Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Deflation of Technoshows

I’m sure I’ve just been to my last world’s fair. The Vancouver one is very good, as the genre goes. But I hope it’s went. Actually, you don’t need Expo to move you to visit Vancouver—give or take a little of its excessive precipitation—because it’s one of the most delectable cities of North America.

Its newly rehabbed museum, smack in the center of downtown, is a glory. And the University of British Columbia, a bus ride away, has one of the world’s great anthropological museums.

I’m sure that Canada maintains an identity, this media giant to the south notwithstanding. For one thing, the density of street people and ambient trash of the non-human kind in Seattle, a mere three-hour Greyhound trip away, is so much higher as to make you hold your nose when you return “home.” The Canadian tends to be a little Scots’ tight-assed, but the discipline sure appeals to the amenities-prone.

The world’s fair syndrome, which began in 1851 when Prince Albert was trying to raise esthetic standards in British industrial production, has long ago outlived its intellectual usefulness, having fallen prey to the futurama shtick of the General Motors pavilion at the “Dawn of a New Day” fair in New York, 1939-40 (World War II was its quick sunset).

I first became intrigued by its significance as a cultural index when I ran across a Piazza Tale by Melville in which he coolly mocks the technohubris of the fair with a parable about the first American expo in New York, in 1853. He invented a “benevolent chair,” sitting in which solved any problem the sitter might be fretting about. Velly Amellican.

I was preparing a syndicated TV documentary on the subject for WFIL-TV in 1963. The final budget meeting never met—I bumped into program manager Tom Jones, white as a sheet, running down the corridor shouting uncomprehendingly, “Kennedy has been shot.” But doing the research was illuminating: San Francisco (1915), Chicago (1893 / 1933), St. Louis (1904), New York (1939)—I cite them in the order I prowled out the relevant images in archives across the country. And then I visited in situ Seattle (1962), New York (1964), Knoxville (1982), New Orleans (1984), helplessly hooked. Until now.

I’m sure there has never been a worse documentary made about a world’s fair than the one I shot, wrote and edited about New York 1964, which I called “Moses’ Land of Promises” and which by droit de seigneur (I was then English Department chairman at Beaver College) I inflicted on an assembly full of students in 1965. My son keeps a print handy for whenever I need to be reminded how he has become a really eloquent filmmaker.

The Canadian hope that they were playing international pacificator by getting China, Russia and the United States to co-show in Vancouver was a delusion. The Chinese pavilion was full of crowds scrutinizing, with a care the artifacts didn’t deserve, the biggest collection of kitsch it’s been my misfortune to travel 3,000 miles to see. (Under every Maoist blue jacket there always burned the heart of a candy peddler, and the Chinese have reverted under Deng to the world’s best businessmen.)

If you want to buy Chinese, go to a street market in Shanghai, where you’ll get better things for pennies than they were selling for big bucks in Vancouver. Not that I’m against prosperity; it’s just different from cultural exchanging, and the differences ought to be kept clearer.

The Russians met the fair’s theme of transportation and communication with a paean to their subway system. Now I despise the menace and squalor of Philly’s subways (they have finally forced me to buy a Hyundai—I’m afraid of the only cheaper car, the Yugo.) And I have to admit that Moscow’s subways are clean and safe. But the Stalinesque Bozo Arts style is almost as depressing as being endangered physically. Their faux bons amount to cultural mugging.

The Russian display also touts their shipping expansion; if I were the Alfred T. Mahan of CINC-PAC today, I’d worry more about their blue-water commerce than their prowling subs. Those Russkis are really taking over the seven seas.

(Their Aeroflot is less of a threat. My first flight on that airline—Helsinki to Moscow—was a marginal experience: The weighty stewardess could barely squeeze down her middle aisle passing out sweets to compensate for the lousy decompression system, and there were a porthole and skylight in the toilet, a unique experience.

(In the middle of the night we flew to Tashkent, they detained us for hours in an amenities-bereft lounge, after which they commanded us to scramble across a tarmac in the dark to jostle with Azerbaijanis who had done it many times before and were better with their elbows.

(I got in a low-key hassle with the Intourist lady, telling her, with a little free and unasked for consumer research, why I overflew the Soviet Union last fall en route to the Osaka Design Festival—the USSR visa and hotel reservations, all designed to relieve me of rubles, were a Kafkaesque mockery—instead of taking the Trans-Siberian railroad.

(Ironically, I’ve discovered since that it’s relatively hassle-free to take the Trans-Sib from Beijing to Moscow, the Chinese being more interested in Yuan than in ideological purity. She countersneered that she had to get visas to take the train to Montreal. It was not a contribution to peace, but we understood each other.)

The best exhibit at the fair was also its sleeper, the United Nations pavilion, which significantly enough was financed by the Credit Unions of British Columbia as a celebration of their golden jubilee.

I’m sure one of the reasons that Canada remains an intellectual oasis compared to this behemoth to the south is its relative freedom from A. Mitchell Palmerism and McCarthyism. Dorothy Storck recently ruminated in the Inquirer on why Americans are so fearful of communist infiltration. My answer is a bad conscience.

Our ideals say we want to give everybody a fair shake, but our behavior says bucks talk and pennies piddle. Or the way Daily News columnist Don Williamson put it recently, the Reagan administration “preaches one thing and teaches another” by its bad example.

The loosely socialist, cooperative mentality which was nurtured in farming and fishing communities in Canada during the Depression is alive and well north of the border. And the “Speaking Your Peace” video studio at the fair ought to be picked up by Chicago’s Peace Museum. I watched several young people utter their sentiments for the video record, and it was moving.

I’m sure, alas, that more people came away from Expo with Studio 86 stars in their eyes than hatred in their hearts for rampant bellicosity between the two superpowers. Studio 86 is a brainchild of a Knoxville Fair executive. You can record yourself singing a tune. Up to four of your friends can join you. It’s kind of do-it-yourself celebrity, a home movie version of Entertainment Tonight. They supply the text of standard tunes, backup music and an engineer whose ears are patient and whose knob-twiddling fingers are generous.

Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, October 8, 1986

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