Documentary Review: Trippy “Instant Dreams” sees the analog magic of Polaroids

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Back in 1970, Dr. Edwin Land, the genius who invented the Polaroid/Land Camera, did a cryptic short film — just him in a lab coat wandering through a gutted factory talking about the future.

Land pulled a wallet for size comparison out of his pocket and spoke of “a camera that would be like, oh, the telephone…our long awaited ultimate camera that is a part of the evolving human being.”

More than one wag has suggested, with cause, that Land was predicting the birth of the cell phone camera.

“For a product to be truly new, the world must not be ready for it,” he said. The world wasn’t ready for cell-phones then, any more than it was ready for instant “one-step photography” which Land’s camera, unveiled in Feb. of 1947, heralded.

But one thing Land could not have envisioned was the photographers, artists and others who would not let go of his out-of-date tech even after his death (in 1991) or his company’s demise (2008).

“Instant Dreams” is an ethereal, trippy look at the properties of the film favored by aficionados, the “Impossible” chemistry that made these “develops in 60 seconds” images and the nostalgia for this very human, analog technology from a time before “the digital dark ages took over our lives.”

Dutch filmmaker Willem Baptist has a hint of Werner Herzog about his style. His truth-in-advertising “dreamy” documentary follows quirky German-born artist Stefanie Schneider, who wanders the deserts of the American Southwest in a vintage pink bathrobe and Crocs, taking Polaroid art shots of her hen and whatever model she can engage for the day.

Schneider has a hoard of foil-packet expiration-dated Polaroid film stockpiled in her vintage fridge (naturally) because “Colors show up in a very very different way, not what you actually see with your eyes” on these photographs. She relishes even the splotches, bars or streaks, the age-or-light induced imperfections of such images.

We track Stephen Herchen, a retired Polaroid chemist as he works with “The Impossible Project” trying to decode “a perfect chemical formula” that “changed the way we captured and imagined the world” which Land and Co. came up with for their almost magical process, but which was lost as the company died.

And New York magazine editor and author of “Instant: The Story of Polaroid” Chris Bonanos provides the history of Land and the camera and preaches and practices its use to one and all, a prophet for an analog religion that has all but disappeared in our digital age.

Baptist treats us to lurid images of chemicals mixing and molecules bonding.

We hear snippets of voices from the past — such as Land himself, both explaining the camera and philosophizing about how it changes the world and where it fits in human evolution.

We hear newsman Lowell Thomas on old newsreels extolling the virtues of this “new” technology — “press a button, and have a picture.”

Long-dead science fiction writer and futurist Arthur C. Clarke discusses how tricky it is, predicting the future and being ahead of your time, as Land was.

And we hear a performance by Werner Herzog himself, passionately, creepily, seductively instructing the listener on how to use these amazing old school cameras.

There are TV commercials, mostly from Europe, advertising this product of American ingenuity (not, alas, the famed James Garner/Mariette Hartley ads from “Peak Polaroid” here in the US).

Bonanos describes and even demonstrates (Baptist follows him in to parties, out in public with his camera) the “social” interchange” that is part of why he thinks of this process as inherently human, because waiting for the shot to develop “forces you to make small talk to fill in the moment.”

The cameras were knocked, back in the day, for not providing images as sharp and deep as 35mm film, an idea which Bonanos scoffs — “The eye forgives everything if it’s a good photograph.”

Missing from all these unidentified speakers, models and witnesses, is any sense of the tactile connection that has made all things analog — from watches to turntables to real wood to celluloid — so popular with the young and the hip.

Baptist loses himself in the artist’s reverie, a little mini film within a film starring the actor Udo Kier in the desert, and in the swirls of chemicals that tie the various sequences together.

“Instant Dreams” still turns out to be a pretty good argument for the magical in a world that is “losing magic.”

 

3stars2

MPAA Rating: unrated, nudity, a couple of instances of profanity

Cast: Stefanie Schneider, Stephen Herchen, Chris Bonanos

Credits:  Written and directed by Willem Baptist. A Synergetic release.

Running time: 1:31

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