[9 September 2008]
I’ve struggled with what, exactly, being a “futurist” means (outside of turn-of-the-century Italian painters like Giacomo Balla, whose love of motion is equaled only by his love of fascism). I’ve always assumed the nomenclature was just an umbrella term to describe a relatively smart person with an unhealthy obsession for science fiction. Never had I considered the life of a futurist, what one might actually spend their time doing or how integral one could be to society.
William Gazecki, Academy-Award- and Emmy-nominated director of Waco: The Rules of Engagement gives us his own interpretation of a futurist in Future by Design. The film shows the life and times of Jacque Fresco, nonagenarian civil engineer, contemporary to Albert Einstein and Buckminster Fuller, and registered futurist. Gazecki paints for us the portrait of a man nearing the midnight of his life who is still attempting to understand next month.
The role of a futurist may not have a clear definition, but Fresco is no slouch. Throughout this film, he proves himself a prolific workaholic in his constantly shifting careers. However, throughout all his professions (which include, as prattled from a 1974 interview with Larry King, when Fresco was 58: social engineer, industrial engineer, architectural engineer, helicopter and airplane design consultant, inventor of various patents from drafting units to X-ray units, publisher of eight books (many on his created study of Sociocyberneering), consulter both technically and psychologically for Hollywood and the Air Force, anti-icing mechanism developer, pre-fabricated aluminum house creator, designer of a 32-part automobile, and much more), the one constant title that remains is “innovator”. Fresco draws from the society and its workings around him and imagines what it can be and what it will be. He’s a futurist not because he’s a philosopher, but because he’s a problem-solver.
However, unlike traditional go-getters who choose careers as politicians or socials workers, very little of Fresco’s time is spent implementing his ideas into reality (ideas such as circular cities and floating hospitals) but instead designing how such a reality might operate, if and when technology allows it to exist. Fresco creates thousands of design models and, to help externalize his thoughts, directs videos of these models in operation. Throughout Future by Design, such animations are paired with his schematics and drawings, and also with CG animations by Doug Drexler to add visuals to his visionary ideas.
Though interested in solving modern-day problems, Fresco is more intrigued by what the future holds. Make no mistake, his ideas are fully supported scientifically, but if an invention is currently impractical, Fresco will still spend countless hours making models and environments to inhabit his ideas. For example, he believes a possible future of construction lies in pre-fabricated, large-scale extrusions and self-building structures. Though fully possible, this idea is currently to unwieldy to implement. But that hasn’t stopped Fresco from developing not only the model buildings, but entire fleets of model construction equipment that would build such evolved buildings and forming what entire cities built of these structures would look like.
Living on his 22-acre, future-modeled Venus Project outside Sarasota, Florida, fully committed to teaching the world how to make a difference, Fresco is one of a dying breed who look at technology and are still able to marvel at its possibilities. Fresco operates in a world without the negativity or cynicism of modern technocrats. He doesn’t fear the Matrix, nor Blade Runner, nor Brave New World. In fact, ironically, Fresco traces his interest in imagining the future back to Fritz Lange’s dystopia, Metropolis.
Indeed, he is cut from the cloth of the 1950s “Our friend, the Atom” filmstrips. His positive outlook and far-reaching mind puts him in a unique place, a harbinger of a future when we haven’t royally screwed everything up. Fresco doesn’t think about the possibilities of the Internet anymore because he knew 60 years ago it would exist. And Fresco doesn’t consider war, famine and global catastrophes because, “we don’t have much of a choice; we’re either going to destroy each other, or we’re going to make it.” His is a view of complete optimism uninhibited by the constraints of today, fully believing that we will harness science and technology to help evolve the human race.
Interestingly, the documentary’s meager budget, utilitarian electronic musical score, plastic models and one-man computer-effects design seems appropriately analogous to Fresco himself. He’s never been skilled at working the capitalist system. Many of his on-camera stories involve funding issues halting his automobile designed with only 32 parts and his glasses-free 3-D projector. He’s skipped paying rent to buy a lab instrument instead, only to have to sell his lab to debt collectors mere months later.
The DVD extras add greatly to this iconoclast’s mythos, adding more stories too long to fit into the relatively short and well-paced documentary. Additionally, this may be the first time in the history of DVD extras that the “Stills Gallery” was actually worthwhile to view. Closely studying Fresco’s sketches, like his cities in the sea and his subterranean artic colonies reveal such a level of detail, they help us remember that even though we might not grasp the design aspects behind each idea, Fresco does.
In post-modern American society, a place where unparalleled optimism for anything outside of capitalist advancement seems lost to us, Fresco, whether teleported from the year 3500 or just 1916, seems a Cassandra-like prophet doomed to never see his dreams fulfilled. Although he doesn’t offer solutions to looming catastrophes, Fresco’s archives will be among the first things we scour when they occur. He’ll have to be content with that.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/future-by-design/