BOOTLEG FILES 483: “Future Shock” (1972 documentary hosted by Orson Welles).
LAST SEEN: The film is on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Under the radar production that languished in obscurity for years.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely.
In 1970, Alvin Toffler topped the best-seller charts with his nonfiction book “Future Shock.” This book offered a depressing view of a near-term future where the rapid deterioration of traditional values and the equally frenetic advancements in science and technology promised to create a world that would be hostile and chaotic. In Toffler’s view, society was facing “too much change in too short a period of time.”
Needless to say, this intriguing view appealed to the cynical mood of the early 1970s, which had barely survived the upheaval of the previous decade. A film version of the book seemed like a natural extension of Toffler’s commentary. However, the resulting screen adaptation of “Future Shock” warped Toffler’s serious ideas into a shambles of unintentional comedy.
At the core of the mayhem was no less a figure than Orson Welles, who was recruited to act as the on-screen narrator. Welles, however, seemed more interested in talking about himself than advocating Toffler’s concerns – in his initial scenes, the great star puffs on a giant cigar while barreling through an airport, riding in a limousine and wandering about a spacious mansion that was supposedly lent to Welles by an absent friend. While this is going on, he informs the reader about the demands of his peripatetic lifestyle. Of course, Welles is endlessly entertaining when he is the subject. But when he puts his own life on the back burner and dives into the narration provided to him, something changes. It suddenly feels like his ponderous line readings are a subtle clue that that he is not taking anything he says too seriously.
But, then again, what is there to take seriously? “Future Shock” opens with a shot of young couple walking through the woods. Their faces are initially in shadow, and when they come closer to the camera it is revealed that they are actually robots wearing wigs and the hippie-dippie fashions of the day.
After this, “Future Shock” plays like an ADD-inspired rant. Rampant consumerism is criticized, with Welles pointing out that “more than 1,000 books” are published every day. Obviously, the success of the book industry is a sign of a society out of whack.
There is also a slam at the rise of computer technology. This, of course, refers to the old UNIVAC-style computers that were the size of a garden shed and operated with reel-to-reel tapes and punch cards. Welles channeled Toffler’s complaint about computers creating a new form of computer-generated artwork, dubbed “instant art.” This is also seen as a threat to society.
The film then shifts into complaints about the changes in how people relate to each other, with a new focus on temporary relationships rather than long-standing bonds. “Even friends don’t last,” moans Welles as a dramatized scene shows a little girl trading in a broken doll for a new doll at her neighborhood toy shop.
If that’s not bad enough, there is an assault on old buildings (how dare they tear down the old in order to make way for the new!), followed by an acknowledgement on the challenges facing telephone directory publishers – it seems the White Pages have to be updated “every day in an effort to keep track of the mobile society.” The film then finds a group of transient young adults, for whom “home is a place to leave.”
The film also sails into scientific efforts designed to change how people view themselves and each other. We are told that research is underway to allow people to change their skin color and manipulate their race – which is illustrated by a bizarre scene where blue- and orange-faced individuals emerge from an elevator. The concept of artificial intelligence is raised, with the suggestion that it will ultimately result in the creation of “artificial people.” This is followed by a preview of the technology that would create “test tube babies.” Advances in prosthetic limbs and organ transplants are also cited.
“Rapid change places a heavy burden on the fragile fabric of life,” Welles declares. This is accentuated by several alternative lifestyle choices: a “group marriage” set-up in San Francisco is shown, along with a wedding where a priest blesses the union of two men. This gay marriage scene is described by Welles as “the setting for a quiet revolution” – which is highly surprising, considering that no one in 1972 was openly calling for the legal recognition of same-sex couples.
Then, there is a glimpse of the problems that dribbled down from the late 1960s: campus unrest, the proliferation of X-rated films, labor unrest among municipal civil servants (including the sight of police officers on strike). The film fumbles and bumbles along before reaching a hazy meditation on the type of world will be inherited by the era’s children.
Whatever, it would not be a world where “Future Shock” was revered as a classic film. Director Alex Grasshoff presented a dump of disorganized logic, broad statements, silly imagery and enervated distress over a dozen different subjects. He wrapped this nonsense in a creepy score by jazz composer Gil Mellé while Welles squeezed melodrama from every other syllable in his narration.
Mercifully, this wacky film only ran a mere 42 minutes. Although it was shown out of competition at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival, “Future Shock” had little commercial value. I have not located a record of a theatrical release or a U.S. television broadcast, although McGraw-Hill picked up the rights for nontheatrical presentation. A number of Net denizens have posted messages in which they recalled seeing the film in school during the 1970s, including one person who remembered seeing this in a classroom as late as 1979.
“Future Shock” has never been released for home entertainment release. A none-too-pristine dupe from a 16mm McGraw-Hill print is on YouTube in a five-part installment. This posting was brought to my attention by my Film Threat colleague Jeremy Knox, and I am grateful to Jeremy for being able to learn about this strange little flick and its Henny Penny fretting about a disastrous future.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!