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December 4, 2012

How an experimental film changed the way we see Chicago

CHICAGO — Perhaps no American city appreciates being at the center of the universe more than Chicago. Workmanlike and down-to-earth the majority of their days, Chicagoans savor those moments when all roads lead to the prairieland. Even as we grapple with an international reputation for our inexcusable crime rate, we all breathed a sigh of relief when this summer's NATO summit, the first on U.S. soil outside the Beltway, showcased the city's international reach without ravaging the Loop. During this year's election night celebrations inside McCormick Place, the country's largest convention center, we were afforded another opportunity on the world stage.

On election night, hoping I might encounter some of the same crowd spillover that defined the camaraderie and openness of Obama's victory rally in Grant Park in 2008, I was confronted instead with the usual convention-center congestion: street closings, revolving doors spitting out those without tickets, road flares glowing in the crosswalks. Shut off from the monolithic superstructure housing all the fun, I wanted to rip the roof from its foundation and peer down at the spectacle within. While McCormick Place trended on Twitter worldwide, I imagined distant onlookers pinpointing the exact spot where I was standing on Google Earth, trying to get their bearings. And I was reminded of the power of "Powers of Ten," the 1977 experimental film that surveyed these grounds from above as never before.

Has Chicago, or any city, been captured as beautifully and precisely on film? Has a sequence spurred more awareness of the vastness of space than the now-classic "Powers of Ten" zoom? And would there even be a Google Earth to tinker with had this masterwork not poured from the minds of Charles and Ray Eames?

The film's premise is deceptively simple. For nine minutes, the narrator, physicist Philip Morrison, guides the viewer on a fantastic voyage that begins with an overhead shot of a couple lounging by the lake in a Chicago park, a spot close to Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears, and equidistant to McCormick Place and Grant Park. The camera then tracks back above the cityscape and up through the stratosphere, reaching back to the edge of the known universe. We then drop back down to Earth and reunite with the parkgoers. The persistent camera continues its descent, now plunging past dead skin cells in one of the picnicker's hands before isolating a single proton in the nucleus of a carbon atom, plugging away in a tiny blood vessel.

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