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There came upon the television screen as I was watching a program on the Montreal Expo 67 screens. Many screens. A cool video installation making use of lots of TV monitors. I remembered that Ray and Charles Eames had done something or other for some expo somewhere, and ran to look it up. But no. They did something for another expo. But I was reminded of the need to see every film they have ever made, and decided to take the leap for the DVDs, when lo and behold I discover that a DVD box is coming out next month. Ordered on the spot after jumping for joy and saying this will pass the time royally until the McLaren DVD set comes out.
Though I can only claim to have seen three or four of their films, I came away from them convinced that I had witnessed an approach to filmmaking that was absolutely extroardinary and like nothing I had ever seen before. What do I care about toy trains? Their film on the subject, which consists entirely of close-up shots of the various toy trains in the voracious collectors' collection running around madly, made me care a great deal, if for nothing else than for the loving way they were photographed. Thinking back on the film now, it seems to suggest that an object is just an object; it's what we feel about it that counts, and how we convey that feeling to others. The Eames were masters at picking out odd subjects that we normally would never have thought to examine, and showing us a new kind of beauty there. Filmmaking was, of course, just one of their activities, but their films seem to offer a good look into how their minds worked. They were geniuses at coming up with novel solutions to the presentation of complex information, and that shows up very clearly in their films.
The films where that aspect of their work shows up most clearly are probably those they made for museums. The most famous of those is probably Powers of Ten, where in the span of just a few minutes they manage to convey a vast amount of information about the workings of the universe both macro and micro, while keeping the audience utterly engrossed and creating a visual experience like nothing anyone has ever seen. The entire film is a single shot - a zoom out on the universe followed by a zoom in to the atomic level. The element I find indispensible to the experience, and which was removed from the final version, if I recall (or simplified, I don't remember) is the counter that acts like our time machine dashboard, indicating the passing of light years relative to earth time, which goes by faster and faster with a cold sort of pathos. It's like an intellectual version of the Ligeti sequence in 2001. Combined with the electronic soundtrack of the early version, the film turns into a sort of transcendental experience that conveys the wonder of existence in a way no other film I've ever seen manages to do. It's mind-expanding, even all these years after the idea of interconnectedness that the film relates has become more familiar than it was back then.
The Eames didn't just make films to make films. They made films when they felt there was a need to do so in order to understand a new subject. So I can anticipate the richness and variety of their oeuvre even without having seen it, and very much look forward to discovering it all.
One curiosity that came to my attention via Koji Yamamura's blog is the existence of a film made at the NFB entitled Cosmic Zoom that appears to bear great similarity to the Eames' film, at least in terms of the basic concept. A sample of the film can be viewed here. Both Cosmic Zoom and the early version of Powers of Ten reportedly date from 1968, which raises the question of whether one influenced the other, or the same idea happened by pure chance to make its way onto film the same year in both Canada and America. I'm curious if anyone knows more about this.
I’ve always loved Powers of Ten also. There’s something to be said about a junior-high math teacher that shows that film as the introduction to the lesson on exponents (though I’d heard of it and knew what it was long before actually seeing it).