I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Masters of Communication: Charles and Ray Eames

by Robert Ham
Dec. 10, 2011

The spare beauty and narrative economy of the film work of Charles & Ray Eames should really come as no surprise to anyone who has seen the couple's design work. Their fabric patterns, chairs, buildings...everything they did was approached with an eye for combining simplicity, functionality, and beauty.

Applying those principles to films is a much trickier prospect than one might realize. Just take a look at any Hollywood creation from the last 15 years and you'll see what I'm talking about. In comparison, the Eames films are almost meditative to watch. They unfold slowly and patiently, getting the subject matter across using simple narrations and augmenting it all with a bouncy jazz score. It is impressively easy to drink in and absorb everything they are trying to accomplish and, yes, communicate.

Because for as much as scholars like to point to their 1968 documentary Powers of Ten as being their defining film work, I would much more quickly put the emphasis on A Communications Primer.

Made 15 years earlier than Ten, this tidy 20 minute film focuses on, as Anna Daly in issue 33 of Senses of Cinema so succinctly put it, how "clear communication betters humanity."i

To bring this idea to bear, the two move from a poetic tracking shot of telephone wires shot from below to a schematic created by mathematician Claude Shannonii that spells out in the simplest terms how information is transmitted from the source to the intended recipient. As the film spells out, no matter how complex the machinery and how complicated the actual message, all communication can be broken down to this one straightforward formula.

In fact, it's hard not to watch the next film in this second set of Eames films presented by Network Awesome—a promotional documentary that tracks the creation of one of their most indelible designs, the DAX chair created for Herman Miller iii—without appreciating how clearly they were able to get a very simple message across: you want to buy this chair.

There is no narration, just quick three-to-five second shots of workers molding these gorgeous chairs out of fiberglass, coloring them, and then boxing them up to be shipped to stores. You don't need to actually know any of the processes that they are using to make the chairs to be absolutely engrossed. And by the end, you're almost salivating at the prospect of obtaining and sitting in one.

Another key factor to their discussion of communication is noise, those outside influences and distractions and other elements that distort and confuse messages. In Communications, they use the example of reading a book on a train to point out the variety of influences that could make absorbing information that much harder to do.

I've stuck on that one notion of the communication framework ever since watching the film for the first time. Because, goodness knows, noise is something that we can't seem to avoid in our daily lives anymore.

For example, as I type this, my Twitter feed is getting relayed to me tweet by tweet through a pop-up window that appears in the lower right hand corner of my screen. Behind my Word document is my web browser, featuring an array of distractions from colorful ads on the Thesaurus.com screen (the most visible one being influenced by my Google searches and offering up an array of Eames chairs for sale, natch) to the tab holding my Facebook page that blinks to let me know that my older brother sent me a message.

To see such a minimalist type of film amid the maximalist lifestyle that I tend to lead felt downright revolutionary to my weary mind. And it helped further clarify why documentaries such as Helvetica, Visual Acousticsiv about the architectural photographer Julius Shulman, and Objectified have struck such a chord with viewers. These are all films that almost beg for a return to the clean lines and clear fonts of modernism. Helvetica especially emphasizes just how far flung some designers went—particularly Chris Ashworth the editor and art director of Ray Gun Magazinev—to push against the directness exemplified by the titular font.

So, how does this relate back to Ray and Charles Eames and their film work? Try this little exercise: watch any of the Eames films in today's presentation with the sound off. All of them are just as engaging, but more importantly they are just as informative. The core of their subject matter comes across with amazing clarity.

Strangely, that might the one thing that the Eames films have in common with modern blockbusters. The Hollywood aesthetic has been reduced to the most black & white ideas so that, again, you could watch the latest Michael Bay epic with no audio and still follow the storyline. And that way you wouldn't have to grit your teeth through the insufferable dialogue.

i http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2004/cteq/charles_and_ray_eames/

ii http://www.ieeeghn.org/wiki/index.php/Oral-History:Claude_E._Shannon

iii http://eamesgallery.com/cart/detail_prod.php?id=529

iv http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/01/garden/01film.html

v http://www.chris-ashworth.com/ray-gun-publish/ray-gun-magazine-covers/

Robert Ham is a writer based in Portland, OR where he's a regular contributor to Willamette Week and The Oregonian. You can also read his work in Alternative Press and self-titled magazine. He likes black-capped chickadees and Chinese noodles.