After New York City receives a series of attacks from giant flying robots, a reporter teams up with a pilot in search of their origin, as well as the reason for the disappearances of famous scientists around the world.
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 it.
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.
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