Sunday, September 25, 2005

Great Doc on the 1893 Chicago Columbian Expo

This weekend my GF and I watched an excellent new documentary on DVD about the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, Expo: Magic of the White City. Official website here. Very good review here. If you have read Erik Larson's fascinating The Devil in the White City, then you will definitely want to watch this, along with another recent indie documentary, H.H. Holmes: America's First Serial Killer. Gene Wilder narrates, and the audio commentary is done by a high school teacher named David Cope who has made the study of the 1893 Fair his avocation. (Note to Mr. Cope -- If you have a site I'd be happy to link to it, but I searched to no avail.) The Expo touched lots of well-known figures and events -- the phrase "Thine alabaster cities gleam" referred directly to the fairgrounds; Every architect you've ever heard of had something to do with it; Walt Disney's dad was one of the workmen on the Expo buildings; It produced the Ferris Wheel and Cracker Jack candy; The Germans showed off their humungous cannon Big Bertha; the list goes on...

In the The-More-Things-Change-the-More-They-Stay-the-Same Department, the film explains that the Expo's highbrow offerings regarding art, music, technology, science, commerce, ethnography, and various belles-lettres were paid for by its working-class visitors' propensity to a) drink beer and b) watch bellydancers... Just like the way that C-Span is paid for by cable providers -- i.e., C-Span's bills are able to be covered because of pro wrestling, music videos, home-shopping shows, etc. (This is not a criticism at all, trust me... I think it's evidence of the potential benefits of market forces.) And of course that all aligns with this well-argued series of assertions, which state that we have good old-fashioned smut to thank for the popularization of and technological and commercial developments associated with the Internet, the VCR, cable TV, photography, paperback books, and the English and Italian languages. You can accept or reject that author's premise(s) and conclusion(s), but I see no reason not to throw his ideas into the microwave and see how they turn out.

So, after you watch the doc, read the book, and get an idea of how many aspects of 20th-Century America were impacted by the 1893 Expo, just reflect on how it all might never have been if it weren't for a bunch of Chicago guys who liked to drink beer and watch Little Egypt.

Props to Shanmonster for the visual.


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