This is one of the year’s best films.
Steampunk is no longer an alternative subculture, becoming a fashion and even a social movement—both of which are supported by mass-produced as well as boutique industries. The documentary “Vintage Tomorrows,” an entry in the Comic-Con Film Festival this weekend in San Diego, attempts to look at the movement's origin and growth, but descends into too much talking head footage that fetching fashions can’t dress up enough to hold interest.
Steampunk is defined by Merriam-Webster as “science fiction dealing with 19th-century societies dominated by historical or imagined steam-powered technology.” That means forget the electrical arguments of Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. Embrace the fashions that gave meaning to the term straitlaced. Manners matter, but is that all?
Directed by Byrd McDonald, the documentary does attempt to make things interesting with a costume dinner, but the conversation is never as intense or interesting as the 1981 “My Dinner with Andre,” and serves as a reminder at just how hard it can be to make a dinner scene interesting as illustrated by the infamous diagram for Richard Linklater’s “Before Midnight.”
The documentary also includes interviews with Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (authors of “The Steampunk Bible”), Gail Carriger of “The Parasol Protectorate” series, and steampunk bloggers Jaymee Goh, Kevin Steil and Jordan Bodewell, along with other talking heads, most of whom are fashionably dressed.
The documentary doesn’t reach out internationally to extend the discussion, which for animation fans may seem either naive or ethnocentric, yet it does raise some intriguing questions. By embracing the Victorian era is one also embracing the rampant colonialism and imperialistic attitudes of the time? Or is one trying to imagine a better, alternative timeline free of racism, sexism and other prejudicial attitudes?
“Vintage Tomorrows” makes its world premiere on Saturday, 11 July 2015 at SDCC. (7:40 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Grand Ballroom D, in the Manchester Grand Hyatt).
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