At the Movies

That’s not the title of the documentary being shown on Tuesday at the Crest Theatre, but it very well could be. “Eames: The architect and the painter” will be screened at 7:30pm (doors open at 6:30pm) in a special event to benefit the Eames exhibit at the California Museum.  The director of the film, Jason Cohn, will attend the screening and the evening is sponsored by Hot Italian, Sactown Magazine, Lumens, and The Bridge District.

I think it’s probably fair to say that for most people who are familiar with the work of Charles and Ray Eames, the primary examples of the prolific partnership that come to mind are their iconic chair designs.  While we each might think of specific models, there were many very varied chairs and other pieces of furniture that they produced. And, as the film explains, the success of this aspect of their business and their association with the Herman Miller company allowed them to branch out into other endeavors, several of which were equally successful.

But that eagerness to tell us about other things, to some extent at least, seems to short change the furniture designs.  After all, as we’re reminded, their legacy includes 40-50 designs that have been in production for five decades. We’re introduced to their early quest “to make the best for the most for the least” and to the fact that they perfected the difficult and unprecedented task of molding compound curves into plywood by manufacturing 150,000 splints for injured service members in WWII.  Having established their success in that field, the film moves on to other topics without sharing much about how that side of the business progressed.  (Another film perhaps…?)

So, while this is a must-see film for both casual Eames fans and serious aficionados alike, it’s not a film without shortcomings.  We’re not, for example, told much about Charles’ beginnings, or what caused him either to be interested in architecture or to drop out of architecture school.  As a character, he seems to enter the film almost fully formed – and he’s certainly interesting enough to warrant some context.  There’s slightly more background provided for (Sacramento born) Ray, in terms of her painting for which she is independently recognized, but not much.

I’m not sure if it’s the intention or not, but it’s a film that asks as many questions as it answers.  Perhaps the most knowledgeable viewers will already know many if not all of those answers, but the rest will likely summon Wikipedia upon arriving home.  Not that that’s a bad thing – if the film inspires you to seek out more knowledge then it’s having a positive impact.

Much of the film references the Eames’ own filmmaking, both of the artistic and experimental kind, and also the commissioned, industrial genre.  Charles and Ray became known for their ability to convey difficult messages in simple terms – like conveying the potentially threatening concept of the computer on behalf of IBM, or the American way of life in a cultural exchange between the USA and the USSR.  (I was reminded of a current project sponsored by actor Alan Alda that challenges scientists to explain concepts in ways that an 11 year old could understand – to be judged by a panel of 11 year olds.)

However these projects raise another interesting question – whether or not the documentary itself is a film that Charles Eames would have appreciated.  Not in the sense of whether or not he would have liked having his story told, but aesthetically.  The documentary is extremely conventional, recounting events and developments through a series of ‘talking heads’ and in a very linear timeline.  Clearly, in telling a story, one doesn’t have to make a film that the subjects of the film would make themselves, but it does make for some intriguing comparisons between linear and lateral thinking.  Again, not a bad thing.

Those ‘talking heads’ in the film are many past-employees, associates, friends, and family members – not all of whom are exclusively positive in their recollections.  There is, for example, some lingering sense of frustration about the way in which Charles and Ray were credited with all of the designs that came out of their studio, regardless of how many people may have had a hand in the process.  A comparison is made with renaissance grand masters artists and it also reminded me of even earlier parallels, such as Greek academies.  Just as we might never be sure whether Pythagoras actually penned the theory that bears his name, we do know that he created the place and the atmosphere for such work to be done – as did Charles and Ray Eames.

But just as the biblical gospels are generally pretty positive about Jesus, these are recollections that are overwhelmingly fond and approving, even when raising such concerns.  We weren’t given gospels by disgruntled ex-apostles or accounts of rival cross-Jerusalem messiahs – and here we don’t have any significant opposing perspectives from challengers or competitors.  The result being that we can’t know, directly from the film, if they were universally adored or if the film itself simply hasn’t delved into those issues.

Another topic covered throughout the film is the nature of Charles and Ray’s own relationship and the extent to which they complemented each others’ talents.  This is also explored in the context of the periods in which much of their work was accomplished and how, for example, the idea that a wife might be just as integral to the success of the partnership, in such a direct manner, was difficult for many observers to come to terms with.  In Charles’ own words “Anything I can do, she can do better.”

Design fans will likely find themselves comparing the atmosphere of the Eames’ Venice, CA studio with that of Palo Alto based IDEO – a company with a similarly diverse portfolio of iconic products and clients (including their own furniture designs for Steelcase and the first mouse for Apple).  Both have been described as having chaotic workspaces – and the description in the film by somebody who says they walked into the Venice space and immediately wanted to work there exactly matched my own reaction when visiting IDEO.

I enjoyed the film although I have to admit to having been frustrated by it as well.  I fit into the category of the compulsive Wikipedia reader following experiences like this.  But there’s such a wealth of original material, interviews, and filmed content, that anybody who has an interest in the subject matter would be remiss in missing it.  And the screening supports further dissemination of their work, which is an added bonus.

Further screening details can be found here:

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