Friday night I had to - was honored to - introduce a documentary movie, and while it was a nice opportunity, I’m not sure why they asked me to do it. The movie was about a planned Experimental City some solons and forward-thinking Minnesotans wanted to build, and they got close enough - drawings, plans, meetings, real money from the gummint, and a logo! It all fell apart when the people who actually lived in the area where the city would go said “no. No, and no.” O the irony: the Experimental City was designed to be ecologically friendly, recycling everything - no emissions, clean industry, no cars, and so on. Between the time it was conceived and the time it got rolling, the public mood had shifted away from mega-projects designed to hasten the future towards small-scale back-to-earth “natural” ideas, like burlap huts in bogs.
I have a conflicted reaction. I love the retrofuturism of the earliest drawings, with monorails and skyways and people in jumpsuits riding in cars with clear-plastic bubble roofs.
But. The time frame guarantee that the project would’ve been built between 1977 and 1983, with the designs hailing from a few years earlier, so it would have been gawdawful: brown brick, concrete planters, and so on. It would have looked like every gussied-up piece of Collegiate Brutalism, complete with banners! and supergraphics! and everything else.
The project was the brainchild of a multi-faceted SuperGenius with the Asimov-Foundation name of Athelstan Spelhaus. He was a geologist, an oceanographer, a World’s Fair commissioner, a U of M IT school dean, and the author of a cartoon about Science. “Our New Age,” it was called. The movie centers on Athelstan, and does some necessary compression; the strip wasn’t always about the future, or experimental cities, or moon bases; it was occasionally about those things. Mostly it was a science lesson. Athelstan threw everything out there - think about this! Why not try this? How about this, then? He was a classic American technological optimist, and was rather bitter at the end about the way the environmental extremists helped sink his city. (He thought the power should come from a small nuclear plant, and you can imagine how well that went over.)
Because I’d written about it for the paper, I guess I’m an expert, so I gave an opening chat on utopias. I mentioned my favorite:
Yes, I began with a discussion of a video game. The audience, as you might imagine, skewed towards the later middle-aged side, so I didn’t explain the game, except to note that this beautiful city was on the bottom of the ocean. While the game waved away exactly how it was built (I’m sure there’s a novelization that answers it all), there was a quote on the loading screen I remembered: “It was not impossible to build Rapture on the bottom of the ocean. Indeed, it was impossible to build it anywhere else.” Andrew Ryan, the industrialist / futurist. Meaning, since he wanted to construct a society with no government or morality in the tradition sense, but create a world that operated along enlightened self-interest in the Ayn Rand mode, he had to go to a place where man’s laws held no sway.
And, in a sense, I said, the same could be said about the Minnesota Experimental City! TRANSITION, enumerate all the special things about Minnesota, wind up to introducing the Spelhaus character as a Ryan-like genius. Then I talked about the cartoons.
Towards the end of the documentary, I learned something that made me smile, because I hadn’t expected this, and it made my opening remarks a bit more piquant. Spelhaus, after becoming disillusioned by the failure of the Experimental City, turned his mind to a new project.
Building cities under the sea.
After the movie there was a panel - director, Minnesota Historical Society guy, and me. Half an hour of questions. I was starved - it was 8:30, I hadn’t had supper, it was Friday, no pizza - but on the other hand, passing the mike around and talking about urbanism and the troubled history of big plans is pretty much my definition of utopia right there, so okay. Plus, I was in full 60s costume, as I realized later: black pants, white shirt, black tie, tie clip, black glasses. It’s helpful to dress like the thing you’re denouncing. And again, I have great affection for the period and its technological optimism, but I don’t think this would have worked.
Anyway, there were several men in the audience who had appeared in the movie as talking heads, and they had some things to say. The first one noted that he’d said what he as about to say in the interviews. They “didn’t make it into your movie” is how I believe he put it, that “your” being a bit pointed. Then another man who was in the documentary added some things he’d probably said to the camera.
This, I realized, is a live out-take reel.
Here's the trailer. If you've the slightest amount of interesting retrofuturism, Minnesota, urbanism, or just the skill of documentary making, I hope you get the chance to see it.
Won't it be on Netflix? you ask. Maybe some day. Maybe not. You'd be surprised how much fantastic stuff could be on Netflix, but isn't.
Another Torchy, and this time . . .
Well, yawn. To be honest, once you've seen one, you've seen them all. As fun as Mrs. Farrell is, these are pure formula programmers, and unlike the globe-trotting #2, it sticks around and goes through the paces.
I use this clip to introduce you to a startling fact: they were using that word in '39. Who knew?
But there's one thing I want to show you. First of all, it's loaded with B and C-listers who never broke through to the top marquee names.
But hey: there's no shame in a long career in the minors.
Once a boxer, brawny character actor Tom Kennedy began his film career early in the silent era. He frequently played big, dumb, likable, working-class types, such as in The Case of the Stuttering Bishop (1937). He also worked with W.C. Fields, The Marx Brothers, and Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in a career that lasted until his death at the age of 80.
Last role: "Man Sitting in Chair (uncredited)" in "The Big Valley," 1965. First role: "White Hopeless," in "The Lamb," 1915.
Now why would a character have a name like "White Hopeless"? I ask that for comment fodder, of course.
The obligatory paper:
Smaller heds: "Looks Back to Good Old Days." Top of the paper: the evergreen hed, "Final 5-4 Vote on Vital Labor Relations Law to End Bitterly Contested Case." Settled that one for all time, I'm sure.
Here's the thing that may make you say "hey, that's him. The son of the famous newspaper columnist." See, Torchy and her man are going to get married - it's a subplot in all the Torchys so far - and the boys are trying to figure out how to split 'em up.
And he would be . . . ?
A new week, with all the possibilities that entails, he said with optimism that ought to have been beaten out of him by now, but I love Mondays. See you around.