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December 5, 2012

How an experimental film changed the way we see Chicago

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CHICAGO —

Endlessly imitated in commercials and Hollywood films ("Men in Black" and "Contact" among them) and predating Google Earth (and Google Mars) by decades, the zoom continues to captivate viewers, leaving them either awed or overwhelmed by journey's end. Paul Schrader, a devout admirer of the original "rough sketch" "Powers of Ten" film that predated the final Chicago-based version by a decade, wrote that the interstellar roller-coaster ride allowed the viewer to "think of himself a citizen of the universe."

Charles Eames wanted the film to appeal to a 10-year-old as well as a physicist and claimed the goal was for viewers to experience a "gut feeling" about dimensions in time and space. The message was received. In 1998, "Powers of Ten" earned a spot in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, the same institution that claims over 1 million archival items gathered from the Eames Office after their doors closed in 1989. That same office space in Venice, Calif., was later occupied by Facebook. When the Eameses established a temporary office in the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, circa 1950, in a previously unused top-floor space, even the owner of the building, political activist Sargent Shriver, wasn't quite sure what they were up to. But the Eameses were once again ahead of the curve. Sixty years later, their makeshift office will soon be home to the Chicago offices for Google.

This year marks the 35th anniversary of "Powers of Ten," and Dec. 15 is the centennial of Ray Eames' birth. (Ray completed her own remarkable powers of 10 journey in 1988, passing away 10 years to the day after Charles, her husband of 37 years.) The magic of their mind meld has been preserved in "Beautiful Details," a spectacular new book exploring the Eames legacy that will enliven, or perhaps leave you questioning, your coffee table and the furniture that surrounds it. Perhaps even the cosmos.

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