Sunday, February 18, 2007

1939 – The Lost World of the Fair

Bubsy Berkeley’s musicals - linoleum, acrylic and fleshy - were an exotic Depression-era tonic that, historians have subsequently suggested may have softened the hard existential torrent that pelted a weary 1930s public. There were other expressions of The Dream of Beauty and Peace.

In 1939, the New York World’s Fair enlisted great commercial concerns like G.M., General Electric, Westinghouse and Consolidated Edison, together with the PR arms of nations such as Japan, USSR and Italy, to create great pavilions of something or other. This was suitably leavened with some burlesque [sometimes highbrow – Salvador Dali took part] and amusement rides, and it all came to be well after the fact something of a statement of what a wonderful world it could be and would be in some suitable place known as the future.

Futurama designed by Norman Bel Gedes was the GM exhibit and it epitomizes the fair for some folks…folks like me. It was like a Disney ride where you traversed the world of the future, replete with skyscrapered cities with super highways connecting. Not too far off really, there. But it was done to a scale where you didn’t see the angst and woe on the edges of the skyscraper parts of town. My father took me to the 1964 World’s Fair, in a quick afternoon, and I was only allowed choice of one exhibit [the Johnsons Wax pavilion and the Vatican pavilion featuring Michelangelo’s Pieta were already penciled in] and I insisted on GM’s 1964 Futurama. And I think I got something of a sense of the Futuralma Worlds Fair experience. I was gassed. But it could only have been wilder in 1939 when real Italian futurism was actually still in the air. What I count as the first TV broadcast – RCA’s take on F.D.R.s inspiring opening speech – happened there.

David Gelernter in “1939 – The Lost World of the Fair” tries to get the feel of the fair in 39. Which many have come to see as a last gasp of hope before world war. Gelernter surveyed a lot of books, interviewed fair goers, strove to evoke the ethos and cover the facts in this book. But I’d have to say it comes up short. The only other book I’ve read by Gelernter, who is a Yale professor of Computer Science [I got to talk with him a couple of times .. I credit him as inventor of the Linda distributed OS.], was Mirror Worlds, which kind of forsaw the simulated worlds of the Internet today. [Tragically, after Mirror Worlds, Gelernter was maimed by the Ludditic Unabomber.] That book was really hard to understand – Gelernter, if you will, was taken by the dream. This one, “1939,” comes up short as his incessant grounding in facts lets the air out of the dream. It’s tough, you gotta be here and you gotta be there. Getting the mix is the trick. I’m trying to be Fair, World.

I agree with the Amazon critic who called it a disjointed labyrinth of NYWF information. For a better take, I’d say check out "The World of Tomorrow" a documentary film on the 1939 World's Fair, narrated by Jason Robarts. But it is not apparent to me that that is in print.

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