic Stories of Forgotten America," and "The New Roadside America" (co-authored by Doug Kirby and Mike Wilkins).

Providing student films with their sociological and cinematic context in space and time, Smith examines these dubious works as those following a straight and narrow path as well as devoting chapters to stranger examples of the genre.

"Most student films only showed savvy teens engaging in positive behavior, the prevailing belief being that to show bad behavior would be to inspire it," said Smith, then referring to chapters on those films intending to portray "the earwig of juvenile delinquency" which threatened the underbelly of an overwhelmingly conformist American mainstream of the 50s and early 60s. Films like "Seduction of the Innocent," a cautionary tale of drug use.

"This was one of the wildest, showing a girl popping "reds" in a convertible in one scene and then, seconds later, portrayed as a junkie streetwalker writhing on a jail cell cot in agony."

The film is a few minutes long, so the errant teen's descent is dizzying. And, of course, bleakly humorous.

"These films were obviously not meant to withstand the test of time, which is what makes them so much fun to watch today," said Smith, crediting the generosity of Richard Prelinger, the collector of these films which will also be studied in an upcoming documentary by Smith.

"Richard Prelinger is a very generous man, both for allowing me to study his films and for allowing them to be seen in this series," said Smith.

One word to the wise to audience members with less than lily-white intentions: don't show up expecting any racy sex education films.

"The sex education films of the period were far too boring to be included here," quipped Smith who described them as "mainly restricted to cut and dry descriptions of our 'plumbing.' "

The 70-film series of rare shorts, will be followed in late January by a special AMMI series featuring film of the 90s both chosen and personally presented by members of the New York Film Critics Circle, including: Owen Bleiberman of "Entertainment Weekly," Jay Hoberman of "The Village Voice," and Stephen Holden of "The New York Times," to name just a few.

"This is a great series because it features many films of the past decade that were perhaps critically well-received but overlooked at the box office," commented Schwartz.

Picks include: "Swoon" (1991), directed by Tom Kalin; "The End of Violence" (1997), directed by Wim Wenders; the sidesplitting comedy, "Waiting for Guffman" (1997) , directed by Christopher Guest; Sean Penn's haunting directorial effort, "The Indian Runner" (1991).

"Mental Hygiene," begins 2 p.m. Jan. 8, featuring an interview with Prelinger and Smith, introducing the series and its first picks: "Benefits of Looking Ahead" (1950); "Beginning to Date" (1953); "Tomorrow's Drivers" (1954); "Wise Use of Credit" (1960); "As Boys Grow" (1957; "What Makes a Good Party" (1950); "Boy In Court" (1940); "As the Twig is Bent" (1944); "The House I Live In" (1945), featuring Frank Sinatra; and other gems such as "Maintaining Classroom Discipline" (1947).

The remaining days of the series group screenings around select themes. such as "The Dark Side" installments on Jan. 9, films aimed at teaching harsh lessons (including 1969's "Highways of Agony."

Also featured: on Jan. 9, at 4 p.m., a series of "Girls Only" shorts, films of interest to "respectable young ladies," including the 1954 classic "Clothes and You" and 1967's film for the career-minded miss, "Take a Letter... From A to Z."

Jan. 15 features include, at 2 p.m., a host of shorts by the producers, Coronet and Centurion, such as "The Procrastinator" (1952) and the well-intentioned "Are You Ready for Marriage?" (1950). At 4 p.m., AMMI screens Prelinger's collection of "Highway Safety" classics, including 1963's "Wheels of Tragedy" ("blood-curdling," is Smith's deadpan summation.)

Jan. 16 is an ode to "Conformity" with films at 2 p.m. centering around-you guessed it, fitting in. It includes the following classics: "The Outsider" (1951), "How to Say No" (1951) and "The Snob" (1958), to name a few. The 4 p.m. installment features a series of shorts under the title "Fun Films I", including: "Mind Your Manners" (2953) and "Let's Be Clean And Neat" (1953), and much more.

Jan. 22 at 2 p.m., starts off the afternoon with Prelinger's collection of period, anti-drug shorts such as one of Smith's recommendations, the short-listed classic, "Keep Off the Grass" (11970). At 4 p.m., it's a lesson in civics with films such as: "What it Means to Be An American" (1952) and "A Day of Thanksgiving" (1951).

Jan. 23 at 2 p.m. features the hair-raising "Troublemakers" series featuring the following: the aptly-titled film "The Trouble Maker" (1958); "The Dropout" (1962) and "The Griper" (1954), with more in store. The series concludes at 4 p.m. with Fun Films II, featuring some of the following: "Getting Along With Parents" (1954); "What to Do on a Date" (1951) and "Cindy Goes to a Party" (1955).

The American Museum of the Moving Image is at 35th Avenue at 36th Street, Astoria. For more information, call 784-4520 or visit the Web site at www.ammi.org

The museum hours are: Tuesday through Friday, 12-5 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Daytime film and video screenings are free with museum admission unless otherwise noted.

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