"It's a great big beautiful tomorrow, shining at the end of every day!"—Song lyrics, Carousel of Progress
And indeed it was a great big beautiful tomorrow. Or at least, that is what the creators of the 1964 World's Fair hoped. But did this last great international exposition presage a bright future, or was it merely the last hopeless gasp of utopianism in a world about to slide downhill?
Facts of the Case
The year was 1964. The place was Queens, New York. Only two years after a successful World's Fair in Seattle, a group of New York businessman opened the doors (without Bureau of International Expositions permission!) on a magnificent new park. Superhighways had been built to ferry thousands to it. The Mets received a brand new stadium next door as part of the package. Everything looked rosy. After all, wasn't this the same site where the 1939 World's Fair changed the course of American culture?
But how quickly the lessons of the 1939 World's Fair had been forgotten: the utopian luster of that fair had been tarnished by the terrifying start of World War II, and older fair-goers still recalled the night that the lights in the Poland pavilion had been turned out as that country fell to the Wehrmacht and Hitler's vision of utopia.
The 1964 fair sought to erase that last tragic quarter century, recreating the dream of international unity and corporate technocracy. It's great symbol: the Unisphere, a monstrous metal globe weighing 900,000 pounds and towering 140 feet. Its motto: "Peace Through Understanding." All the old sponsors were back, like General Motors, updating its classic Futurama ride. New sponsors like Coca Cola weighed in as well, hiring Walt Disney to provide a cheery, primary-colored vision of human harmony called "It's a Small World." The Vatican, hoping to promote its own vision of the supremacy of European culture, loaned the fair Michelangelo's "Pieta" sculpture.
But mere months before the fair's opening, President Kennedy was brutally assassinated. War clouds loomed on the horizon, as American advisors watched the government of Vietnam fall apart. The Soviet Union, with its own peculiar vision of international unity, shadowed America's bright future. And the pushy corporate messages of many pavilions led some fair-goers to see the park as little more than an overblown shopping mall. Although the 1964 World's Fair was ultimately a popular success (if not a financial one), it marked the end of an era: no international exposition since than has captured the collective imagination or had as significant an impact on culture.
The 1964 World's Fair provides an engaging and surprisingly substantive look at an American cultural turning point. Most people under 30 now only know of the fair either through Disney's contributions (the Carousel of Progress, It's a Small World, and Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln all survive at the Disney theme parks—and EPCOT's layout, as well as its central symbol Spaceship Earth, are deliberately designed as an homage to the 1939 and 1964 fairs) or through the fairgrounds' role in the climax of Men in Black. A few might have answered a trivia question about Belgian waffles, which were introduced to America at the fair and have graced the menus of IHOP's around the country ever since.
The documentary has the feel of a PBS or A&E piece (it was originally produced for Connecticut Public Television), providing an overview of the cultural history of the fair, interspersed with reminiscences from New Yorkers who attended. Writer/director Rich Hanley walks viewers through urban designer Robert Moses' initial plans for the fair, its construction, its controversial and lackluster opening in April, 1964—all the way to its surprisingly successful climax in October, 1965. Judd Hirsch, who seems to be a fixture in PBS documentaries about New York, provides solid narration.
Because this is a made-for-television documentary, technical aspects are serviceable, though unexceptional. The quality of the 1964 footage varies (some comes from promotional films, some from home movies), and the present-day interview footage and sound are fairly clean. Image Entertainment provides no extras. I wish some of the uncut promotional films or other expanded footage from the period had been included.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you are expecting something flashy and cutting-edge, you won't find it on this disc. Nor is this documentary up to the stylistic standards of Ken Burns or Errol Morris. But it is not meant to be. It is meant to fill in an important gap in American popular culture. While much has been written about the 1939 World's Fair (particularly E.L. Doctorow's wonderful novel World's Fair and David Gelernter's 1939: The Lost World of the Fair, among many other books), shockingly little has been written (or filmed) about this more recent event.
Again, I wish Image had done a bit more with this release, like add surviving promotional films. And why does Hanley include so little interview footage of the original designers? I understand that many of them are now dead, but certainly there must have been a little more extant footage around that might have been substituted for a few extraneous minutes of the gushing childhood memory stuff. Still, the balance Hanley provides among the glowing promotional images, the present-day admirers, and the bleak reality behind the fair provides solid perspective.
I picked this disc up on a lark, figuring that the $15 price tag at Borders was reasonable enough. I have always been fascinated with American cultural history, particular our narratives of "progress," and I hoped that this documentary would fill in some blanks in my own research. I was so surprised by the quality of this documentary, that I plan to screen it for my students in the fall as part of a course on American cultural mythology. If you are a popular culture buff, The 1964 World's Fair should be a welcome addition to your collection.
History has rendered its own judgment on the 1964 World's Fair. As for the quality of this documentary, the court congratulates Rich Hanley and company on a respectable attempt to fill in an important gap in our cultural history. Image is advised to make a better effort with their educational media, even if it is meant to appeal only to a niche market.
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