Five short films look back at the world previous generations have planned for the people of the future – plastic homes, a dot-matrix symphony and the World Cup as played by robots…
Similar to how a regular diet of chocolate, pasta’n’sauce and diet coke leaves one with a hankering after such rarified foods as souffle, white truffles and single malt, so recent exposure to My Family, Airwolf and The Detectives turns one’s minds to something less foolish. Preferably with subtitles, with a sense of its own importance and either about nothing or devoted to a topic of some rarity. Ideally, this would include a wash of modernity in a distant location, playing silently as traffic moves, the lighting in office blocks is extinguished and life moves out of the city and into the suburbs.
With such an absence of bodies – the city may teem with life but does so at a distance – one can learn a good deal about life through the application of technology. The millions of cars teaches us about our demand for personal space and safety, as does the city planners’ move away from urban high-rises into suburban houses. Looked at from a distance, we may live and work cheek-by-jowl but, closer up, we demand room, asking that, when commuting, living and working, our space is respected. Technology, often described as being the facet of modern life that will bring us closer together, most frequently does the opposite. Cheaper building materials means that out detached homes get ever bigger. So too does our office desk space as our communications technology – the mobile phone and the laptop PC – get ever smaller. Locking the doors of our car places us on one side of the divide and everyone else on the other while the Walkman, or more recently the Ipod, mean that even as we share a train carriage, we remove ourselves from the small social group that exists therein. Technology exists to change lives and so it has, technology being a pleasure to touch, to use and to see the change it affects in us. The future is indeed bright.
It is with this view of technology that filmmaker Mika Taanila has brought five short films and documentaries together under the title of Aika & Aine (Time & Matter). Concerned with both, Taanila places time and matter against a look back at how the future was conceived by those planning for it. In some respects, there is a touch of Tomorrow’s World about Aika & Aine but has none of the kitsch appeal of Judith Hann introducing a segment on paper clothing. Instead, what Taanila offers is a stylish and sometimes serious review of the gulf between what one might expect of the future and the disappointment in the actualité. The opening feature in the set, Futuro – A New Stance for Tomorrow, is a perfect example of this. Taking the plastic Futuro house as a past concept of futurism, Taanila examines who an object that was considered part of a Utopian future eventually came to nothing. Able to be lifted and carried through the air by helicopter, the Futuro house promised a home that could be moved across borders, up mountains and over rivers – there were even plans to raise the number that could live in blocks of flats by adding Futuro homes to the outside of buildings – but Taanila’s film examines what happened. Against a backdrop of bright technology expos, Taanila examines how the early fascination with Futuro turned to disinterest and how, eventually, the product was discontinued. Part sociology and part fascination with the technology, Futuro – A New Stance for Tomorrow looks at how technology seeks to imprint itself upon society but how easily that can fail, for reasons, in the case of Futuro, that are, looking back, all too obvious.
These themes carry on into The Future Is Not What It Used To Be and RoboCup99, one a glimpse at how Erkki Kurenniemi came to record moments of futurism as they passed whilst the other is how something of the future has been seeded in the events of the late-nineties. In one, Kurenniemi, who Taanila describes as someone, “who has been living in the future for decades”, has recorded much of the technological innovations of the past quarter-century. Through his home movies that describe the microchip, music created through computers and art formed on dot-matrix printers, Kurenniemi searches for some connection between man and machine, dotting his glimpses of early computers with 8mm footage of Carnaby Street in 1966 and reflecting the dancing of a ballerina in a computer monitor. Try as he might, Kurenniemi looks more to dabble than to find reason in his work – Taanila also describes his work as, “ventures [that] are never quite finished” – leaving his life’s working looking incomplete. Though sympathetic to Kurenniemi, The Future Is Not What It Used To Be also warns against too close a study of technology, suggesting that due to the relentless pace at which it moves forward, one can really only glance at the future to keep pace with it.
The connection that Kurenniemi sought, though, is clearly evident in the little robots created for RoboCup99, a tournament that builds on IBM’s Deep Blue beating Garry Kasparov with the idea that in 2050, a team of football-playing robots will challenge a team of human players under FIFA rules and win. Constructed by Taanila as a documentary with a footballing theme, RoboCup99 works as a sports documentary, not only showing the behind-the-scenes disagreements between the players/engineeers but building to the semi-finals and, eventually, the final. Whether it was Taanila’s ambition to make a sports feature or not, he succeeded, being gifted a semi-final between CS Freiburg (Germany) and Azzurra Robot Team (Italy) that ends with a goalless draw and a penalty shootout. The final – Azzurra Robot Team face the Iranian Sharif CE – ends with tears of joy for one and dejection for the other, as a footballing film ought to do, but Taanila warns questions whether football is the pinnacle of human achievements by showing archive footage of a young boy stripping a sock from a player in the Brazilian world cup winning team of 1970 in search of a memento. If one might do that to a human player, what fate might eventually fall the robots that emerge triumphant against the Brazilian team of 2050.
Taanila closes Aika & Aine with two short features. A Physical Ring is four minutes of a wobbling circle set to a soundtrack by Ø, which speeds up and slows down before flashes of white and burning film stock brings it to an end. Described by Taanila as being a complete mystery, it’s a curiously hypnotic film with Ø’s music pulsing behind the rotating circle, which is also how one might describe Optical Sound. A six minute feature on the imagery of sound based around a piece of music written by [The User] to be played by dot-matrix printers, Optical Sound features close-ups of these printers accompanied by the tinny buzzing of a dot matrix, produced live and in the studio. Fascinating in the way that early home computers were – thick beige plastic features a great deal – Optical Sound is a fitting way to end this disc given the manner in which it marries an artistic achievement with technology. And yet, it also concludes that for all of the ingenuity behind futurism, its success lies with humanity, something that is often unpredictable and, no matter how well-reasoned the technology, fearful of it. Aika & Aine is, in the end, a wonderful look back at the optimism that often comes with innovation but is equally a warning as to what happens when that marriage between an object and its users is not made.
Presented in a mix of 4:3 and 1.78:1, as well as anamorphic and non-anamorphic, Aika & Aine looks good but is variable, with a mix of different film stock and video. As in Futuro – A New Stance for Tomorrow, colours are bright, sharp and well-handled, particularly the archive footage, but A Physical Ring is a piece of black-and-white film from the 1940s that is often very soft. However, looked at as a single piece, Aika & Aine has been decently transferred onto DVD but does occasionally look somewhat ordinary. The audio tracks are a mix of DD2.0 and DD5.1 and generally sound fine but, as you might expect, Optical Sound is terrific, making good use of the rear channels as the dot-matrix printers play. Finally, there are subtitles but these appear selectively. There are not, for example, any English subtitles during those scenes where the language track is in English but where the language track is in Finnish, the dialogue is subtitled.
There are two commentaries on the disc, one by [The User] on Optical Sound and another on The Future Is Not What It Used To Be by Erkki Kurenniemi and Mika Taanila. The former is fairly interesting but, like the feature, very short, while the latter is much better, with Taanila asking Kurenniemi to explain the footage used in the film, to put names against those who feature in his short films and to put the footage in context.
An interesting piece with some novel uses of technology – RoboCop99 is likely to be more entertaining than Mika Taanila might have planned – Aika & Aine will be of interest to anyone who is attracted to the development of technology and to the use of it by humans. Well-made and with a unique view, Aika & Aine is occasionally thought-provoking but, more often, simply a beautifully constructed look at futurism that avoids sneering at those odd moments in our technological history that didn’t quite make it.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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