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Image Entertainment presents
The Films of Charles and Ray Eames (1950-78)

Madame L'Amic: Is design an expression of art?
Charles Eames: I would rather say it's an expression of purpose. It may, if it is good enough, later be judged as art.

- Madame L'Amic, Charles Eames

Review By: Jeff Wilson  
Published: February 16, 2006

Director: Charles and Ray Eames

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for nothing objectionable
Run Time: 05h:37m:00s
Release Date: August 23, 2005
UPC: 014381044027
Genre: art

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- BC-C+ D-

DVD Review

Though the general pubic may no longer know their names, husband and wife design team Charles and Ray Eames made a lasting impression through their multifaceted work during the middle decades of the twentieth century. Firmly believing that the true role of design was to make people's lives easier and fulfill a given need, they worked to provide the public with elegant, affordable items, such as their famous furniture (though the furniture is very expensive now, of course). The Eames were not content to limit themselves to one field, though; they also did a great deal of work in film, as illustrated by this six-disc collection from Image, gathering their previous individual releases into one handy box. Though it doesn't even cover half of the Eames' filmed output (more than 120 short films), what is presented here gives the viewer a decent overview of the couple's work and ethos.

Volume 1 contains one of the Eames' most popular and well-known films, Powers of Ten (00h:09m:02s). Made to illustrate magnitudes of ten, the film begins with a picnicker in Chicago, the camera pulling out by a magnitude of ten every ten seconds, eventually ending up on the fringes of the galaxy. Then, the film reverses course, moving back to our original starting point and moving further inward by negative magnitudes until we have reached an atomic level within the picnicker's cells. It's very well done, and makes its point most elequently. That film is joined on the disc by two other films, one an earlier version of Powers of Ten titled A Rough Sketch for a Proposed Film Dealing With the Powers of Ten and the Relative Size of Things in the Universe (00h:08m:03s). Similar in concept but with slightly different features, it provides a view into the development of the project. Also included is 901: After 45 Years of Working (00h:28m:48s), a look at the Eames' office during the process of closing it and shipping the contents to the museums earmarked to handle them. The film is soundtrack only by two musical pieces: the first is music made by an Eames invention, the other from the office hurdy gurdy. Both quickly grow repititious and grating, and distract from the overall point of the piece.

Volume 2 spans a wide range subjects across its seven films, the most interesting to me being Toccata for Toy Trains (00h:13m:30s), The Black Ships (00h:07m:41s), and Atlas (00h:04m:59s). Toccata focuses on the idea of toys, and what makes them interesting and unique. Given the improved manufacturing that has led us to make more and more realistic toys, the duo look at toys are patently unrealistic, in this case toy trains. Set to an Elmer Bernstein score, we see various examples of these early toy trains travel through miniature environments, as the various toys are presented at face value, pleasurable in both their presentation and their use. Black Ships is a historical piece looking at the opening of Japan through Japanese art of the time, providing a nice counterbalance to standard Western portrayals of the event. Atlas is another historical film, this time using atlases to show the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. It's a concise way to demonstrate the nature of empire and its nebulous qualities.

With Volume 3, we move to a record of the Eames' work for the Bicentennial celebrations of 1976. The Eames put together an exhibition called The World of Franklin and Jefferson, intended to display how these two men of vastly differing backgrounds came to symbolize the birth of the United States. The disc contains three films. The first shares the title of the exhibition, The World of Franklin and Jefferson (00h:28m:51s). Narrated by Orson Welles, the film takes a chaptered trip through the lives of these two remarkable men, without really getting into their more dubious qualities, as this was intended to be a celebration, after all. Watching the film brings home how the Eames were in certain ways similar to the two men, given the array of fields that they each succeeded in. A lively Elmer Bernstein score completes the package. Next up on the disc are two films of lesser interest. The first is the proposal film the Eames made in 1973, titled simply Franklin and Jefferson (00h:13m:16s). Initially, organizers wanted to focus on Jefferson, but the Eames felt that broadening the scope to include Franklin made more sense in a historical sense. The film contains material included in the The World of Franklin and Jefferson, and most interestingly, features a small scale model of their planned exhibition. It's not something I would ever return to, but it's interesting to see once. The second film, The World of Franklin and Jefferson: The Opening of an Exhibition, (00h:07m:58s), gives us just what it says on the tin. We watch the building of the exhibition, leading into crowds viewing it. At just under eight minutes, it still feels too long and in the end, pointless. One gets the impression another film was needed to pad out the running time, and this was the best they could do.

Volume 4 gathers another batch of disparate material, one highlight being Design Q & A (00h:05m:28s); this brief, dryly witty short features Charles Eames answering questions about his design philosophy. The film is certainly a must see for anyone interested in the Eames, as it nicely summarizes much of their feelings about the rationale behind their work. Some animated mathematics shorts follow, and then the other film of interest here (at least to me), SX-70 (00h:10m:50s). Made for the Polaroid company, the film demonstrates the ideas behind and science of Polaroid's folding instant camera, the SX-70. It's a fascinating piece, seeing the mix between the advertising and philosophy of a given product, and how it fits into the Eames' overall aesthetic mindset. It's a marvelously understated, artful film in the service of commerce. For those interested in the Eames' furniture, the disc includes The Fiberglass Chairs (00h:08m:39s), a brief if in-depth look at the design and production of the famous chairs. Bolstered by a slick jazz score by Buddy Collette, it's another must-see item on the set.

Volume 5 gathers nine films; of most interest to me were IBM at the Fair (00h:07m:32s) and A Computer Glossary (00h:08m:29s). Shot at the 1964 World's Fair, IBM at the Fair conveys, if nothing else, the flurry of activity, overcrowding, and lines prevelant at the event, which is a unique viewpoint to say the least. The Glossary (1968) fulfills its title through animated explanations of computer terms. Another toy-oriented short, Tops (00h:07m:36s) is here, along with an earlier variant. The disc is filled out with films on bread, Kepler's laws, airports, and the Eames' famous lounge chair.

For the sixth and final volume, another decidedly eclectic mix is at hand. Day of the Dead (00h:14m:51s) looks at that Mexican holiday through stills and traditional music. S-73 (Sofa Compact) (00h:10m:36s) is an advertising film demonstrating the need for easier shipping of large items like furniture, and the way in which the Eames sofa compact fulfilled that need. It appeals to the business-minded in its money-saving properties, and to the consumer who wants a stylish sofa that assembles easily. More educational films follow, focusing on mathematical concepts, and then a diversion in the form of the Do-Nothing Machine (00h:02m:09s). The machine lives up to its name; powered by solar energy, it has various parts that move, all to the effect of simply amusing the viewer with its unusual appearance and colors.In the end, though there are some fascinating films here, the failure to compact this set into something more efficient and less unwieldy slightly damages its appeal, though devotees of the Eames' work will want it nonetheless. And, though no special efforts appear to have been made for this release, it remains an important release in terms of the material within.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: These transfers appear to be the same ones done for previous releases of this material on laserdisc, which results in a picture that often shows jaggies, rainbows, and shimmering. It isn't unwatchable, but certainly detracts from the viewing experience. Given that this isn't blockbusting commercial material, it isn't surprising that new transfers weren't done, but it's disappointing all the same. Volume 6 is the most recent in terms of production, but the most problematic in terms of quality, as multiple shorts show interlacing artifacts (though these appear on other discs as well) and there is a great deal of shimmer and some macroblocking.

Image Transfer Grade: C-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: Depending on the short, these films are in either mono or two channel stereo, and the audio is unexceptional, but does not detract from the viewing experience.

Audio Transfer Grade: C+


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 35 cues and remote access
Packaging: Box Set
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Disc introductions by Gregory Peck
Extras Review: None, really, beyond largely identical introductions on each disc narrated by Gregory Peck (each intro features a bit about the films on that disc, otherwise the remainder is the same). Each disc's menus allows selection of the entire program, or of individual films. A set like this would have benefited from some kind of context for the various films beyond the snippets of info given in the introductions to each disc. The set comes packaged in an attractive, if not overly substantial, box.

Extras Grade: D-


Final Comments

Given the short length of each disc, this set wastes space by putting two or three discs' worth of material on six discs. A lack of any extras leaves the spotlight on the films, which are uneven in quality, but at their best are marvelous examples of film used for educational and purely cinematic purposes. The DVDs feature recycled transfers that don't show these films to their best advantage, but they are passable.


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