#606) Powers of Ten (1977)

#606) Powers of Ten (1977)

OR “Eames For the Stars”

Directed by Charles and Ray Eames

Class of 1998

Watch more of the Eames’ filmography on their official YouTube channel.

The Plot: What starts as a couple having a picnic near Chicago’s Soldier Field becomes perhaps the biggest (and smallest) movie ever made. We zoom above the couple, expanding our field of vision by powers of ten – past Chicago, past Earth, past our solar system – until we are 100 million light years (1024) from our starting point. After observing the vastness of space for a few moments, we propel back to Earth and the picnic, shrinking down to the surface of the man’s hand, down to his cellular structure at 0.000001 ångstroms (10-16). From the husband and wife team that also brought you the quintessential midcentury lounge chair and ottoman.

Why It Matters: The NFR describes the film as being “as much a math exercise as an avant-garde film”, praising it for its “excellent use of the film medium”. An essay by Eames expert Eric Schuldenfrei delves into the Eames’ ecological implications within the film, and enough scientific jargon to make my eyes glaze over.

But Does It Really?: This movie is, in a word, trippy. In less than 10 minutes, Charles and Ray Eames took me from the farthest reaches of space to the inside of an atom in an astonishing, engaging undertaking. We have got plenty of filmmakers on the list known for their work in other fields, but the Eames may be the definite part-time filmmakers, crafting this film as exquisitely as they would any of their trademark structures. A yes for “Powers of Ten” on the NFR, one of the few modern shorts to make the cut in the Registry’s first decade.

Everybody Gets One: While teaching industrial design at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan in the late 1930s, Charles Eames met Ray-Bernice Kaiser, an artist and graphic design student assisting Charles for a home furnishing competition sponsored by New York’s MoMA. After getting married in 1941, Charles and Ray spent the next 37 years excelling in a variety of fields, most notably modern architecture and furniture (you’ve probably sat in one of their chairs). Although Charles typically received sole credit in the press, he always stressed that his wife was an equal partner in their projects. In the 1950s, the Eames’ love of photography and theater evolved into filmmaking, with the couple making 125 short films. “Powers of Ten” was inspired by the book “Cosmic View” by Kees Boeke (who gets a special thanks in the credits), and is the Eames’ second attempt at adapting the book to film, the first being a a black-and white prototype (or “rough sketch” in their words) in 1968.

Seriously, Oscars?: I don’t believe “Powers of Ten” ever played an Oscar eligible run, usually reserved for museums and private screenings. For the record, 1977’s Documentary Short winner was “Gravity Is My Enemy” about abstract painter Mark Hicks.

Other notes

  • The film’s narrator is Phillip Morrison, a physics professor at MIT. He sounds a bit like Eli Wallach.
  • “Powers of Ten” touches upon practically every branch of science: mathematics, astronomy, quantum physics. And how about the chemistry between the couple at the beginning, am I right?
  • Recreating this film’s opening on Google Earth was significantly less exciting for me.
  • Shoutout, as always, to Pluto, which was demoted to a dwarf planet the same semester I was studying astronomy in college. Very big topic of discussion as I recall.
  • Looking out at the vastness of the universe makes me feel so small and insignificant. Ah well, back to my film blog, I guess…
  • The film’s adventure through inner space (if you will) is a fascinating journey even for someone as scientifically illiterate as myself. If we got any smaller we would probably run into the Incredible Shrinking Man.
  • Elmer Bernstein scored this? Between this movie, “The Magnificent Seven” and “Airplane!” Bernstein’s filmography was all over the place.

Legacy

  • “Powers of Ten” marked the end of the Eames’ collaborations, as Charles died in 1978 at age 71. Ray survived her late husband for a decade, dying in 1988 at age 75. The Eames have been honored and recognized through countless exhibitions and lifetime achievement awards, and their home in Los Angeles (which they designed themselves, of course) is a National Historic Landmark.
  • No film is too obscure for “The Simpsons” to reference, with “Powers of Ten” serving as influence for one of the show’s better known (and longer) couch gags.
  • In the 45 years since “Powers of Ten”, scientists have continued to explore the edges of the known universe. This 2021 video by the BBC pays tribute to the Eames as the soothing voice of Professor Brian Cox takes us 100 billion light years (1027) away from Earth.

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