Reviews written by registered user
|2 reviews in total|
I think you can enjoy this film on a few levels.
First, it's a great chronicle of mid-century music. Although nominally a jazz festival, producer George Wein put Berry, a rock 'n roll star, and Jackson, the leading gospel singer of her day, on the roster, probably to attract a larger crowd.
The images are superb. If you're over 50, you probably recall Bert Stern's photography. It was a pinnacle of mid-century advertising (the Smirnoff ad shot in the Egyptian desert with the pyramid, inverted, in a refreshingly cool vodka martini glass with a twist). It was his stills of Sue Lyons in Stanley Kubrick's version of Lolita that everyone remembers. Almost everyone has seen his iconic nude photo shoot of Marilyn Monroe ("The Last Sitting").
Here you have the still photographer's sensibility brought to a documentary. You can see the same thing in Ken Burns' earlier works for the same reason. The tight shots of the performers using very long lenses (something that was not yet common in film but was emerging on TV at the time). The long, languid, at times voyeuristic shots of the audience. The Festival was taking place at the same time as the America's Cup trials. Stern shot some of this from a Piper Cub (inexpensive to rent and almost as slow as a helicopter), and there are some long cutaways to this footage. At times, the images on the screen resemble the LP covers of the era the original "Miles Ahead" cover, for example, featuring the beautiful (white) model on a sailboat (which Davis despised).
The mono sound is surprisingly good given the circumstances, probably because the audio track was engineered and recorded by Columbia Records, which was there to record its artists. They used then-state-of-the-art studio microphones rather than the more durable lower quality ones you'd typically see in a concert setting in those days. Yes, sound recording technology is better today.
Second, you can appreciate the back story of making the film. Today, people in their 20s and 30s making documentaries probably have no appreciation of how tough it was to pull off this project. Today, high definition video cameras and tape can be had for a tiny fraction of what film cameras, 35MM stock and processing cost in those days. Sound synchronization is a given. Today, for a fraction of the cost of a Moviola you can assemble your A and B rolls and soundtrack on a computer, without having to pay extras for optical effects or sound processing. You no longer have to assemble and keep track of miles of film and mag stripe audio reels, as well as handle the negative with loving care. It's all there on your hard drive and you get unlimited do-overs. Aram Avakian, the editor (also a photographer and filmmaker), was at it night and day for months and months largely by himself. (Woodstock, by contrast, had a large team of editors and assistants.) Avakian, as much as Stern, is responsible for the film (the two share the director's credit). Also, trying to sync up the images from all those different cameras with the soundtrack had to be challenging and I'm guessing it must have required a lot of work and inspired work-arounds to get it looking as good as it did.
Not to mention just how audacious it was for Stern to put the money up for shooting it himself and how he managed to get a large number of professional cameramen to help out. Since he didn't have enough money to shoot (or even light) everything, Stern used George Avakian, a legendary producer at Columbia Records and Aram's brother, to cue the film crew to turn on the lights and start rolling when he thought a number would be worth shooting.
After scouting the location, Stern was so unimpressed by the Festival's cruddy venue (the local high school athletic field) he decided not to make the film, only to have his mind changed by the person sitting next to him on his flight back to New York. He originally planned to create a story line around the festival. Luckily, it proved impossible to film the hokey stuff they had written.
Third, it's an authentic look at mid-century America. When I was growing up in the 60s, I used to look at back issues of Life magazines of the 30s and 40s. At first to "goof on" at the earnestness and corniness of the ads and the stories. But then to appreciate the nuances of living everyday life in the decades before I was born, which you could glean from leafing through those pages. "Anonymous history" is infused in the film. The kid holding several empty soda bottles is probably there at the festival because sneaking into an event like this and picking up empties was an easy way to earn some money. In those days, the deposit you paid on bottles was much larger in real terms than today.
Shows like "Mad Men" do a decent enough job of picking up some of the atmospherics of this time (usually by showing people smoking cigarettes like madmen), but this is the real thing. The clothes, especially, but also in the gestures and the way people move. And then there's the White/Negro thing in this film. There wasn't the kind of overt racism in Newport, Rhode Island that you would find in the south but there was definitely separateness. Remember, in 1958 Amos 'n Andy was still being shown on TV, and only white people were in TV ads. The two groups are integrated in the movie, but this wasn't typical. Stern was told that he probably couldn't distribute the movie in the south because of this.
In all, a real gem for anyone who loves jazz. A must-see for anyone who likes, makes or wants to make documentary films.
This is one of my favorite documentaries because of the way it captures
the essence of the moment. Poignant is the best adjective to describe
Documentaries can be many things but usually they are an attempt by a filmmaker to capture real (as opposed to dramatic) life so the viewer can understand that reality. (That we are entertained in the process is beside the point.) I believe this film does an impressive job of giving the viewer the perspective of historical events in ways that would have been familiar had you lived (as Jason Robards Jr. did) as they unfolded. Not the condensed, foreshortened and heavily contexted version you would read about in a history book, where the outcomes are foreordained and marching to the historian's clean and neat conclusions. Not the newsreel or Life Magazine version of the events at the time. If you've ever witnessed an event and then watched it portrayed on TV or written up in a newspaper account you know there is a difference. In our own lifetimes, the question "where were you when the twin towers fell?" or (for those older) "when Kennedy was shot" can evoke a great deal of recollection of the context of the moment - those personal experiences that are the singular human importance of the event. No single point of view summarizes everyone's experience, but a multitude of glimpses into the everyday-ness of life set against the backdrop of history that can evince the feel of the times. This is what is captured for me in "The World of Tomorrow."
So, what was life like in the US in the days of "Love Finds Andy Hardy" and "The Middleton Family at the New York World's Fair?" Watch the film.
I believe it is impossible for those living in the US today born after the WWII (as I was) to truly contemplate just how horrific the times were for most who lived through it. The Depression is portrayed in cartoon fashion in history lessons. The scale and scope of brutality of the period dwarfs the events of Darfur, Rwanda, Cambodia and the Balkans. Against that awfulness, people lived their lives. In the middle of the catastrophe that was the 1930s, the bright Technicolor promise of the World's Fair to come is slowly born in 1939 and then quickly peters out monochromatically the following year. It confronts the day-to-day realities of life as the world stumbles into a resumption of the previous generation's unresolved war. This is captured well in the pacing and delivery of the film.
The World of Tomorrow has to turn a buck don't we all? Yet the vision and imagination that drove it prevailed. The metaphor of the ash heap turned into fantasyland applies to the world that eventually came to be in the US. The lavishness of the life of the average American today compared to theirs is striking. It's probably common to look at the events of "The World of Tomorrow" and snicker at the naivety of it all. If you've ever looked at how old magazines portrayed the future, it's easy to laugh at the details they did not get right or how over the top some of the visions were. Yet if you step back, much of essence of what the visionaries were contemplating for the future of the United States came to be in the twenty years after the end of WWII.
The power of ideas and imagination is they do set events in motion. The hope for more rational city planning and better housing (covered in the film) was born of the immigrant slums of the nineteenth century and the great depression. It not only drove the design of the fairgrounds but also a great deal of development and housing ideas in the after WWII. While the Westinghouse pavilion's robot is laughable, robots became a fixture in the second half of the twentieth century. Unlike the fictional ones of the Forbidden Planet/Lost in Space/Star Wars variety, they did not walk or talk, but they assemble autos and circuit boards, wash dishes and cars, deliver mail to offices and even vacuum rooms. General Motor's vision of the road system of tomorrow is not very different from what came to be in the age of the interstate. Futurists since the industrial age have had an impact large and small. The countdown to a rocket launch was the invention of Jules Verne.
You can watch this film and take it at face value, quibble with the quality of archive footage, and be entertained. You also can watch it as an evocation of lives past, of a slice of the times. The latter makes The World of Tomorrow different and important.