Art Doc of the Week | Vintage Tomorrows
“I love things that are beautiful and beautifully made,” says Anina Bennett. “I love things that are both functional and ornamental. I love the creativity and the imagination that go into a lot of things that people in the steampunk community do.” Bennett, who along with Paul Guinan is co-author of the classic steampunk book Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel, is one of the many steampunk devotees in the documentary who explain the culture – its components and aesthetics; its conscious and unconscious politics; its core practice of remixing past and present to speculate on the future – in ways that not only illuminate it for the novice, but might also grant clarity about the movement to people who are already participants in it.
Director Byrd McDonald avoids the safari approach often taken when subcultures are the focus of a non-fiction film. He doesn’t treat his overall subject or its citizens as outlandish freaks, nor does he assume potential viewers need their hands held as he unfolds the steampunk world for them. From the start, the viewer is dropped almost mid-conversation into conversations between individuals and the camera (and prospective viewer) they’re facing, as well as lively, smart round-table discussions between authors, musicians, fashion designers, and amateur inventors who make up the community. We’re whisked from convention halls, to clubs, to workshops where either clothing or unclassifiable gadgetry is being made. In these spaces, topics addressed include the culture’s origins (William Gibson appears and makes the connection to cyberpunk), music, literature, and fashion, with each component given layered analysis and context.
Even with the theorizing (that is mercifully free of dry academic language) and explication in play, Vintage never becomes bogged down or boring. The people who speak are passionate and informed, but also truly interested in illuminating what of steampunk appeals to them and why. The highlight of the film comes at the midway point when McDonald has his gathered interviewees address the thorniest element of steampunk’s composition – that the Victorian era that is its core inspiration was built on brutal colonization, that all manner of suffering and oppression floated a privileged few. What are steampunk participants to do with those inconvenient truths as they lionize and subvert the very thing that inspires them? The responses to that question are admirably frank and largely progressive, with many of the respondents lamenting the racism, classism and sexism that some steampunk aficionados prefer to overlook or even embrace, and advocating for a smarter, more visionary approach. Authors Nisi Shawl and China Miéville especially pull no punches on the topic.
Vintage winds up being a successful, if unintentional, recruiting tool for steampunk because it captures the thrill of imaginations unleashed and possibilities that sprawl – the very things that draw people to the culture in the first place.