To the uninitiated like me, the steampunk movement could be discounted as just a new fashion style — a Victorian-inspired blend of science fiction and shabby chic influenced by Goth and punk with a hint of nerd.
Upon closer inspection, that is, once you bat away the brown peacock feather tickling you off the steampunk’s bejeweled top hat, you realize that your description is dead on, but very narrow-focused, if not narrow-minded.
Thanks to “Vintage Tomorrows,” a new documentary that debuts this week at the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco, more commoners will be exposed to this eccentric group that has a lot to say. Which begs the question: What is Intel, a company not known for being eccentric, hanging out with folks who wear feathers, goggles, gears, leather and lace? And not just hanging, but sitting down at a dinner party to engage in heavy conversation about the past, present and mostly the future?
One of the project’s drivers answers that question before his first toast over fine wine: “I am here so that I can build a better future so that we can build better technologies for people,” explains Brian David Johnson, Intel’s futurist. Yep, that’s his actual title. Johnson, whose first name being an anagram of “brain” is probably no coincidence, says that steampunks can help us shape our tomorrow. The further the film explains who and what these people are, the more audiences will understand Johnson’s motives. If Johnson was looking for that “a-ha moment,” however, it’s not evident from this near-hour of otherwise compelling filmmaking.
“Vintage Tomorrows,” an extension of Johnson’s cerebral, thought-provoking “The Tomorrow Project,” offers a solid overview of a subculture that bends philosopher George Santayana’s maxim, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Steampunks do remember the past, dating back to the days of Queen Victoria, and they don’t feel condemned doing so if history is repeated in an individualistic, humanistic, imaginary way, be it fashion, literature, games, music, swagger, what have you.
The film covers all of this, and while the 30,000-foot view is good from an introduction-to-steampunk purpose, straying from the topmost topic of technology makes one wonder whether Johnson succeeded in “doing something that’s quite important” at the soiree. I guess time will tell whether all the chit-chat over what steampunks wear, read and design will shape what Intel and the tech industry come up with in the future. That’s not to say the moments in which the documentary circumvents the main topic aren’t fascinating. How can a discussion among retro-futurists not be?
Author Cherie Priest, one of the more droll steampunks featured in the film, said that her community “isn’t trying to return to the Victorian era.” It’s more that they long to weave sentiments, philosophies and the knocking down of barriers of a time when the social strata changed in terms of cultural norms, values, morality and lifestyle. Evident that steampunks are serious, but not excessively so like so many humorless subculturists, Priest shared that a personal reason for not wanting to travel back in Victorian time is her fancy for such modern conveniences as deodorant, soap and WiFi.
The documentary is produced and directed by Byrd McDonald, who explored a different subculture in 2006 with “Haunters,” a film about the macabre who are into homemade haunted houses. His latest about a group that also likes to dress up, albeit with far fewer skeletal adornments, scores high on the 5 W’s aspect of steampunk. The “who” is well covered by interesting dinner guests, cultural historian James Carrott among them, in addition to oddballs not sitting at the banquet table, like Priest and steampunk “post-colonialist” Jaymee Goh. Maybe it’s just me, but I couldn’t tell if we’re seeing the real deal or whether Goh’s salty ‘tude is for shock value. Her take on the modern cellphone: “I mean, look how f***ing tiny the buttons are. This is aggravating!” She’s right, and as much as I appreciate comic relief, the woman seems out of place in the parade of refined intellectuals who make the argument that technology should have a more human feel.
We’re told that within the steampunk movement is a rebellion of the tech world’s efforts over the past half-century to boil down technology into “one magical box.” Tech companies don’t get that configurability is seductive to humans, we’re told. One steampunk would like to know there’s an actual person on the other side of the device “making decisions that we can question or override or at least be in dialogue with.” Another makes an interesting point that the business model of contemporary technology is often to make modifications illegal.
A gem of a comment is made near the end. It’s quintessential steampunk that no doubt left Intel’s futurist and dinner host more intrigued than chagrined. Here it is: Even if steampunks win the war against the tech industry, there will never be a perfect device. The reason for this, we’re told, is each of us is constantly changing and what meets our needs today won’t tomorrow.
One nit with all this, however, is despite all the coolness oozing from the documentary’s pores, the audience gets a one-sided view from a subculture that, at least based on who’s talking, is well off. Clearly, it takes money to live as a steampunk. Any claims to relations with the beatnik and hippie movements of the ’50s and ’60s, need to be weighed against the fact that those predecessors didn’t require a fat wallet. A true hippie might say, “I love things that are beautiful,” but they wouldn’t complete the sentence with “and beautifully made, functional and ornamental.” Those words are in “Vintage Tomorrows,” and they’re stated to represent all steampunks. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But if the goal is to learn what kind of tomorrow humans will want for the future, let’s hope Intel and its brothers listen to more than just those who have the desire and means to wear top hats adorned with gadgets and gizmos. 4 of 5 Stars.