Perhaps Jacque Fresco needs to be consulted on the matter. Fresco, the subject of William Gazecki’s consistently engaging and unintentionally depressing documentary, Future by Design, specializes in innovation, and he has spent the better part of his long life thinking up improved designs for silverware, surgical equipment, artificial limbs, wheelchairs, lamps, furniture, cars, trucks, boats, submarines, helicopters, airplanes, construction machines, agricultural machines, houses, apartments, apartment buildings, office buildings, skyscrapers, street grids, cities, underground cities, cities in the desert, cities in the sea, society, and the rest of the world as we know it. Did I leave anything out? Oh yes, and an enhanced 3-D film projection system, which likely would have saved James Cameron a lot of time and effort if it weren’t for one niggling detail—it was never actually manufactured. Like almost all of Fresco’s inventions, it exists solely as a concept, a folder full of drawings, a model prototype, a delineation of a dream.
What will biographical documentaries look like in 50 or 100 or 500 years? Will they still be an amalgamation of stock footage, talking heads, slow zooms on old photographs, strolling interviews shot by a purportedly unintrusive camera, voiceover narration, and a musical score culled from the multifarious settings on a synthesizer keyboard? The genre hasn’t demonstrated much stylistic progression in its first 100 years. Sure, the synthesizer is an extrapolation of the old player piano, and that stock footage was once contemporary, but there haven’t been too many innovative injections to freshen up biographical documentary aesthetics since the era of newsreels.
Fresco’s detailed miniatures of his expansive concepts provide much of the interest and delight of this film, as we see him slowly sweep and curl his own camera through intricate effigies of concentric cities and visionary igloos, which he predicts will house the pre-apocalyptic people of the future. As Fresco’s voiceover describes the monorail which will traverse his immaculately designed metropolis, we see a plastic version of the device slide through a 3-D diorama, complete with pseudo-future Lilliputians waiting to board and disembark. Mobile construction contraptions, looking like neutered versions of the malicious machines from the Terminator movies, fluently insert apartment modules into honeycombed niches, while the composer attempts to add passion to the pretend proceedings with a florid jingle of reverberant optimism. These sequences exude the basement effects and stilted benevolence of a student-produced promotional video for a junior college. All that’s missing is a magniloquent announcer to punctuate the scene with an auspicious motto– “Working together for a better tomorrow!”
Thanks to these entrancing analog renditions of technologically advanced ideas, Future by Design turns out to be an exquisite example of “future camp,” wherein yesterday’s ideas about tomorrow already seem dated today. Camp is that illusive and increasingly prevalent sensation wherein we privilege our unique ability to spot the artifice and unintentional amusement that is inherent to supposedly serious texts of the past, perhaps best exemplified by the inevitable giggles elicited by old television commercials and driver’s ed. films. Though scholars and theorists such as Susan Sontag, Matthew Tinkcom, Philip Core, and Andrew Ross have written extensively and often effectively about this cultural phenomenon, hypothesizing about its relationship to time, identity, homosexuality, mass culture, the commodification of art, and simple bad taste, the more articles written about camp, the further we get from defining it. It can only be denominated with the same shamelessly ambiguous (paraphrased) terms which former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart used to describe pornography—“I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”
Classic examples of future camp include the jet pack, the flying car, the robot butler, and the ubiquitous silver unitard. But there is a significant difference between those ideas, which now seem ridiculously impractical or superfluous (or simply ridiculous, in the case of the unitard), and the glorious utopic kitsch which Fresco has dedicated his life to creating. Fresco’s concepts stem from a trio of core beliefs which are basic and brilliant—maximize our use of the earth’s resources, apply the principles of nature to inorganic structures, and apply the scientific method to every problem—and his resultant designs are the absolute opposite of inefficiency and excess. All of his ideas resonate with such simple resourcefulness and startling lucidity that, again and again throughout the film, the audience will feel compelled to question why these innovations have not already been enacted. Why doesn’t every swimming pool come with an automatic net to cover it and prevent children from falling in and drowning? Why aren’t our showers, sinks, and toilets run off of a single structure, to minimize waste and allow used shower water to flush the toilet? Why don’t we have glass-domed canals for turning ocean water into usable water through condensation? Why do we react to natural disasters by rebuilding nearly identical structures in the same locations? Remember how Albert Einstein (who once met with Fresco) defined insanity?
It is simultaneously sad and amusing to watch Fresco, exiled in his prototype community somewhere in the wilds of Florida, methodically adjusting and improving his sophisticated models, but this melancholic mirth is more a symptom of the flaws in ourselves and our society than of his remarkable designs. If many of his concepts and inventions seem hopelessly idealistic and chimerical, this is not because they are improvident, but because our current way of life is so antiquated and dysfunctional that it is difficult to imagine his plans ever reaching fruition. The film invokes the bearded specter of Leonardo da Vinci within the first 100 frames, but da Vinci was recognized as a genius in his own lifetime, even if many of his best ideas were never realized due to lack of technology or resources. If we’re spectacularly fortunate as a species, it will not take centuries for the world to discover that Jacque Fresco is a genius of similar caliber, and a fountain of ideas which could exponentially enhance our existence if they were implemented on a large scale.
Perhaps in the year 2109, when we suddenly find ourselves with an excess of leisure time and creative energy, thanks to Fresco’s efficacious cities and machines, someone will endeavor to document the life of this neglected savant with a documentary film. While the director may employ holographic talking heads and virtual reality re-enactments, the core concepts of portraying the subject will likely remain the same as those present in Future by Design, because interviews, testaments and visual representations of the past will always represent the simplest and most proficient way to learn about a person through cinema. Jacque Fresco couldn’t have designed it better himself.