'Vintage Tomorrows': Film Review

Courtesy of Matt Johnstone Publicity
An enjoyable if rushed self-portrait of steampunk.

It's not just clock gears glued to top hats.

Given that we're still arguing, four decades later, over what "punk" is and isn't, one has to tip a hat (an antique top hat, naturally), to Byrd McDonald for explaining so much about steampunk in Vintage Tomorrows. Overstuffed with colorful examples of how enthusiasts have made the hard-to-encapsulate aesthetic their own, the brief film is friendly enough for outsiders, but isn't made with them in mind; like some other recent docs exploring niche phenomena with broader cultural appeal, it will play best at gatherings of the faithful.

McDonald and editor Alan Winston kick things off in familiar cut-cut-cut fashion, introducing their material with a barrage of soundbites. Unfortunately, they never really relax after setting the stage; in addition to growing mildly tiresome for viewers, this ADHD approach seems at odds with a group of subjects so infatuated with the 19th century's flowery prose and maximalist wardrobe.

Ostensibly, our hosts are self-described cultural historian James Carrott and "futurecaster" Brian David Johnson, who draw together artists, authors and entrepreneurs to explain steampunk. But the two men add only a little to what these willful misfits tell the camera directly. We're introduced to a few key novels, like The Difference Engine, that influenced others to write and manufacture "the science fiction of a future that never happened" — one in which adventurers in Victorian garb kept building new contraptions without ever discovering the sleek modernity that would lead to iPhones.

It's not that they want to live in the underclass-crushing, colonialist past: One black interviewee declares, "I think the 19th century was bollocks," and even more ambivalent steampunks acknowledge a desire to reinvent the Victorian era in their own more progressive image. But there's certainly nostalgia for the era's sense of tinkerer-friendly technical discovery. As author Cory Doctorow puts it, the nice thing about then was "you could master a technology before it was obsolete — you can't do that any more."

We're introduced to fewer self-taught mechanics than one might expect, but meet plenty of dressmakers, designers and general lifestyle-merchants. Cosplay takes on a new meaning here: Where one breed of comic-convention attendee spends decades perfecting replicas of storm trooper helmets and Vulcan ears, this one delights in inventing costumes that owe little to any entertainment franchise.

An outsider viewing the doc may well raise an eyebrow at those speaking of steampunk as a broader social movement that will change the world. Having your look co-opted by pop stars and disposable-fashion retailers is one thing; electing a steampunk president is another. (And while the influential "maker" movement includes steampunk tinkerers, it's far from limited to their worldview.) But you don't have to buy that dream to appreciate the creativity on display here.

Production company: Magical and Practical
Director-Producer: Byrd McDonald
Editor: Alan Winston
Music: Matthew Mercer
No rating, 67 minutes

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