Do you remember the future? Gosh, it was swell. Technology solved all the problems of the human race and seemed to create no new ones of its own. People glided around in electric cars on electric roads or lived in self-sustaining undersea cities.
Wherever you were, whatever you wanted, all you had to do was push a button, push a button, push a button--push a button until you were blue in the button. Or rather the finger.
Much of what was predicted proved ridiculous, and few of the good things came true. But looking back on it now proves fascinating and sobering in "Yesterday's Tomorrows," a film made by director Barry Levinson as part of Showtime's ongoing "In the 20th Century" series of specials. "Tomorrows" premieres tonight at 10.
It's really less a film than a glorified talk show with comments from opinionated experts spliced into a tapestry that also includes visions of the future that were put on film in the past eight decades or so.
Most of the films quoted are not theatrical sci-fi movies (which would have cost Showtime a lot more money, and it's a pretty cheap outfit) but rather films underwritten by giant corporations attempting to convince the American people that the future held a world of wonders and that all they had to do was sit around on their little consumer butts and wait for it. Some people are still waiting. Others have, wisely, lost all faith in technology.
TV-telephones have been promised us, for example, since the '30s, maybe even before. Such phones--which show you whom you're talking to and vice versa--do exist but are incredibly expensive and provide a crummy picture anyway. Actually, video e-mail now seems a more likely possibility, with TV cameras mounted on home computers, which is by the way a revolution that virtually nobody predicted half a century ago. We thought we'd be pushing buttons, and here we are clicking mice.
The opinionators come at the future from all different angles. Comic Dick Gregory defends the future but perhaps only as compared with the past: "The only thing good about 'the good old days' was, they left." Ralph Nader says futurists of yesterday foolishly envisioned a tomorrow "totally congenial to people's needs" without imagining such grim realities as pollution and congestion.
Andy Rooney of "60 Minutes" complains that "if we learn to do something--even if it's bad for us--we do it." At that point, he's talking about human cloning, which our beloved president has banned on "moral" grounds--and if there were ever a moral role model for Americans, it's certainly our beloved president. Rooney, meanwhile, sounds merely like a foolish ignoramus earlier in the program when he grumps of the great moon landing of 1969, "It meant zero. . . . It has done nothing for any of us."
This Luddite act of Rooney's is very tired. His eyebrows should get plucked. He should get lost. There's got to be a condo in Florida with his name on it.
Other commentators range from humorist Fran Lebowitz, who believes that all change is bad; authors Alvin and Heidi Toffler, who invented the apt term "future shock" and at one point amusingly argue over a date from the past while trying to make a point; novelist E.L. Doctorow, who looks back on the 1939 New York World's Fair as more of a World's Prayer, with the Second World War about to begin; and witty architect Philip Johnson, who notes that by 1964 and the next big New York World's Fair, "progress had rather frayed edges, didn't it?"
Levinson's film is rather obsessed with World's Fairs. The '64 fair promised some of the same miracles foretold at the '39 fair. And today the whole idea of World's Fairs, and of idealistic visions of the future, seems corny and anachronistic. Movies now made about the future usually depict it as a global war zone ruled by the same kinds of giant corporate entities that promised us utopia decades ago.
The concept of a future made glorious by technological advances seems a quaintly absurd thing of the past. So does the idee fixe of so many of the old films, which was that the American "housewife" would be freed from her daily chores by wondrous labor-saving devices. It just wasn't imagined that women would be working outside the home; people just thought of women as housewives, even in the future.
Carrie Fisher expresses her admiration for "The Jetsons"; Robert Klein says of futurists, "They never realized there'd be so many lawyers"; Martin Mull says, "They didn't take into account how stupid people were going to be" and Phyllis Diller scoffs of all the pies in skies of futures past, "Ha ha, promises promises!"
Designer Isaac Mizrahi, who is identified merely as a "personality" (well, he has one, yes), reminisces about robots and gripes about computers: "All they do is crash every other second"--one of the most painfully accurate observations made on the program.
Perennial nuisance Charlton Heston pops up to declare that there are "too many people on Earth as it is" and one realizes instantly that as president of the National Rifle Association, he is doing his best to correct that. It happens that Heston starred in three particularly pessimistic movies about the future: "The Omega Man," "Soylent Green" and, of course, the best of the trio, "Planet of the Apes."
In the course of his mindless palaver, Heston pronounces "panoply" as "panopoly," which sounds like a new board game.
Levinson's film becomes quite repetitious after a while and should probably have been shorter than its 95 (or so) minutes, but many of the guest experts have such provocative and irreverent ideas that it's worth staying tuned to the end. "The whole belief in progress is now out the window," architect Johnson says bluntly near the show's conclusion. Indeed, it's all we can do now merely to believe in the present.
At least today there are some of us around who still remember the future. Eventually it will all be forgotten.
CAPTION: The world of the 1964-65 World's Fair was teeming with promise.