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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » EXPO: Magic of the White City
EXPO: Magic of the White City
Inecom // PG // September 13, 2005
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Bill Gibron | posted August 29, 2005 | E-mail the Author
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There are certain elements from our past that we still know very little about. The Civil War, for all the fine documentaries and middling motion pictures made about it, still remains an epic enigma, a story waiting to be told in a true vast and visionary fashion. The American Revolution also suffers from severe under-representation. Perhaps it is the period piece particulars that make it so difficult to translate. From the taming of the West (which is NOT the same thing as Westerns) to the grist and grime of the Industrial Revolution, individuals basically go their whole lives without learning how any of the great events that shaped their nation came to be. Books can't do it, and we've long given up on the whole "oral history" idea of passing down information. So it's up to the visual media to strike a spark. Unfortunately, all the flame they create burns low and quickly.

The Columbian Exposition/1893 World's Fair in Chicago is a subject just ripe for revisiting. It was a towering triumph, an achievement in architecture and attitude that seemed to sum up the position of the planet prior to the turn of the century. It also hinted at the progress - and the pitfalls - that awaited the world in the years to follow. It was built out of hubris, graft and one city's indomitable spirit. And there are lots of legends behind the scenes, stories that make the already huge celebration larger than life. H. H. Holmes, perhaps the world's first serial killer, used the Exposition as a backdrop to lure victims to their death. The mayor of Chicago, a burly bastard named Carter Harrison, was assassinated by a disgruntled contractor the day of the Fair's closing. The Ferris wheel made its first appearance at the Exposition, as did several staples of modern life. Yet, when the great events of the 20th Century are cited, the 1893 World's Fair is barely mentioned. EXPO - Magic of the White City hopes to change all that. This exhaustive documentary looks at the Fair in exquisite, all-encompassing detail. But is somehow misses most of the drama behind the scenes.

The DVD:
It was pushed through by a Congress eager to beat France at their own World's Fair flaunting game. The debate for where it would be located was fierce and the politics were incredibly dirty. Chicago eventually won, and the City of Big Shoulders faced a frighteningly tight deadline. All the haranguing had cost time, and the Fair needed to be open for the 400th Anniversary of Christopher Columbus's discovery of America. Having survived the Great Fire of 1871, Chicago was looking for a way to prove its metropolitan mantle. But locating the Fair within the city itself proved to be impossible.

So Frederick Law Olmsted, famed landscape architect in charge of the layout found some swamp land about 7 miles outside downtown, and inspired by Venice and Lake Michigan, began to design his water-based world. Daniel Burnham, famed city builder, took inspiration from classical structures, as well as Beaux-Arts architecture, to design his amazing, oversized monuments to American enterprise. The marble-like facades gleamed under the bright electric lights, earning the Expo its unofficial title - The White City.

Sometimes, too much information is a bad thing. Detail is indeed necessary to understand a subject or a situation, but an overabundance of data can lead a listener to politely tune out and focus on a more digestible diversions. Certainly the amount matters, as does the presentation, but the reality is that rote fact is dull (just ask grade school kids). In order to make minutia come to life, you have to give it context and foundation. You have to find the inner drama within the statistics, and use the weight of the numbers to your completist advantage. Perhaps the best bet when it comes to explaining a complicated or dense event is to find the specific examples which hint at larger thematic truths. By locating the big picture in the small stuff, you reserve the facts for their place of importance, and keep the entire endeavor draped in mystery and enigmatic awe.

EXPO - Magic of the White City believes in some of this theory. It does try to tell the story of the 1893 Columbian Exposition/Chicago World's Fair with as much flair and drama as possible. Director Mark Bussler and writer Brian Connelly add local color, slivers of scandal and the occasional critical comment to their broad sweeping subject matter. And for a while, we sit back and marvel at mankind, near the beginning of the new century, flashing its import for all to see. But then the description starts...and continues on and on.

Instead of picking one or two examples to best signify the importance of what's being discussed, our filmmakers make up for a lack of visual detail by providing as much information on each and every aspect of the Fair that they can. Want to know the number of visitors to the Expo during its run? This film knows. How many dignitaries appeared on opening day? EXPO knows that as well. The ounces of beer consumed, the price of a slice of pie, or the name of the individual responsible for keeping the fairgrounds safe? EXPO has it all.

Well, maybe not everything, but it sure seems like it. And Bussler and Connelly are leaving no nitpicking point unexplored. At nearly two hours, the amount of information is exhaustive, and all told in narrative form. Gene Wilder, famed Hollywood funny man, is on hand to provide the voiceover and he does a marvelous job of enlivening the laundry list he is given to read. Without him, this documentary would quickly wear on your nerves. As it is, there is still too much information, too many point-by-point particulars. This is obviously because there are very few images from the actual Exposition. Cameras were bulky back then, usually carried by professionals, and a license to "shoot" the World's Fair cost substantially more than a ticket to attend.

Instead of recreating the event in a computer, or doing some manner of animation or visual version, Bussier and Connelly stick with words...lots of words. Wilder is forced into long descriptive passages which would basically function without images. There's no attempt to bring the material to life, to enrich the stats with stories or some manner of subjectivity. All we get is ream after ream of data, delivered in a forthright and frank fashion. Elements of the Exposition that would probably please people more - the various innovations and arcane ideas - are merely part of the broader, much bigger picture. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with itemizing all the merchandise available in the mercantile building, but without a contextual connection, it's trivial, not tantalizing.

Still, since it covers a subject barely discussed in our post-millennial society, EXPO - Magic of the White City is worth a look for what it represents about our past. People sometimes forget the potential and the vision individuals still had for America at the time. We were just out of Civil War, with the West opening up its badlands and golden valleys. The country was still mostly frontier, and cities ruled the social structure. The world was not our global companion, but a far off place filled with obscurity and complexities. Immigrants would soon storm our shorelines, looking for the daunting dream the Exposition promised. To see how hopeful, how utopian it all appeared, to see Chicago rise like a phoenix post Great Fire is to see the United States at its most vigorous. Far from our somber, isolated modern lifestyle of convenience and entitlement we function within today, the Columbian Exposition celebrated promise and possibilities. Today, it would just be a corporate showcase of mass marketed proportions.

It is the evocation of classical civilization meshed with the march toward modernism that makes EXPO easy to watch. Beyond the number of columns mounted outside each fresco, or the gallons of beer consumed per customer, there is an enigmatic element here that the filmmakers barely touch on. But because it is so interesting, so far removed from our own idea of theme parks, tourist attractions and human spectacle, we are naturally drawn to this type of subject. As the years have passed, World's Fairs have become distant, disconnected memories. They still occur (there is one currently going on in Japan), but no one looks at them as the events they once were. Our society rarely endeavors on this scale anymore. We no longer see the value in it, or more accurately, we no longer see the purpose behind placing another part of the planet above us. Something like the Columbian Exposition can only happen in a world like that of 1893 - a new place, a naive place. While we learn a great deal about its specifics, EXPO - Magic of the White City occasionally misses the big picture. And that is an image more potent than any list of building specs.

The Video:
Mixing archival photos, real life recreations (like belly dancers and beer drinkers) and artist's renderings, the visuals in EXPO - Magic of the White City are occasionally flat and unusually lifeless. Thankfully, the high definition 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is crystal clear and helps make up for the lack of depth. The camerawork runs the gamut from pan and scan (one side of a larger image to another) or zoom in/out. From a purely technical standpoint, the DVD presentation of this documentary is first rate. The colors are correct and the level of detail is distinct.

The Audio:
Wisely, what they couldn't create for the cameras, Bussler and Connelly decided to design for the speakers. The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround soundtrack is great, giving us a real feel of crowds, vast auditoriums, languid parks and celebratory pomp and circumstances. Wilder's narrative is always upfront and clear, and the ambient elements never overwhelm the overall presentation. Even better, some of the more exotic music from Japan and other foreign locales is recreated, and the digital revision is exceptional.

The Extras:
Perhaps the one place where EXPO - Magic of the White City truly excels is in the added feature arena. A lot of work went into this film and we get to see it all, accompanied by a filmmakers' commentary, as part of the bonus material. There are four featurettes centering on the creation of the documentary (from the storyboards to the actual photos used) and Bussler and Connelly occasionally chime in to explain the creative decision making process, as well as their desire to tell the complete story. We also get a few deleted scenes, most of which just expand on ideas already present in the film. The full-length audio commentary by teacher and Columbian Exposition scholar David Cope is far from dry. Instead, Cope enlivens some of the more mundane sequences with his Ken Burns-like approach to information (including numerous quotes from sources present during the Fair). In combination with Wilder's work, we get a very detailed look at the Exposition. Add in a series of trailers for Bussler's other documentaries (many focusing on the Civil War) and you've got a nice, informative set of extras, well worth exploring on their own.

Final Thoughts:
For those interested in pure history, without a lot of the melodrama and histrionics that go along with it, EXPO - Magic of the White City will be the definitive Columbian Exposition companion. It will offer the information that volumes of books could only suggest, and present it all in a visually arresting manner. Others may look at this long, talky presentation and wonder what the big deal really was. After all, State Fairs occur ever summer in nearly every region of the country. Why get so worked up over an elephantine version of same? The reason is for the story inside the showcase, for the reasons behind this national statement of pride and preposterousness. America was out to prove that, though younger than its European counterparts, it was as viable a power as any other country on the planet. It was out to declare its superior status and nothing was going to get in the way - not federal politics, big city scandal, a vocal temperance movement or a determined desire to see Victorian values like modesty and prudence preserved. At one point during the presentation, our natty narrator says that the 1893 World's Fair was the dawning of the modern age. From what we see and hear in this interesting testament, that probably was the truth. Too bad this message couldn't have been told in a more compelling way.

Want more Gibron Goodness? Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here

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