Monday, September 27, 2010

Spotlight on... Pop Culture Documentaries #3

Another day, another Documentary Film Channel post! The channel is currently showing a retrospective of D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus films, and I recently enjoyed two of the selections in the series.

The first film was the 1981 documentary, Delorean, the story of John DeLorean's iconic DMC 12 supercar. DeLorean was a visionary GM executive who left the company to design, create, and sell his own line of cars. The documentary tells that story entirely through footage of board meetings, interviews, public appearances, and news clips dating from 1978-1981. The Delorean's interior and exterior design was innovative for its time. Its futuristic appearance might now seem more like a pop culture novelty, but the stylish two-door coupe has maintained its allure thirty years later. Even if you have little interest in this particular vehicle or its creator, Delorean is an engaging glimpse at the creation of a line of modern cars from scratch. Major criticisms and frequent production setbacks at the North Irish Delorean plant that eventually contributed to its failure should come as no surprise. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film was unintended: the viewer knows that, ultimately, the car was a failure, though it has become an instantly recognizable symbol of the decade. [Watch this on Thursday, September 30 at 2:00 AM EST]

Opening In Moscow is a brilliant kodachrome tour of the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow. The purpose of the exhibition was to introduce the best American designs, including cars and appliances, to the Soviets. On July 25, 1959, the fair, designed by George Nelson and boasting the aesthetic talents of Charles Eames, Buckminster Fuller, and Edward Steichen, opened to an eager crowd. Opening In Moscow is like being present at the exhibition. The kodachrome cinematography pops right off the screen, and the cool jazz background complements the equally cool fiberglass pavilions housing the sets of midcentury kitchens, salons, and supermarkets. Modern conveniences of American life are paired with the latest in art, fashion, and architecture. It's all fast and flashy, eye-popping and chaotic, cool and gaudy: typical trademarks of American pop culture.

One of the most interesting aspects of the documentary is Pennebaker's juxtaposition of the comparatively new American culture with the rich, traditional culture of Russia. Reactions to the exhibition were as interesting as the exhibition itself. The pavilions were packed with excited faces, so much like our own, expressing an interest and openness that belied the American stereotype of Soviet bleakness and repression. Sometimes fascination and amusement gave way to a friendly skepticism. Many were happy to see the spectacle but couldn't be convinced that what they were seeing represented typical American lives. Russian intellectuals were unimpressed by the showy displays of gadgetry. To them, sleekness was no replacement for real culture, and they rightly questioned: how does this demonstrate the true essence of America? Where and what is your culture? Modern art and sculpture installations were met with the same bemusement and the question: is it 'real' art or merely decorative art? Regardless of the debate, American freedom of creativity was a novel concept that justified even those installations that were found to be the most tasteless.

It's disappointing to consider the excitement and openness with which the Russian public greeted the American exhibition because, when Pennebaker returned home with his documentary, Americans had no similar interest in the film and the Russian receptivity was unrequited. [This is a condensed version of Opening In Moscow on YouTube]

I highly recommend viewing both of these films should they happen to be reaired on the Documentary Film Channel. Earlier pop culture documentary posts touched on my passion for pop culture and film preservation, and I highlighted another documentary called Keepers Of The Frame. Kitty Packard's blog has an insightful article on the admirable work of the The Film Foundation and the necessity of film preservation. This article is necessary reading for all film enthusiasts and people who believe in this cause (especially since I managed to overlook linking to the Film Foundation in my original film preservation post)!

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