Friday, November 5, 2021

Chronicles of Change (1975): NYS Museum Educational Film

by G. Jack Urso

 

Credit goes to my fellow blogger, the prolifically talented Chuck Miller whose blog post on Chronicles of Change inspired me to take a closer look at this short subject educational film.

From the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel.
 
Chronicles of Change is a short subject film (approximately 15:28) that was produced by the New York State Education Department and the New York State Museum and Science Service in 1975. For over two decades, staring in 1976, the year of the NYS Museum’s inauguration at the Empire State Plaza location, the film was essentially on permanent exhibition, shown throughout the day for a couple generations of schoolchildren and visitors. The film is provided above from the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel.
 
The film was originally shown in the museum's Huxley Theater, a small amphitheater located near the entrance to the gallery on the first floor. A film projector and a full-sized screen gave Chronicles of Change a gravitas worthy of its artistic merit. By the summer of 1999, however, the film was relegated to a small room opposite the Huxley with a couple benches seating about a dozen people in front of what was maybe a 24-inch TV monitor. It was a rather ignoble end for such a wonderful film.
 
The film utilizes documentary and industrial film techniques to tell a visual narrative of the influences of man and nature in the world around us. The narrative is built in stepping stones, starting from melting ice to streams, to plant life, to animal life, to new birth, to animals and man building and altering the world around us. There is a philosophical and poetic spirit to the film that marks it as a more artistic effort than the typical educational film.

“The softness of water will wear down the enduring stone.” {Chronicles of Change)
The film was produced, directed, and photographed by Don Guy, a documentary and short film maker whose career dates back to the early 1970s, according to his biography on his YouTube channel. Guy graduated from the UCLA School of Theatre, Film & Television with an MFA, and later accrued numerous awards and honors throughout his career, including a CLIO and a Cannes Golden Lion award as well as an Academy Award nomination in the Documentary Short Subject category. Despite his accolades, Guy remains fairly unknown outside the industry. Commercial film production usually gets regarded somewhat unfairly as the bastard corporate step-child of Hollywood, yet the filmmakers are true artists capable of producing meaningful and moving visual narratives.
 
While I am usually loath to cover topics raised by my blogger-friends for fear of seeming to poach their ideas, I was compelled to present this film to Aeolus 13 Umbra readers for two reasons. First, Chronicles of Change deals with influences, both of man and nature, which is the very mission statement of Aeolus 13 Umbra. Second, the film, particularly the narration and the overall nature theme, has had a significant influence on my poetry. Some of the verses from my poems Autumn Equinox and Summer Solstice show the influence of the film’s narrative language. I really can’t give justice to how significantly the film influenced me nor the moment of kismet when Chuck Miller blogged about it. It was like meeting an old, forgotten friend.

“In time, even mountains fall like the towers of ancient cities.” {Chronicles of Change)
In order to move forward the legacy of the film I made some small contributions. The version of the film originally posted is from a VHS tape. I edited out the color bars in the beginning and pick the film up at the audio track which begins 29 seconds before the visuals begin. This audio-only introduction provided the projectionist time to lower the lights and cues the audience the film is about to begin. I also trimmed the ending a bit to tighten up the unneeded space between the credits and the seal of the State of New York shown briefly at the very end. I wanted to as closely recreate the film experience as possible.
 
Further, I transcribed the film’s narration (written by Tom McGrath), provided below, which reveals a free verse organization that elevates the language to poetry rather than the dry observations that accompany most documentaries. The information in brackets indicates screen imagery.

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Chronicles of Change Transcript

[Opening: 29 seconds of black screen with a music background]
 
[Sun rises. Melting ice turns into water which runs down mountains, creating erosion]
 
The Sun reveals the Earth and all its life in endless variation.
 
Whatever is frozen into form shall in time change and flow, finding new forms and patterns.
 
The softness of water will wear down the enduring stone, and in its own time the stone will flow like water.
 
In time, even mountains fall like the towers of ancient cities, yet destruction may lead to creation and violence to repose.
 
What we see as permanence is only momentary, though its moment may seem as long to us as forever. 
 
[Images of mountains, lakes, and forests]
 
The shape and bounty of the lands and the waters all give opportunities and all sets limits to the culture that man will create.
 
Within the season and the cycles the world often appears beautiful and abundant, though sometimes its beauty is brief as a summer day.
 
The patterns of nature contain elemental and living forces ever merging and colliding.
 
[Storm clouds. thunder, and forest fires.]
 
Whole environments altered. New ones created. The survivors must adapt.
 
[Rain comes to quench out the fire, ocean waves crash on a beach, clouds roll through the sky.]
 
Within the body of these forces also lies the place and time for new beginnings.
 
Numberless forms adapted to myriad environments — insect to bird to animal to man.
 
Each of the creatures is its own mystery.
 
[Cells dividing, a butterfly expanding its wings, birds nesting with their eggs, a bee pollenating a flower, followed by other images evoking birth and new life.]
 
Sometimes we seem nothing but an appetite. All lives in the wild take their food directly from nature. Once man did the same, and we still look for the summer, hidden and around.
 
[A hand reaches for an apple. Various images of agriculture and agricultural workers.]
 
In our time, we have learned to transform nature, cultivate fields, extend and multiple our hands through the machines which are now part of our environment.

All creatures build on the wind. The spider’s airy city hangs over the void.
 
[Images of insects and animals in nature.]
 
The beaver’s home in his watery parish is no more secure from the winds of change.
 
For man, nail awaits for hammer and wood for saw — and some are content to observe.
 
Human adaptations are often rapid and restless because they are made through invention though laid out ever so true.
 
All that rises shall fall.
 
[Images of building construction and demolition.]
 
Destruction is married to creation.
 
This is the break-up of a frozen river — this is the leaf-fall of a city.
 
[Images of building construction.]
 
In the new season, the city shall rise again. The stone flowing like water, we build our lives with the elements — wind, water, earth, and fire — and the city rises in its mineral grandeur where man is the transformer.
 
But each of us also lives beyond nature. Each of us — a special talent among the crowd — learning, thinking, creating in our own human way.
 
[Camera follows a man walking through the streets and into a concert hall to conduct a rehearsal.]
 
Elemental and living forces ever merging and colliding. Intersections of and nature. We populate the very landscapes with images of humanity. Images of culture set on a great and enduring stage.
 
[Images of the landscape, bridges, homes, orchards, forests, mountains.]

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Sound + Vision
 
An ambient, natural soundbed sweetened with segment-specific sound effects is used throughout much of the film, but significant portions include the light and lyrical touch of The Paul Winter Consort, particularly the title track from their 1972 album Icarus which can be heard at the very beginning, setting the tone for the film early on.

Civilization grows by harnessing the individual efforts of many towards a common goal.
While the scenes of nature and wildlife were the highlights for me as a teenager, it is the section on agriculture starting at the 7:11 mark that impresses me the most now. There is a logical order to the visual imagery, from a single man picking an apple to many more hands picking a wider variety of fruits and vegetables to machine cultivation and preparing the produce for shipping. The camera glides above the fields and the heads of the workers as though the viewer is on a cloud. In its general composition, it recalls the New Deal government information films of the 1930s.
 
The construction segment beginning at is also a remarkable part of the film. Beginning at 8:52, we see nature’s architects, spiders and beavers, building their homes. This is juxtaposed with images of human construction at the 10:08 mark. Again, as with the agricultural segment, there is a logical order to the visual imagery. It begins with a single hammer pounding in a single nail to a single piece of wood. Then, more workers with more hammers and saws and a frame is built. A wall is erected. A building goes up. The visual composition complements the narration and advances the theme in a chronological progression.  

Chronicles of Change gives the viewer a broader perspective of the world around us.
As the camera pulls out at the end of the construction segment, we see the building under construction is a skyscraper in what presumably is New York City. At the 12:31 mark, the camera then shifts from a bird’s eye view of the street to eye-level and tracks the movement of a man dressed in black walking through the streets into an outside performance space with an orchestra (this is not The Paul Winter Consort). He is the conductor. If this segment had been done in the 1950s or even the 1960s one would likely see the conductor to be an older man of European extraction, but here he is a young African American man with a righteous afro and a full brush mustache.

Civilization is much like an orchestra comprised of every race, creed, and color, working together to create something greater than their individual contribution.
It is a simple, innocuous image, but for 1975, when segregation was still active in parts of America just ten years previously, it signals that times had indeed changed.
 
Changing Eras, Changing Displays
 
Back in the late 1970s and the early 1980s the New York State Museum had some great exhibits that incorporated sound and vision. In addition to Chronicles of Change, there was also a small, circular room with dimmable mood lighting and a Sensurround–type speaker system that ran a sound production of a recreation of the November 1950 Adirondack storm that came to be known as “The Big Blowdown.” In fact, the name of the exhibit was “Blowdown Theater,” which elicited endless nervous giggles from middle school students. Located on the left just prior to entering the Adirondack Wilderness exhibit room, it was a unique audio experience that let visitors appreciate some of the power of a good old-fashioned Nor’easter.
 
Another exhibit, located somewhere near the museum gift shop, was a two-story tall screen on which an ever-shifting light show was displayed. I forget the name of the display and information on exhibits of the time is woefully thin. Still, it was a wonderful full-sensory experience to go from Chronicles of Change to “Blowdown Theater” to a psychedelic light show all within the space of a single visit. It broke up the pacing of the typically, traditionally turgid static exhibits, some of which still remain after 45 years.
 
I last saw Chronicles of Change at the NYS Museum in July 1999 when it had been moved to that small viewing room I previously mentioned. I’m not sure if it had been in continuous exhibition between 1976 and 1999, which seems unlikely, but it certainly is not any longer and I would be surprised if it had been shown at all in the past two decades. “Blowdown Theater” is also a relic of the distant past and I’ve yet to meet anyone who remembers the psychedelic light show. The last time I was at the museum it was probably about ten years ago. Chronicles of Change was long gone. There were some new exhibits, but one could still see the faded display information cards with the worn out 1970‘s-era lettering styles. The lumberjacks, West Side barbershop, and Tuck High Chinese dry goods store from Mott Street were still around. It was very much like visiting old friends, and noticing the absence of some others you never missed until they were gone.
 
And that’s one thing that never seems to change.
 

                         

 

2 comments:

  1. I don't remember the film, but I do remember the small amphitheatre. I too spent alot of time on my own walking through the new museum. Wish I appreciated it more then. An excellent film, thanks for giving it, and my memories, new life. Love your last sentence. So true.

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    1. Thank you! It's always good to discover when people share the same memories as you.

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