Eames, Wilder, and Total War
When the philosopher-bartender in Billy Wilder’s Irma La Douce (1962) says to Nestor Patou (a cop turned pimp played by Jack Lemmon), “Life is total war, my friend. Nobody has a right to be a conscientious objector!” he summed up a lifetime of work. Every Wilder film is haunted by the conscientious objector, a morally pure figure—or puritan—who resists every temptation, but also every risk, in order to maintain his purity. There are only two ways out for the puritan: death or conversion. Conversion to what? From objectivity, rules, laws, to acting, improvisation, masquerade: to art under conditions of total war. Wilder’s lifelong friends and collaborators Charles and Ray Eames followed a similar course in their work. Total war for the Eameses meant a kind of abysmal responsibility for their works. Because architecture carried vast consequences in the world, the architect was on the hook for kinds of uses the creator could only dream of. Looking at the Eames/Wilder collaborations as well as their shared mode of production—art as a consequence of total war—reveals how some of the most celebrated popular artists of mid-century were some of the most rigorous thinkers of the aesthetic in the twentieth century.