The story of the Eames – a pair of mildly dysfunctional LA 'creatives' – is beautifully told by directors Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey.
"Eventually", said Charles Eames, during the filming of Powers of Ten, "everything connects". And, while the cosmic travelling shot racked outwards and upwards, and then back down to earth again, revealing the symmetries of furthest space and the quantum tremors at the very centre of us (via a picnicking hand), Charles Eames and his wife and collaborator Ray demonstrated their astral, ambitious worldview.
It's easy to misread the film's subtitle, ‘a film dealing with the relative sizes of the universe’ as ‘a film dancing with the relative sizes of the universe’ – perhaps a better description of the playful, rhythm of Powers of Ten, and the nature of the Eames brand as a whole.
In another film, House, made after five years of living in their Case Study House #8 in Pacific Palisades, they observe another kind of symmetry: they film every facet of their impact on their home. A close-up of red leaves fallen outside, light pouring through them to reveal the delicate skeleton within, cuts to the structure of the house itself, delicate in another way, with a similar red panelling decorating the outside.
Whether this was Ray’s wide-eyed love for colour and balance, or Charles’ architectural appreciation of the counterpoint between modernist design and nature, we don’t know. Although Charles would often get the credit, a reflection of the asymmetric sexual politics of the time, Ray was so integrally woven into all that ‘Eames’ did, they are impossible to untangle, in life and in work. The title of this new documentary by Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey plays upon this – Eames (singular), although they were two.
This attention to detail, and its increasing ambition and scope throughout the lives of Charles and Ray Eames is explored brilliantly. The film possesses a kind of frantic elegance in its editing of archival footage, while contemporary interviews and stills of the Eames at work serve to reflect the chaotic intensity of their practice.
At 901 Washington Drive, Venice, California, their studio was a haven for what we now call, ‘creatives’, a term the Eames’ would surely wince at for its self-conscious mix of creative work and living, a distinction that they refused to recognise in their own life. As their former students and collaborators testify, for the couple, ‘life was work was life was work was love’.
Yet, despite an incredible career, an unshakeable Eames brand, the film addresses the complicated undertones of their life. Affairs, American sexual politics of the '50s and '60s that sidelined Ray to ‘helper’, consigned to the shadows behind her man, left a bitter mark on the 901 studio. The film also skims over the somewhat paradoxical politics of their work.
Their motto, ‘the best for the most for the least’ attempted to synthesise the massification of capitalist production with the charming idiosyncrasies of individualism. As their clients became grander, more corporate – IBM, Westinghouse, Polaroid – they tried to maintain their ethics. As one critic said of the Eames’, “they were selling the notion that individualism could coexist with commercial standardisation”, an idea which now bolsters the pervasive and inescapable clutches of what Mark Fisher calls ‘capitalist realism’.
In many ways, this new documentary is a treasure trove of images and films made by Ray and Charles during their career. The images are richly grainy and seductive in a way that only 16mm from the 1950s can be.
Soundtracks by Elmer Bernstein (The Magnificent Seven, To Kill a Mockingbird), contributions by screenwriter Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), photographs of Ray serving Billy Wilder soup, Buckminster Fuller giving Charles a big kiss on the cheek; the film reveals the connections between film, design, life and love in America’s post-war decades, with the deftness and elegance that the Eames brought to their own work.
Fans of the Eames chair and their film, Powers of Ten, will be in for a real treat.
Informative, enjoyable, even heartbreaking in parts.
A must for anyone interested in contemporary design, film and how life and work meld together.