Expo: Magic Of The White City Review

The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, the Columbian Exposition, was a project of such immensity that it seems almost impossible to imagine it ever happening again. One only has to think of the recent debacles such as the Millennium Dome to see that we lack the organising capacity, the intellectual ambition and the sheer balls to come up with a folly of such gorgeous enormity. It was inspired by the 1889 World’s Fair held in Paris, the event which saw the unveiling of the Eiffel Tower, and there was a determination on the part of the American government to outdo the French in magnificence. The fair was intended to celebrate the four-hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America but planning delays meant that it was a year late. For six months, it represented an idea of what America should be in the coming century, a vision of the perfect city containing agricultural, artistic, cultural and industrial marvels from throughout the world.

Mark Bussler’s 2005 film Expo: Magic of the White City is an ambitious attempt to recreate the details of the exhibition with the aim of placing it right at the centre of American history as a turning point after which nothing was ever the same. The thesis of the documentary is that the Expo was the high watermark of international co-operation, potentially ushering in a century of peace, prosperity and brilliant advances in engineering and industry. It introduced the West to Japanese culture, celebrated peaceful commerce and provided a platform for such talents as Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. Bussler and his writer Brian Connelly go into exhaustive detail, recreating the Fair with a variety of photographs, filmed inserts and, largely, with artists watercolour renderings of the exhibits. The photographs are so riveting – especially those of the Japanese exhibits in which the natives stare unblinkingly at the camera – that the artwork is a bit disappointing in comparison and the inserts – beer being served, a disconcertingly modern belly-dancer – are often ludicrous, especially since they are so overused. Yet it’s rather refreshing to see a documentary where the viewer is forced to use their imagination while following a wordy and challenging narration. Certainly, following is far from painful since Gene Wilder’s voiceover is a triumph, combining charm with occasional sardonic asides about such matters as Thomas Edison’s ego and the British contribution of an exclusive gentleman’s club.

The amount of detail in the film is staggering and it therefore demands considerable concentration on the part of the viewer. However, it’s a fascinating story because it is likely to be unfamiliar. We hear about Edison’s tower of light and the accompanying Kinetiscope – the film claims that movies were born at the fair. There’s the huge scale of the buildings and some of the exhibits, particularly in Machinery Hall were the electricity for the fair was generated. This was a city outside a city – christened “White City” – and it is of a size and scope which outdoes for grandeur any event from the past hundred years. Yes, the event was born out of political ambition and Chicago’s desire to outdo its rival New York, but the reality soon outgrew the intentions and it seemed that this could be the start of a new kind of world.

Viewers with an inquiring mind will have a ball watching Expo: Magic of the White City. We learn all sorts of interesting information; the Fair featured the first Ferris Wheel; belly dancing made its American debut at the Fair, much to the chagrin of the Women’s Board of Managers; ‘Naughty Girls from Algeria’ did a dance of decadence such as had never been seen before; the origin of the name “Windy City” comes not from the weather but from New York’s derisive description of Chicago politician’s claims for what they could achieve; the exhibits included reputed cannibals, harem girls and female soldiers; the central Manufacturing and Liberal Arts building covered 44 acres and was the largest building in America at the time. Some less patient viewers may find themselves suffering from information overload. Personally, I was hungry for even more information and went running to Erik Larson’s book “Devil In The White City” which deals with, amongst other things, the story of the Fair’s architect Daniel Burnham.

It’s true that some elements are skipped through with alarming speed. In particular, while celebrating the Fair’s inclusion of exhibits and people from throughout the world, the film skates over, in a couple of minutes, the fact that Negroes and American Indians were notable by their exclusion, as they were from 19th century American culture in general. Mention could have been made of the civil rights activist Ida B. Wells who wrote an important article about why Afro-American culture wasn’t represented at the Fair. Nor am I entirely happy with the analysis of the origins of the First World War which seems to solely blame German military aggression. But, to be fair, Bussler doesn’t entirely shrink from the darker side, including a powerful sequence about the lack of safety precautions which resulted in a devastating fire.

What makes it most poignant, of course, is that it was all an illusion. Peace didn’t come. Within twenty years, the world was on the verge of war. The technology celebrated in the event was used to create ever more dangerous weapons of war – an achievement eerily anticipated in the German exhibit. Few of the buildings lasted beyond the six months. Shortly before the closing ceremony, the mayor of Chicago, Carter Harrison, was assassinated. Even the stunning exteriors which suggested shimmering marble were merely wood and iron covered in white cladding. 114 years later, the only buildings still standing are the Palace of Fine Arts and World’s Congress Auxiliary Building. But for six months, it was a dream of a future which was marked by hope, excitement and possibility and it is this dream which the film celebrates.

The Disc

Expo: Magic of the White City is released in America on a Region 0 disc by Inecom as part of their excellent Minutes of History series.

The feature is presented at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. It’s filmed in high definition video and, as such, looks splendid throughout with rich colours and loads of pleasing detail. The transition between artwork, photographs and film isn’t remotely jarring; the documentary looks all of a piece. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is also quite splendid with a fine mixture of ambient sound effects, nostalgic music and narration. Gene Wilder’s voice is always placed at the centre of things, with the other sound elements blending in around him quite beautifully.

There are a number of extra features. First up is a scholarly commentary from David Cope, an expert on the Fair. He has a lot to say and is quite entertaining, adding considerable background detail without becoming dull. Secondly, we get four featurettes which are, rather oddly, silent. You have the option to listen to them with music or with comments from Mark Bussler on his own or alongside the writer, Brian Connelly. These featurettes go a long way to demonstrating just how much work went into making the film but I think I’d have preferred a more orthodox approach. Thirdly, we get eight deleted scenes, none of them essential – I liked the piece about the history of Chicago best, filling in the period between 1837 and the start of the Expo. Finally, there are six trailers for other titles in the Minutes of History series.

This film won’t be everybody’s cup of tea but if you’re a fan of intelligent documentaries and don’t shy away from doing a bit of work to aid your appreciation, then Expo: Magic of the White Cityshould be right up your street. I thoroughly enjoyed it and the excellent DVD presentation does it proud.

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