All Things Bakelite: The Age Of Plastic


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

All Things Bakelite
"At a point when he can hardly be annoyed by it, this tribute seems a fitting one.."

When we try to imagine what it was like to live in the past, one of the most difficult adjustments to make is understanding just how much less stuff, there was, and how few materials were available to make it from. Right through from prehistory to the start of the 20th Century, clay and metal were the only really malleable yet resilient materials we had. Everything changed in 1907 when Leo Hendrik Baekeland hit upon the formula for the world's first useful plastic. It was the start of a revolution in consumer culture and it paved the way for everything from disposable shopping bags to multifunctional prosthetic limbs, disco and space exploration. In medical contexts plastic has saved thousands of lives, yet it is choking our oceans and could be the death of us all. How did we come to this?

Like the lightbulb and the atomic bomb, plastic isn't really something that can be laid at the door of one person. Numerous chemists were working on it at the same time and sooner or later one of them would have got there. That it happened to be Baekeland was in some ways a stroke of luck, because this quiet, diligent man saw it in a purely positive way, seeking to be useful, but he wasn't a savvy businessman and John E Maher's documentary details how he struggled to keep control of his invention. If you're wondering why you haven't heard more about him in the past, it's because he had no interest in being a celebrity scientist, preferring to spend all his time on his work - sometimes at the expense of family, including the wife whom he described as his greatest discovery - but now, at a point when he can hardly be annoyed by it, this tribute seems a fitting one.

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Baekeland made a good amount of money from his work. There are endearing pictures of him, late in life, enjoying what were popularly considered to be the luxuries of the age. Photographs like these, together with the testimony of descendants and extracts from his daily diary, form the basis of a fascinating character study. The film is at its best when focusing on this and it's a shame there isn't more of it, because despite being only an hour long, this does feel padded. There's a guide to the basics of polymer chemistry with clear, unfussy illustrations which most viewers should find easy to understand, and there's a brief look at the problems with plastic pollution, but presenting this as a cinematic essay on plastic seems a bit overblown given how much is left unsaid. Ditzy little musical numbers seem to be an attempt to generate more popular appeal, but they're overlong and feel awkward in context, especially as the film largely fails to address the impact of plastic on music culture.

What we do get are brief reflections on bakelite in art and fashion, including the way that early pieces of bakelite jewellery remain sought-after collectors' items, and the way that artists still work with this material today, despite it having been superseded in other contexts. These are interesting, just skimpy - really, any one of these topics could sustain a whole documentary. If you go into it without expecting too much, however, you'll find this an interesting portrait of the inventor and an important, if slight, reflection on one of the biggest breakthroughs, for good or ill, that humankind has ever made.

Reviewed on: 29 Jun 2021
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A documentary about the 'father of modern plastics', Leo Hendrik Baekeland.
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Director: John E Maher

Writer: John E Maher

Starring: Adam Behr, Shaun Branigan, Jorge Caicedo, Chris Davis

Year: 2018

Runtime: 59 minutes

Country: US


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The Story Of Plastic