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Expo: Magic of the White City is another documentary from the team that brought you Civil War Minutes and The Johnstown Flood. It’s a company of U.S. history buffs (apparently) and filmmakers who aren’t afraid to make documentaries about events that predate film footage.

Whirlwind World’s Fair

Expo tells the story of the 1893 World’s Fair that took place just outside of Chicago. The preceding World’s Fair, in Paris, had given the world the Eiffel Tower. Chicago wanted to outdo Paris, and so constructed The White City.

Gene Wilder narrates, taking us through the diverse and amazing exhibits that comprised the fair.

Many of the favorite exhibitions were the most exotic. Japan built an island refuge in the middle of the fair in a traditional Japanese style. Anything exotic enough to allow suggestive or provocative dancing drew the Edwardian American crowds, who weren’t used to seeing skin in public.

Then there were the exhibits built to impress. A gigantic refrigerated building provided ice for the sled ride, refrigeration for the food, and had an ice skating rink in the center, even during the hot Chicago summer. (The ice building ultimately burned down before the fair was over.) The machinery building provided electricity for the fair, produced its daily newsletter, and had dozens of other functions. It was so loud that most people simply couldn’t tolerate being in the building. You will be forgiven if your eyes start to glaze over as Wilder tries to enumerate all the national products in the gigantic, 44-acre Manufactures and Liberal Arts building.

The movie also explains why something as impressive as the Expo didn’t leave Chicago with an Eiffel tower. Chicago had so little time — just a few years — to build The White City, that it had to build cheaply. Structures only had to last the nine months of the fair, and could then be demolished. And although Ferris had high hopes that his great wheel would rival the Eiffel tower, it barely outlasted the fair. The only thing still standing from the expo was the Palace of Fine Art, now the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.

The AV Club

Expo solves the problem of telling a story for which there is no motion picture record the same way Ken Burns tells about the Civil War: through moving shots of still photographs. There are many photos and sketches of the World’s Fair, including some 3-D photos. These are “spiced up” with modern video footage of beer glasses, lions in zoos, and closeups of re-enactors interpreting the general atmosphere.

The re-enactments and modern footage fail to capture the era, while the endless photographic pans get tiresome after an hour. What keeps the movie afloat is the dense and informative script, written by Brian Connelly, who has done a wonderful piece of research. Narrator Gene Wilder can hardly keep up with the steady stream of facts and factoids crammed into the script.

The documentary is more informative than entertaining. For a doc, that’s preferable to the other way around, but by the end of the movie you feel as though you’ve been sitting in history class, and not in your living room.

DVD Extras

None of the extra features caught my attention. Perhaps because the movie itself is so informative, it’s almost impossible to add anything new.

There is an audio commentary by a Chicago-area high-school history teacher. What he has to say is largely the same as what Wilder narrates. He has some different stories and some additional insights, but after two hours of information overload, “more” is not what I wanted.

There are also featurettes on the making of the movie, but after a few minutes of visuals (of the filmmaker’s studio) having nothing to do with the story being told on the audio, I turned it off in the spirit of leaving well enough alone.

Picture and Sound

The modern clips are clean, well-lit, and well-produced. The Burns-style presentation of still photos is very well done, and the pictures are all clear and well-chosen. The audio is mixed and encoded well.

But neither picture nor sound is nearly as important as the writing in Expo. So even if the picture and sound are fantastic, you might never notice.

  • Art Kulp: This is an excellent review of this DVD.

    Although it must be difficult to hold an audience's interest with mostly still photos, and I'm tempted to cut the filmaker some slack--after being enthralled by the work of Ken Burns, I really can't. He is so much better at this type of documentary, there is no comparison. I spent an entire weekend watching Burns' Civil War series (I think it is about 15 hours long)and could not stop until it was over. This DVD had me drifting after the first hour.

    Having lived in Chicagoland most of my life, I am probably an easier audience for this subject than most viewers. I really wanted to like it more than I did.

    The use of actors recreating a cigar smoking, beer swilling visitor to the fair and a belly dancer was fine the first time they showed it while discussing the belly dancing. She is indeed attractive. But then it seemed like the editors were either in love with the belly dancer or wanted to get their money's worth and kept unnecessarily showing her several more times throughout the film. The video of the actors was simply not that interesting. After seeing it once I got it. Showing it repeatedly just seemed inappropriate and sophmoric.

    The extra featurette on this DVD is ridiculous. Who in their right mind would enjoy staring at whirring editing equipment while various unrelated soundtracks play?

    This movie made me feel like I'd spent a week at the fair, drained and numb. It was informative, but really not very entertaining.

    February 27, 2006 reply