Learning To Live
"Let's start at the beginning, which is the right place to start"
As some jaunty music plays, Learning To Live opens with what could be described as an over optimistic foreword, suggesting that sexual ignorance is a major source of human misery and hoping that a franker attitude to sex will lead to a more enlightened society. Unfortunately anyone with a smutty mind may then immediately be laughing in a very unenlightened way when it turns out that this film was made by the Educational Film Unit of the London Rubber Company! This does however raise an expectation that finally
contraception might be discussed, expectations that are sadly not fulfilled.
As the rest of the credits run we are shown pen and ink pictures of babies crawling around (with one looking as if they are going to goose the other!); young kids playing at the beach, older children drawing; young teens in strictly divided male and female groups (the girls playing with a skipping rope and the boys football - after the previous tableaus showing children co-operating irregardless of their sex, I found this quite a depressing turn for the worse!); as the music turns from noodling xylophone notes to 50s styled guitar strumming we get to a group of girls and boys eyeing each other up and finally to them finally dancing together in a nightclub setting.
We then move to the film proper, which opens on what seems to be a groovy dance occuring in a village hall. There are a whole lot of quiffs going on in this scene (well, ok just the one!) A girl finishes dancing and wanders over to the table, making a bee-line for the bequiffed chap, while his three other companions also start chatting her up. The narration then begins, either lecherously or patronisingly describing her as a "Lucky girl. She's one of the popular ones. Pretty too, and quite a figure. Lucky girl". She's apparently also training for her dream job - of course as a hair stylist.
She is then shown being taught how to drive by her fiancée (I wonder if she's told him about cruising the village halls of an evening!) described in the narration as a "Lucky boy" and training to be an engineer.
"...and they're both learning to live. Lucky pair"
As Tina and Eric relax at home and listen to records, the narrator states that people do not expect to learn how to drive or their chosen profession without being taught, so why should sex be any different? However rather than taking the naughtier approach this implies of throwing in a older and more experienced couple in with our squeaky clean young couple to teach them the facts of life, this film instead takes the textbook approach in providing a few basic tenets to follow in order to correctly put together your new shelving unit -ah! - I mean to correctly enjoy sex (though "ignorance or incomplete knowledge" in putting together piece of DIY furniture could similarly be said to have "wrecked many a marriage and ruined many a life"!)
We move back to childhood where the differences between the sexes are shown in a scene which could be seen to be perpetuating stereotypes of the differences between the sexes - the boy is lazing around lying on his back (ok, so he's a baby but still!) and the girl immediately removes all her clothes and runs around the room naked! The importance of answering children's questions about their differences wisely and frankly is mentioned.
Then the film moves to a playground where the boys and girls are already starting to move apart and only play with other members of their sex. The narrator describes these divisions as being more related to social custom and upbringing than anything more ingrained.
We then move to illustrated diagrams of a boy and a girl. The main function of a boy's penis before puberty is apparently to allow them to urinate on trees. The narrator then goes on to label the parts of the boy's and girl's bodies by saying that "they almost certainly don't know that it is called...", which would seem a little patronising for those children who do
know the technical names for their private parts (surely if their parents had been open and honest with any questions earlier on, as the film previously suggested they should be, then the children would know the basic terms?)
The changes in puberty are illustrated by the boy turning into a GI Joe doll and the girl into a Barbie doll facsimile. We are also told that a girl will find that "a well-developed bosom becomes part of her charms", though it then also goes on to describe breast feeding.
The film then moves to discussing how people grow up mentally. The opposite sex suddenly becomes more interesting, causing teenagers to spend long periods of time in front of the mirror either applying make up or making sure the quiff is looking perfect. It also makes people show off to impress the opposite sex, illustrated by a young man lifting a chair above his head by its leg (who knew that girls could be so easily impressed? It probably helps that this scene takes place in a bar I suppose!)
A couple are then shown exchanging flirtatious glances before the boy approaches the girl's table and they start to talk. The narrator talks about these changes at puberty occurring in order to allow humans to reproduce.
The film then tackles the subject of families: "It didn't take civilised man long to discover that the only workable way to use this remarkable power was for a man and a woman to pair off and to raise their children as a family. And whatever else we say here, we must recognise that our society accepts the married state as right and regards sexual intercourse outside marriage as irresponsible and possibly disastrous". So unfortunately unmarried couples or single mothers are out of luck (of course there will be no mention of contraception that allows a couple to make love for other reasons than wanting a baby, and most definitely no mention of homosexual relationships).
The film softens these comments a little when the narrator says that it is an matter for individuals to decide for themselves how to act and they are not trying to influence anyone (!) ("Facts are our business just now"), but then immediately leaves no doubt yet again where it stands in saying that you "can use your knowledge with responsibility and real love or you can use it wantonly and with mere animal appetite" (I wonder if some audience members immediately chose the wanton and animal appetite route since the film apparently allowed them to choose it!)
Back to the diagrams. The insides of the woman are labelled, ovulation and menstruation are described. Then the same with the man as sperm production, semen and erections are also described. From the diagram showing the penis inside the vagina we go to a wonderfully coy live action scene of a man in pyjamas sitting on the edge of the bed while a woman lies with the sheets tucked around her neck (though with her hand and wedding ring prominently displayed above the sheets!) He places his cup of tea next to hers on the nightstand and kisses her forehead tenderly - thus are babies conceived!
Actually the descriptions over the diagram are dryly informative, but I just cannot understand why that live action scene was inserted there! Though the apparently critically important role that cups of tea play in the sex act puts a whole new spin on the comment in Growing Girls that you should "see if a hot drink is on offer" during your period!
We return to the diagrams and the sperms flooding through the cervix into the womb, meeting the egg and just one sperm fertilising it. The egg moves to the womb, beds into the tissue, grows into a baby, is pushed through the vagina and "the sex act has reached its intended end".
We are shown a newly born baby placed in the arms of its mother. In a shocking move the narrator actually does
mention contraception, albeit obliquely and without naming names: "It is now permissible for man and wife to enjoy the mutual pleasure of sexual intercourse while taking steps to try to avoid a baby inevitably following. But most of us do realise that irresponsible sex acts between unmarried people, even when precautions are taken, may lead to a fatherless baby - one of life's real tragedies".
Young couples are advised to consult doctors before a marriage so that they can be provided with interesting literature to read (presumably while tucked up in bed with a cup of tea!) It seems like a development of the idea of giving yourself a thorough checkup before marriage in case of venereal disease, though VD is never mentioned in this film. Similarly there is said to be no excuse at this time for jeopardising marriage by being ignorant of 'the facts'.
As a young couple leave their doctor's appointment the narrator talks about the film not having touched on all aspects of sex, and that the film has treated the body as if it were a machine (there is a nice parallel here to the couple getting into their car) while leaving emotions to one side, "which you really can't do". I would argue that the narration of Learning to Live has been rather too
emotional in the way it approached its subject with an extremely conservative approach to its subject and clearly defined ideas of right and wrong attitudes to sex.
As the couple drive off the importance of stable and secure marriage is emphasised again set against the fleeting, unsatisfactory pleasures of casual sex. The car disappears down the road as the happy jazzy music plays.
While the film was interesting and presented all the facts, it did feel very moralistic and preachy - more so than Whatsoever A Man Soweth in a way. Learning To Live is taking the good cop/bad cop approach to telling the viewer one second that you have a choice yet then immediately slapping you down with its opinion of the only correct way to act. You can
act to the contrary, the film seems to say, but you will be damned for it.
It was also interesting to note Claire Rayner's name in the end credits of the film. She would later go on to become a relatively well known agony aunt figure. Of course this now gives me the opportunity to link again to her appearance on Brass Eye
, where she seemed to have been fooled by a faked Japanese TV commercial!