Poster design by Eiko Ishioka.
After writing about Expo 2000 I went looking for films of some of the other world expositions. In previous posts I’d managed to exhaust the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900 as a subject but never really followed up on my intention to explore the 20th-century events. The 1900 exposition was the first for which a quantity of film footage exists; it was also the one where motion pictures were presented as a new invention among others, like electric light, that would dominate the coming century. The ephemerality of these big events is part of their fascination, and a reason to look for films that document them. Expositions are like temporary theme parks, where the emphasis, since 1939 at least, has tended towards the way things might look in the future. Architects and designers aren’t exactly given free reign at an exposition but they’re also not having to tailor their designs to the requirements of urban planning committees. The events provide a concentrated dose of futurity for a short time in a small geographical space. It ought to be noted that “world exposition” has a specific meaning (see this list), referring to large, general events which run for six months or more. Smaller expositions devoted to single subjects also exist, although “small” here is relative, these can still be sizeable affairs.
Most of the footage that follows is from American expositions. Americans seem to prefer the term “World’s Fair”, although not exclusively—there was a Brussels World’s Fair—and not consistently: the Seattle event in 1962 was the Century 21 Exposition. There’s a lot more footage out there, of course, but I was looking for official films and documentaries rather than home movies.
The New York World’s Fair, 1939
This drama illustrates the contribution of free enterprise, technology, and Westinghouse products to the American way of life. The Middleton Family at the New York World’s Fair pits an anti-capitalist bohemian artist boyfriend against an all-American electrical engineer who believes in improving society by working through corporations. The Middletons experience Westinghouse’s technological marvels at the Fair and win back their daughter from her leftist boyfriend.
Memorable moments: the dishwashing contest between Mrs. Modern and Mrs. Drudge; Electro, the smoking robot; and the Westinghouse time capsule.
Too much drama in this one, and not enough expo, but the 1939 world’s fair is where the preoccupation with the future begins. The Middletons were a promotional device, also seen in newspaper and magazine ads. This is the world’s fair that gave us the word “Futurama”. A shame, then, that Electro, the cigarette-smoking robot, doesn’t tell the All-American Family to bite his shiny metal ass.
The Brussels World’s Fair, 1958
• L’Expo 58, il y a un an
A retrospective view of the Brussels event in murky monochrome. The Czech film below is better value although the second half is mostly concerned with the Czech pavilion.
The Century 21 Exposition, 1962
• Century 21 Calling
A trip to the Seattle exposition in which our guides are a hyperactive teen couple who look like the squares from Hairspray after they’ve been dosed with bop pills. For a generation of Brits “Century 21” will always mean Gerry Anderson’s Space-Age imagination.