Closer Than We Think (2017) Review

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Closer Than We Think (2017): 7 out of 10: is a documentary that delves into the life and visionary work of Arthur Radebaugh, a futurist Imagineer whose groundbreaking illustrations shaped the collective imagination of mid-20th century America. The film explores Radebaugh’s journey from a humble beginning to becoming a pioneer in the realm of speculative futurism.

Through interviews with historians, scholars, and those who knew Radebaugh personally, the documentary unravels the complex layers of the artistic and societal context in which his work flourished. Viewers are taken on a mesmerizing visual journey through Radebaugh’s vivid illustrations, which depicted fantastical visions of tomorrow’s world, filled with sleek flying cars, towering skyscrapers, and futuristic gadgets.

As the documentary progresses, it delves into Radebaugh’s personal struggles and triumphs, revealing the challenges he faced in bringing his imaginative concepts to life amidst the tumultuous backdrop of the Cold War era. Despite facing skepticism and resistance from some quarters, Radebaugh’s unwavering passion for futurism and his keen insight into emerging technologies propelled him to the forefront of his field.

Through archival footage and interviews with Radebaugh’s contemporaries, the documentary paints a portrait of a man ahead of his time, whose rediscovery of his visionary artwork continues to inspire generations of artists, scientists, and dreamers. Closer Than We Think celebrates Radebaugh’s enduring legacy as a trailblazer in the realm of speculative futurism, reminding us that the future is indeed closer than we think.

The Good

The Good: I love illustration art (Have a few nice original pieces hanging on the walls of my house) and this film features many beautiful pieces. I also love fifties futurism and the craziness involved. Though I am (as are some people in the film) unfamiliar with Arthur Radebaugh, he clearly did pleasant work.

I didn’t find the theory about his extraordinary ability to predict the future particularly well thought out (If you are doing a daily or weekly comic strip predicting the future, you’re bound to get a few right.)

The Bad

The Bad: One problem with doing a documentary about an unknown artist with no living relatives and whose art is mostly found through accidental dumpster diving is that you have some very thin pieces to hang your film on. As a result, the film is padded with many non related segues from electric car fanatics to interviews with people on how they never heard of him. Also featured are proponents of the theory that libraries moving to microfiche destroyed American history.

The Ugly

The Ugly: Arthur Radebaugh was never well known and spent his retirement in poor health doing piecemeal work and living part-time out of a van. Or Arthur Radebaugh finally left his shrewish wife and hooked up with this young blonde and spent the last years of his life just making art and living in his van with a girlfriend half his age. I mean, I am not saying that is my retirement plan by any means, but there are worse fates to befall a man than to just relax and make art and love. After all, he was retired. Film is weirdly judgemental, linking financial and commercial success to success in living a life.

The electric car guy points out that Arthur Radebaugh predicted the modern electric car. No, no, he didn’t. The first practical electric cars were produced in the 1880s, not 1980s. People used gas because bluntly it was a lot cheaper and had much longer range. There was plenty of electrical based mass transit when Arthur Radebaugh wrote those comic strips. The New York Subway, for example, was just about to celebrate its sixtieth birthday. This is a fallacy that TV Tropes calls older than they think.

It is surprising to modern audiences that Napoleon III used a fax machine for all legal documents. (Called a pantelegraph for the curious). I wouldn’t expect an ordinary joe to realise that the electric car is only twenty years older than the fax machine and the fax machine was used when France ruled Mexico. I would, however, expect the electric car expert to know this.

Both the electric car guy (Paul Scott) and the medical futurist (Aubrey de Grey) could have usually come straight off the set of Birdemic.

In Conclusion

In Conclusion: Closer Than We Think’s bits are more interesting than the whole. What we have is a side glance into the life of an illustrator who was excellent at commercial art and pivoted to daily cartoon work when commercial art moved more to photography. A broader look at the nurture of futurism and perhaps a better focus on some of Arthur Radebaugh’s better know peers may have been in the movie’s best interest.

The bigger question of how do we judge a man’s life and work is a takeaway I am certain was not meant to be director’s Brett Ryan Bonowicz point of Closer Than we Think. Do we judge a man simply based on his fame or financial success or even his impact on the world moving forward? Or do we acknowledge that one can live a good life without any of those boxes being checked off?

I feel Arthur Radebaugh was a more interesting and fun guy than the movie let on. Spend your retirement living in a custom van with a car phone and a young girl travelling rural America painting barns funky colors may not make you a traditional success. But it is living life on your own terms. And that, to me, is a success.

Plus Arthur Radebaugh may have invented modern van life. That has to be worth something, no?

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