Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when America's classrooms resounded with the whir and clatter of 16mm film projectors, and hapless teachers relied on a special brand of nerd, the A/V geek, to operate them. Cinematic jewels like How Do Plants Reproduce? and The Voter Decides molded young minds--or at least killed some time for substitute teachers. Then came the age of video, and before long, school districts and libraries deemed film obsolete, sent their projectors to surplus and jettisoned their collections. Thousands of films ended up in landfills.
The rest landed in Skip Elsheimer's basement.
OK, technically he doesn't have all the educational films, only 9,000 individual reels, or about 20 tons of celluloid and steel. And only 5,000 are in his basement. The rest are in his living room, entryway, and almost every other free inch of floor space in his current digs. How did this happen? Is he a collector gone bad? A hobbyist now saddled with a mountain of short films like How Big Were the Dinosaurs? Well, yes and no.
By day a tech support guru for Alien Skin Software in Raleigh, Elsheimer didn't originally intend to acquire so many films. But he found that, as with peanuts, it's hard to stop at just one. As 500 films became 5,000 and kept progressing, he realized he had a valuable cultural treasure on his hands, one that would literally vanish without him. What began as a novelty became something more.
"I realized that I was pretty serious to take on this kind of albatross," Elsheimer says. "If you amass 20 tons of anything, you're kind of serious about it at that point. So I asked myself how I could take these films and increase their value, and I realized it was to bring them out and show them to people. Say to people, 'Remember this?' or 'Look how we did things back then.' I thought that was more important than trying to make a really nice archive, which I don't have the means to do anyway."
And so, about four years ago, Elsheimer started unspooling samples of his collection under the name A/V Geeks. Raleigh's LUMP gallery and Durham's Center for Documentary Studies are his regular show sites, to which he's added the Museum of Natural Sciences and the rock club Kings, in Raleigh. Each show has a theme, which is traced from the 1930s to the 1980s. Last month, "Hot and Cold Running War" featured civil defense films from the '50s and a more chillingly realistic look at nuclear war, produced in 1980. Another show, "Social Engineering 101," probed the hygiene and manners films that tried to make model citizens of school children of yore. "Fat Albert: Man or Messiah?" explored the depiction of African Americans in the media by juxtaposing Bill Cosby's mid-'70s cartoon with Cosby's late-'60s CBS special, "Black History: Lost, Stolen, or Strayed?" The curatorial possibilities of this collection are endless, which makes Elsheimer determined to keep getting these almost-forgotten films out to the public.
And people in the Triangle and beyond have responded. While some shows are definitely played for laughs--the hairstyles alone are usually enough to crack up most people--Elsheimer isn't just parading camp and corn. "A lot of times I program shows that are a little bit of a challenge," he says. "Either just because they're tedious or they're charged or they're provocative in light of what's going on nowadays. I want to generate a little bit of conversation about how subjects were approached over the years, and how our approach to education changed."
He likes to think of himself as more of a media archaeologist than a collector or curator. "I've adopted this giant library, each of these films is a book," he says. "They're on all sorts of topics. And you can learn a lot about a wide variety of different things--not only what the film is about, but hopefully who made it, why they made it, and the time period in which it was created, what was accepted practice back then."
Elsheimer's approach is unique--about five people across the country regularly exhibit this type of film, each with a different curatorial bent. In September, Elsheimer will be showing eight different programs of his films at the American Museum of the Moving Image in New York. In November, Fantoma Productions will release two home DVDs culled from his collection, giving people across the country a chance to re-examine and relive these short pieces of educational history. Maybe in a couple of years, Elsheimer estimates, he'll be able to devote his attention to the collection full time.
Immediately on his radar screen is an even bigger project: moving the collection from its current home to a former boarding house he's just purchased in Raleigh's Mordecai neighborhood. There the films will occupy six of eight bedrooms, and he'll be able to properly shelve, catalog, and make the films ready for viewing. After he figures out how to box and transport 20 tons of cultural history, that is. He's definitely looking forward to reclaiming some personal space. "Right now I can find a V.D. film in five minutes, but I'll spend a whole day looking for my keys," he sighs.
Life isn't always easy for an A/V geek, so for meritorious service and attention to duty--not to mention saving an overlooked portion of our cultural heritage--The Independent is proud to bestow on Skip Elsheimer an official Indies Arts Award.