Are highway safety films pornographic?

Are highway safety films pornographic?

Are highway safety films pornographic?

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July 11 2003 1:20 PM

Unsafe at Any Speed

The pornography of highway safety films.

Poster for Hell's Highway

When I was in elementary school in the '60s, the wise elders screened a short film called The Child Molester, a supposed re-enactment of the abduction from a playground and subsequent murder of two little Ohio girls. The scripted stuff—however stilted—was frightening enough to a kid, but the movie ended with color footage of the real girls' mutilated bodies. (The narrator said something like, "The story you have seen is true. Here are pictures of the tragic event.") Thirty-five years later, I still can't get those images out of my head.

The Child Molester turns out to have been made by the Highway Safety Foundation, the same Mansfield, Ohio, outfit responsible for a spate of driver's education films in the '50s and '60s with names like Signal 30 (police lingo for a traffic fatality), Wheels of Tragedy, and Mechanized Death. The movies combined preachy, melodramatic narration with bloody footage of real dead bodies—and scared the daylights out of millions of baby boomers. Now, director Bret Wood has chronicled the rise and fall of the company in Hell's Highway: The True Story of Highway Safety Films (Kino Films), which offers interviews with surviving employees and cultural commentators along with lengthy excerpts from the films themselves (including, alas, the conclusion of The Child Molester).

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This isn't a derisive, campy take on the material, like Ron Mann's hilarious survey of anti-drug propaganda, Grass (1999). It's wry but sober, and Wood refuses to portray the Highway Safety Foundation as ghouls. Who were they? Ordinary folks on a mission, according to a couple of surviving foundation employees, Earle Deems and John Domer. The head of the company, Richard Wayman, apparently didn't sleep much and became obsessed with policemen and their procedures. He and others were always ready to jump out of bed, grab a camera, and head out to some wreck on the highway—or to the morgue.

Hell's Highway offers several different perspectives on this mission without synthesizing them especially well. The brilliant film historian and archivist Rick Prelinger explains that the educational-movie genre was created in the '30s by insurance companies hoping to shift blame for accidents from careless companies onto careless workers—and that the approach was adopted for World War II training films and then mutated into a full-blown social-guidance movement to teach teenagers in the '50s how to behave. But the Highway Safety's use of real accident footage was an innovation, a peculiar mixture of harsh '50s moralizing with a new appetite for vérité realism—and gore. According to Mike Vraney of Something Weird Films, the films are kitsch artifacts that have retained their taboo allure, especially with people who saw them first as adolescents or teens.

Still from Hell's Highway
Fascination bordering on obsession

The documentary isn't brave enough to invoke J.G. Ballard's novel Crash or to address the fetishistic aspect of the Highway Safety filmmakers' labors. There was a seamy side to these champions of the public welfare: The foundation happily cooperated with the police when approached to record homosexual acts by upstanding citizens in public lavatories. It's a priceless irony—which Wood should have underlined more sharply—that the scandal that later rocked the Highway Safety Foundation, the apparently baseless reports that it was staging and filming orgies, was the upshot of that widely circulated lavatory footage: In destroying the reputations of private citizens, Wayman and company mortally injured their own. Instead, Wood ends with a sincere tribute by John Butler, the charismatic former chief of the Mansfield Police Department and a foundation consultant, who speaks of Wayman as a hero responsible for many of the automobile-safety reforms enacted by Congress in the '60s and the savior of hundreds of thousands of lives.

Someone in the movie suggests that these films aren't as shocking now that we've lived through Sam Peckinpah, zombie cannibal movies, and graphic video games. That seems bizarre to me: I find them more shocking than ever. In The Poetics, Aristotle noted that things we view with pain in life (he mentions cadavers) we sometimes view with pleasure when reproduced in even minute detail. But that's the reproduction, not the thing itself. There is a primitive horror in watching the hand-held camera move in on flashing police lights in the night, then get right up to smashed cars, then fasten on shattered faces covered in glass and blood and bodies twisted in unnatural positions. Sometimes you can hear the real moans and shrieks of the injured and dying. Once the camera catches a man at the instant of death.

Whatever the filmmakers' intentions, this was pornography then, and its liberal use in the documentary—which features stomach-turning shots of a dead baby under a car—makes it feel like pornography now. Hell's Highway isn't nearly as revelatory or as penetrating as it would need to be to overcome the exploitation factor.

The issues raised by the documentary are important to think about, but the only reason actually to put yourself through it is if you were exposed to these films as a child and want to put them in some kind of cultural context. My hope is that, as the shock of it recedes, Hell's Highway will help me lay to rest my 35-year-old memory of The Child Molester. And it will prod me to keep asking, now as a parent: When is the benefit of instilling caution worth the price of the nightmares?

David Edelstein is the chief film critic for New York magazine and a film critic for NPR’s Fresh Air.