The Austin Chronicle

All Things Bakelite: The Age of Plastic

Not rated, 59 min. Directed by John E. Maher. Voice by Adam Behr.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., July 16, 2021

Oh, Polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride, how you changed the world. And, oh, Leo Baekeland, how we depend on what you created when you formulated the first synthetic plastic, Bakelite. The Belgian migrant and researcher was as much a father of modernity as Thomas Edison, and All Things Bakelite: The Age of Plastic is a charming if brief chemistry lesson on the development of a material upon which the 20th century was built.

Not that most people remember, as shown in a vox pop intro of befuddled citizens who have no clue what it is ("artificial bacon" being the most common answer). Fortunately, there is a succession of chemists who explain what was so special about Baekeland's innovation, while great-grandson and executive producer Hugh Karraker is on-hand to chirpily give the familial viewpoint.

If the opening lecture leaves your head spinning (much as director John E. Maher tries to make it as entry-level and entertaining as possible), then the second half is a little easier to embrace for those who flunked chemistry. This is where Baekeland (if a little too briefly) becomes the highly idiosyncratic central character in his own story, as well as the deeper examination of why Bakelite become the chosen material of the early 20th century. Talk about form and function: it arrived just as American was starting to embrace Art Deco, and the seamless, streamlined, seemingly friction-free material was the perfect medium for the new era of industrial designers, artists, and jewelers. Having a material that molded like rubber but held its shape like carved mahogany, with the translucent luster somewhere between jade and scrimshaw, opened the door to our plastic world - with all the polluting perils that entails.

Maher can't not mention the trail of debris that Baekeland's invention left behind, but it's a brief chapter within what is ultimately an enthusiastic ode to the possibilities of science. There's a boisterousness, whether it comes from researchers explaining why future plastics won't be as bad, or in musical interstitials, courtesy of regular performers from Austin's own Esther's Follies (hat-tip to the period piece comedy of Ellana Kelter, Shaun Branigan, Shannon Sedwick, and Nathalie Holmes in those numbers). It may feel like you're auditing a fun lecture course (mercifully, no test at the end), but you'll definitely have a better grasp on the material at the end.

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