Eb White World Of Tomorrow Essay

Brace yourselves: even those who were not there to receive their ''I Have Seen the Future'' buttons are likely to be barraged by an onslaught of homages and memories. Because like the time capsules buried with them, the fairs represent a freeze-frame of history, capturing the aspirations of their respective generations. They sold seductive whiz-bang visions of tomorrow.

The 1939 fair's streamlined buildings, with their jaunty towers and fins, expressed in physical form the idea of forward motion, of ''frictionless speed.'' At the General Motors Pavilion, fittingly painted with auto body lacquer, some 27,500 people a day viewed the fair's most popular exhibition, Futurama, designed by Norman Bel Geddes. In chairs fixed to a moving conveyor, visitors heard a deep recorded male voice tell of the wonders of a future only 21 years away. They set out on a simulated airplane ride over the American landscape of 1960, a 15-minute journey into an America of superhighways, radio-controlled suspension bridges and modern high-rises.

The distinctively ''American way of living'' to come was also heralded by a seemingly endless parade of appliances. At the Westinghouse Pavilion, the seven-foot-tall robot Elektro promised to end household drudgery, occasionally appearing with his Moto-Dog Sparko, a beast who presumably didn't require a lint brush or a pooper-scooper.

In the same pavilion, the Battle of the Centuries, a dishwashing contest, pitted ''Mrs. Drudge'' against ''Mrs. Modern.'' Pity poor Mrs. Drudge. Mrs. Modern zipped through the unpleasantries in her cocktail dress with the help of her 1940 Westinghouse electric dishwasher while Mrs. Drudge got dishpan hands.

At the '39 fair, the house of tomorrow was dramatically portrayed in a neighborhood of 15 model homes called Tomorrow Town. In contrast to the modernistic buildings surrounding it, Tomorrow Town was predominantly traditional.

Tomorrow Town foreshadowed the suburbs of postwar Levittown, L.I. But if its outward charm was a dewy-eyed rendition of New England, indoors was a different story. Step inside the Kelvin home, the brochure said, ''and the world of tomorrow awaits you!'': an all-electric kitchen with a scientific imprimatur.

Tomorrow Town presented a mixed message, as the architectural historian Rosemarie Haag Bletter said. As adventurous as the fair's industrial designers and architects were, she said, there was a different standard for home design. Despite the fair's sleek modern interiors, in Tomorrow Town, the past was a beacon, and tradition and security reigned.

But in a 1939 essay, E. B. White captured how miraculous the World of Tomorrow at the fair really was. ''Rugs did not slip'' in Tomorrow, he observed; Tomorrow did not smell.

Following on the heels of postwar prosperity, the 1964 fair was not as self-conscious a portrayal of the future so much as a display of contemporary American achievements. As in 1939, it was a consumer paradise. ''Each participant hoped that by showing the public they had imagination and a desire to do nice things for people, people would go out and buy more stuff,'' said Walter Dorwin Teague Jr., 78 years old, who left his father's firm in 1966.

At the House of Good Taste, actually three houses designed by Royal Barry Wills, Jack Pickens Coble and Edward Durell Stone, the aim was not to show the future; it was to ''reflect the aspirations and purse of the average American family,'' its organizer, Lady Malcolm Douglas-Hamilton, said at the time. She led the so-called American Institute of Approval, a group of women who were ''deeply interested in good taste.''

Among her goals was to show the ''mistress of the hearth,'' who handled the shopping, that the American home should be a cultured place, filled with books and pianos, in addition to ''fabulous gadgets.''

Not that there weren't fabulous gadgets. The Formica House was blessed with new push-button telephones in every room. At the Festival of Gas Exhibit were prototypes of a circular refrigerator for Norge by Walter Dorwin Teague, and a dish maker that handily produced new plastic dishes for each meal.

Many designs at the 1964 fair offered solutions to the problems modern life had wrought, despite the 1939 fair's utopian predictions. Edward Durell Stone's House of Good Taste, which opened onto its own courtyard, was an architectural response to suburban sprawl houses, what Mr. Stone called ''Mount Vernons and Monticellos on 50-by-100-foot lots.''

In the Pavilion of American Interiors, Ellen Lehman McCluskey offered a total escape. She designed the Moon Room for the International Silver Company, with a transparent table and chairs meant to evoke ''gracious dining, even in outer space.''

The most ambitious, and certainly the most bizarre, house at the 1964 fair was the Underground House built by Jay Swayze, who, among other achievements, was a former instructor in chemical warfare, as Ms. Bletter notes in a forthcoming essay for the Queens Museum. The ranch-style house was billed as ''the ultimate in privacy.'' It was designed as protection from the hazards of modern living, including pollution, pollen, noise and radioactive fallout.

Like today's shopping malls, it offered a controlled environment and ''carefree living,'' its air system dependent on a ''snorkel'' to the outside. Since the average family had uninspiring views anyway, Mr. Swayze reasoned, he developed a system called ''dial-a-view,'' in which windows were replaced by artistic murals to suit any occasion.

Today, Mr. Swayze's vision seems funny and almost naive. But looking back on 1964 from the perspective of 1989, it's hard not to see his house as a bittersweet emblem of a more defensive, less hopeful future.

Perhaps this is why the 50th anniversary of the 1939 fair seems so poignant, for it is difficult to imagine an event that might elicit the kind of dreams described by Meyer Berger in the book ''The Eight Million'':

''Sometimes I lie awake in the dark and try to recapture the vision and the sound of The World of Tomorrow. I try to remember how the pastel lighting glowed on Mad Meadow in Flushing: soft greens, orange, yellow, and red; blue moon-glow on the great Perisphere and on the ghostly soaring Trylon. I think with a sense of sweetened pain of nights when I sat by Flushing River and saw The World of Tomorrow reflected on its onyx surface, in full color, and upside down.''

Continue reading the main story

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

At first glance, it seems like a charming cartoon, stick figure animation featuring a tiny child's voice. But the content is not childish. This short animated film, which is up for an Oscar, is called "World Of Tomorrow." The message of this story, about a clone from the future speaking to her original, is difficult to describe, even for the creator, Don Hertzfeldt.

DON HERTZFELDT: It's one of those things that if I was smart enough to explain it in words, I wouldn't have had to make a movie out of it. It's a love letter to science fiction. I've loved science fiction my whole life. But I've never made a science fiction movie. And it's sort of a parody of science fiction at the same time. It's all of the things I find interesting in sci-fi amplified.

WERTHEIMER: Well, let's listen to a clip. We introduce the two main characters. First is the adult stick figure.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WORLD OF TOMORROW")

JULIA POTT: (As Emily) Hello, Emily.

WINONA MAE: (As Emily Prime) Hi.

POTT: (As Emily) One day, when you are old enough, you will be impregnated with a perfect clone of yourself. You will later upload all of your memories into this healthy new body.

WERTHEIMER: So we learn that the little child that you just heard there is Emily, is the real Emily, or Emily Prime, as she's called in the cartoon. And her response, really, is just chatter.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WORLD OF TOMORROW")

MAE: (As Emily Prime) I had lunch today.

WERTHEIMER: (Laughter) That sounds like a real little girl. Is this an actress being a real little girl?

HERTZFELDT: That's my 4-year-old niece being a real little girl.

WERTHEIMER: Oh, my God, really?

HERTZFELDT: Yeah, I was writing this piece, and I knew I needed a little girl, and I didn't want to fake it. And so my niece was 4 years old at the time. Her name is Winona. She lives in Scotland, and I live in Texas.

WERTHEIMER: (Laughter).

HERTZFELDT: And so I don't get to see her very often. And so we get together usually for the holidays, and I have, like, five days with her. And we just hung out, and I quietly recorded her while we drew pictures and played around with toys and talked about the world. I asked her questions, and I walked away with these sessions. And it was sort of like a fun puzzle to kind of figure out what she could be looking at when they're doing these things. And then once I sorted that out, I brought in Julia Pott, who voiced the adult Emily and rewrote her lines so that they could have a conversation.

WERTHEIMER: Now what you're stuck with is that what you and your little niece created here, everybody else is interpreting, being it seems as though you're exploring what it means to be human, what it means to have memories. At one point, the Emily clone falls in love. First, she falls in love with a rock, and then she falls in love with some kind of unintelligible being from another world. And you don't want us tempted to think that you were trying to tell us that whatever it is that makes us human, you know, it persists. It continues to exist.

HERTZFELDT: Sure. I hope so. You know, I think one of the reasons I love science fiction so much is that it's - when it's ideally done right, it's a reflection on ourselves. You know, no matter what decade it comes from, it's representing the present. I think, yeah, with the cloning story, she's learning what it's like to be human. She's learning what it's like to love something, and she winds up breaking this alien thing's heart. And to me, you know, everyone goes through that at some point in adolescence, you know. There's - you meet someone when you're a young teenager, and they're never right for you, and you always wind up hurting someone on the way to figuring out all this stuff. But it was a fun writing process, you know. I not only had Winona's little bits, but science fiction, it's worldbuilding. I mean, you can get away with anything. You can do anything, and it's so free. And, you know, to be animating at the same time, it's the ultimate freedom in filmmaking because you can literally put anything on the screen that you can imagine.

WERTHEIMER: I want you to tell us about the dark ending. It's one of the funniest conversations that Emily the clone has with Emily Prime. It's about how people are coming like shooting stars out of space.

HERTZFELDT: Yeah, I'll do my best to set this clip up. So time travel is a thing. It can be very dangerous, and it's also very - it's an expensive thing to do. There's a meteor headed towards the planet, and the lower classes can't afford to escape the planet. And so they're using discount time travel to try and desperately get themselves out of the time that they're in to a safer place. And in doing so, time travel is so unpredictable, and they're using this really cheap method. All they're doing is just warping themselves into planetary orbit. And so there's a ring of dead bodies around the earth, and so our characters are looking at the night sky, and they're watching the bodies fall like shooting stars.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WORLD OF TOMORROW")

POTT: (As Emily) The dead bodies burn as they return to Earth and now light up our night sky.

MAE: (As Emily Prime) What's this up in the sky?

POTT: (As Emily) Dead bodies.

MAE: (As Emily Prime) Look, another one.

POTT: (As Emily) Yes, it is very pretty.

MAE: (As Emily Prime) OK.

POTT: (As Emily) No, they're all dead.

WERTHEIMER: (Laughter) Well, you know, several of us have watched your short film here, and we had a lot of different reactions around the building. I mean, sometimes people were laughing, and some people were just incredibly sad at the dystopia that you have painted and what happens to a central Emily when she's cloned a few times. What do you expect the audience to take away?

HERTZFELDT: That all sounds wonderful to me. It's great for me to hear, you know, those different reactions because when I travel with a movie like this, it's very similar, you know. You'll hear a line in one city get a big laugh, and then in another city, the same line kind of gets a gasp, and that's wonderful. I mean, to me, you know, after working so long on something like this, it's great to go out and meet people and see the reactions and remind yourself that, oh, yeah, you know, I wasn't just working in a cave by myself for no reason, you know. There are people waiting for this and hopefully having some sort of connection to it.

WERTHEIMER: Don Hertzfeldt's new short is called "World Of Tomorrow." It's up for an Academy award. If you want to look at it, it's on Netflix. Thank you.

HERTZFELDT: Thanks. Thanks for inviting me.

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