`Social Studies' pursues several artistic goals -- and succeeds. `Educational films' are kidded, but they also fit neatly into this celebration of human diversity

``Social Studies,'' a new film by Adam Zucker, is livelier than its grammar-schoolish title indicates. Using the whole world as its setting, it takes the theory and practice of ``educational film'' and runs them through a cinematic wringer -- squeezing out their pretensions, questioning their assumptions, poking fun at their limitations.

Zucker has more than satire on his mind, though. In addition to shooting down a simplistic film genre, he aims to celebrate the geographic and cultural diversity of the real world. ``Social Studies'' can thus be enjoyed as a parody, an act of movie criticism, and a sort of ultimate ``Nova'' episode, all at the same time.

The movie grew from two experiences Zucker had a few years ago: visiting Europe for the first time, and taking a job in an educational film library. The trip abroad gave him a new perspective on art and shook up his ideas on culture in general. By contrast, his new job put him in touch with a kind of well-meaning but often clumsy cinema that struck him as visually stilted and -- more important -- verbally biased in favor of parochial and self-serving viewpoints.

Fascinated with the gap between non-American cultures and their feeble reflection in so many 16-mm films, Zucker started collecting educational movies. He also traveled a lot, filming images and recording sounds that either contradicted or ``rhymed'' with material in his files.

Eventually he fashioned ``Social Studies'' from a combination of footage he shot himself (around 80 percent of the finished film) and ``found'' material. Most of the images are paired with unrelated sounds, often to comic effect, as when people of one land perform an ethnic dance to music of a widely differing culture. The result is a set of continually surprising contrasts -- not only between different peoples, but also between different cinematic styles (personal vs. institutional) and different ways of conveying information (visual vs. verbal).

Although it has plenty of ironies and even laughs, ``Social Studies'' is at heart a very serious essay. Indirectly but purposefully, Zucker addresses a series of issues that he spells out in notes to the film: relationships between ``exoticism'' and poverty, cultural diversity and Westernization, wanderlust -- the urge ``to observe and look out'' on our planet -- and rampant tourism, ``a world full of pointing cameras.'' On its deepest level, ``Social Studies'' even has a mournful current running through it, as Zucker measures his ``sense of searching'' against the realization that other cultures must always elude full understanding and participation.

Still, the movie strikes me as more celebration than cerebration, despite its complexities and subtexts. This is because Zucker's enthusiasm for film -- aided by a vigorous shooting and editing style -- leads him to unify his cultural observations into an aesthetic whole, if not a sociological one. The worlds of people and of cinema may be dizzying in their diversity, as he suggests, but art has the power to lend them at least a semblance of order. By providing that semblance, Zucker has given us a ``one-world collage'' that's as universal as it is provocative.

Although an offbeat work like ``Social Studies'' isn't likely to show up at your neighborhood movie palace, it has been shown -- since its premi`ere last May at the Collective for Living Cinema in New York -- in a number of places, including the Boston Film and Video Foundation, the Los Angeles Film Forum, Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley, Calif., and P.S.1 in New York. Its most recent screening, also in New York, took place last night at the Museum of Modern Art as part of the ongoing Cineprobe series.

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