Few practitioners of Mid-Century Modernism are as lionized as Charles and Ray Eames, who moved to Southern California at the beginning of World War II. There, the Eameses designed a molded-plywood chair for the masses (1945), their home in Pacific Palisades (Case Study House #8, 1949) and an upscale lounge chair and ottoman manufactured by Herman Miller (1956). Today, countless examples of Eames furniture are enshrined in the Museum of Modern Art and other cultural temples, their house is a National Landmark and in 2008 the U.S. Postal Service honored the memories of the designers with their own sheet of stamps.
Perhaps because they practiced in L.A., the Eameses also made a number of short films, most notably Powers of Ten, which runs through June 11, 2011, at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art. One of two short movies made independently of each other in 1968 and based on the same 1957 Kees Boeke book, Cosmic View: The Universe in 40 Jumps, Powers of Ten begins with an aerial view of a couple picnicking in Chicago. The view is one meter wide and the camera is one meter above them. Over the next few minutes, as physicist Philip Morrison narrates, every ten seconds the "camera" pulls back by a power of 10, each time taking in a field of view that's 10 times wider than the one before.
With music by Elmer Bernstein, who scored everything from To Kill a Mocking Bird to Animal House, the nine-minute film has a Disney-documentary quality to it. As we zoom away from the outline of Lake Michigan, whizzing past the limits of our solar system and out beyond the galaxy, we are supposed to feel tiny, infinitesimal, less than an after-thought in the grand scheme of the universe. And yet, the film engages in a curious sort of cosmic boosterism -- despite our obvious lack of impact on the birth and death of stars and the emptiness of space, we, the industrious inhabitants of little planet Earth, are portrayed as the marvelous exceptions to the cold rules of the universe. We, the film seems to say, are special despite our obvious insignificance because we are blessed with the gift of consciousness.
Things get no better once we reach 10 to the power of 26 and head back to Earth. As we zoom in on the hand of one of the picnickers, we now begin a dive into his cell structure at powers of magnification equal to successive negative 10s. In the film's journey into space, incomprehensible distances and the randomness of the universe had sent our heads spinning. Inside the human body, the impossibly small scale of life's building blocks is inversely dizzying. Yet the film's tone remains oddly triumphant and almost self-congratulatory, as if we could possibly have anything to do with this almost divine order, beyond observing it.
Forty-some years later, it will not come as news that Powers of Ten would be improved by many powers of 10 if it was produced today -- video-game designer Will Wright did that a few years ago with Spore. No, the film's naiveté is the bigger problem, while scale is its outright enemy -- once we pull back beyond our solar system, for example, there's simply no way to get one's head around the enormity of sprawling space. In Powers of Ten, the Eameses can only re-play Boeke's numbers game, updated with what the best minds of 1968 knew about astronomy and animation. The film doesn't even provide clues about the couple's inspirations for their human-scaled work. Instead, the exercise seems quaint.