Book Reviews

The Beauty of Fluid Motion

How the future became fashionable

By Virginia Postrel | May 20, 2020
Sigmama (Flickr/chiyomaru1)
Sigmama (Flickr/chiyomaru1)

Jet Age Aesthetic: The Glamour of Media in Motion by Vanessa R. Schwartz; Yale University Press, 228 pp., $40

In the original Star Trek series, which first aired in 1966, the USS Enterprise zips through the galaxy at several times the speed of light while crew members go about their duties as if walking the halls of a hotel or office building. When the ship arrives at a planet, the landing party beams down instantly, without the delays of ports and docking. Requiring simple special effects, the transporter room worked within the show’s limited budget. It also proved an artistic advantage by speeding up the action, and “allowed us to be well into the story by script page two,” recalled Gene Roddenberry, the show’s creator.

Although Vanessa R. Schwartz doesn’t mention the show, Star Trek exemplifies what she identifies as the essential quality of its era’s jet age glamour: “sensationless fluid motion.” It’s an appeal altogether different from the speed glorified in early 20th-century commercial posters and Futurist paintings. “Thanks to the jet, people now lived in a world moving so fast that the future had caught up to the present, and such transitions, eased by technology, had become smoothly effortless,” she writes in Jet Age Aesthetic.

Unlike earlier modes of transportation, jets largely insulated their passengers from both the landscape and any sense of motion. Schwartz, who teaches art history, history, and film at the University of Southern California, quotes a 1954 Newsweek article assuring readers that jet travel “will seem like slipping through space. No vibrations, no lurches, and no sense of speed.” She notes that Frank Sinatra’s chart-topping 1958 hit “Come Fly With Me” makes no reference to speed, instead evoking effortless motion. Its lovers “float down to Peru” and “glide, starry-eyed.”

The promise of fluid motion wasn’t unique to the air. Architects, planners, and visual creators brought it down to earth “by extending, promoting, and embedding the singular experience of the jet—as a value and as a sensory experience—to life on the ground,” Schwartz writes.

Instead of building primarily for planes, new airports emphasized the passengers’ experience. Striving to eliminate slowdowns, they sought to get as close as possible to one traveler’s dream of “just a passthrough where we would never wait because the airplanes would be constantly taking off. We’d walk three seconds and suddenly be in the plane.”

The people movers at Dulles Airport, officially called “mobile lounges,” were Eero Saarinen’s attempt to eliminate friction. “With high-speed jet planes,” said the architect, “the sense of ‘standing around’ and the slow processes on the ground will, psychologically, produce even more aggravation and annoyance than now.” (He was right about that.) Instead of walking long distances to distant gates, passengers would settle back in a comfortable lounge that would take them directly to their plane. Of course, it didn’t work out that way. Planes got too big for a single lounge to accommodate a flight’s passengers, and the people movers became yet another mode change slowing down the trip.

Glamour is a form of persuasion, and Schwartz’s book is about how jet age glamour changed the way people thought—and still think—about the relationship between here and there, the material and the immaterial, humans and technology. Jet travel became a metaphor encapsulating new ideas about what it meant to live in a technological age, where people and images circulated worldwide and time and distance seemed to collapse.

The readers of picture magazines like Life and Paris Match could travel the world with celebrity photographers as they captured the lives of the jet-setting Beautiful People. “To be a part of the jet set meant to be always arriving or departing,” Schwartz writes. The red carpet tarmac photo became a glamorous trope. Instead of inspiring pity as the displaced refugees they actually were, ruined aristocrats and exiled artists drew admiration and envy.

In France, middle-class families could spend their Sundays plane-watching at Orly Airport, and in America they might vacation at that most enduring of jet age experiences: Disneyland. “Like the jet age airport,” Schwartz writes, “Disneyland also made the experience of motion itself into something beautiful, pleasurable, and easy.” Ingeniously guiding visitors through a technology-infused landscape, the park offered a three-dimensional experience of story and spectacle. Novel modes of transport, from the Monorail and Skyway to Peter Pan’s flight and the boats moving visitors through Pirates of the Caribbean, were among its proudest accomplishments.

Appropriately enough, one of Disneyland’s star attractions declared, “It’s a Small World.” The jet age made globalization friendly and alluring.

Thoughtful and amply documented, Jet Age Aesthetic immerses the reader in a past that is at once as familiar as Disneyland and as strange as a Viking banquet hall. We do, as Schwartz argues, inhabit a mental landscape wrought by jet age glamour. We’re used to seeing images from all over the globe, with far less friction than the editors of Life could have imagined. (Schwartz’s account of the herculean efforts required to rush color photos of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation into print is a sharp reminder of how much the world has changed.) The same was true, until recently, about people and goods.

But glamour always contains an illusion; the word glamour originally meant a literal magic spell that made the viewer see things that weren’t there. Glamour can never fulfill its promise of effortless grace. The real world has frictions, complications, and flaws, from the terrorist skyjackings of the 1970s and the long lines at Disneyland to passport inspections and COVID-19. Fluid motion is nowhere to be found. Star Trek’s transporter was just a special effect.

Sitting at home amid the global pandemic, we wonder when, if ever, we’ll again be able to take for granted the ability to jet off to distant places—even with delays and security checks. Yet in our locked-down state, we can still see a flicker of the jet age aesthetic. It’s called Zoom.

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