Rick Rawlins is a successful graphic designer who has, for half a century, has kept half of a delicate sugar egg that he received as an eight-year-old at another child’s birthday party in Washington state in 1970. He is also one of the fascinating subjects of Objects, a magnificent new documentary from Vincent Liota, about the meaning we find in the inanimate.
You probably have a lot of questions: What is a sugar egg? Why has Rawlins held onto it? Why does this sound like something I would hear about on public radio? When you learn Rawlin’s reason for keeping the egg, you — or at least I — recognize its as completely reasonable and justified, as well as piercingly relatable. Of course, I’m one of those weirdos who, like Rawlins and Liota, believes that objects hold history and meaning, at least in the hands of those who recognize their value. Someone asks in the film if a pencil is more valuable if Albert Einstein has held it. If your answer is “of course,” Objects is very much a movie for you.
The film, which played at last year’s Heartland International Film Festival in Indianapolis and is now streaming, clocks in at just over an hour, but elegantly packs in decades of memories and stories. Besides Rawlins, we spend time with deadpan-funny author Heidi Julavits, whose interest in a tan camel crewneck sweater leads her to investigate the life and stuff of a French actress, Isabel Corey.
We also get to know Robert Krulwich, a longtime friend of Liota who is a science correspondent for NPR and previously co-created and co-hosted Radiolab. He is perhaps less known as the proud owner of several leaves of dead grass plucked from a patch of Central Park, for reasons he eloquently explains in Objects.
The film turns from a thoughtful and entertaining meditation on the meaning of objects into an low-key suspense thriller when one of Liota’s subjects takes an interest in another and Rawlins’ egg comes into the temporary possession of Radiolab, which did a story about it in 2014.
Radiolab is interested in the idea that the digitization of everything has sped the demise of hoarding physical objects: Who needs old records and books and press clippings when your phone can hold more than your apartment? Krulwich’s Radiolab co-creator and former co-host Jad Abumrad is among those skeptical of the notion that there’s personal history imbued in old knick knacks. Radiolab sets out to render the sugar egg less special by technological means, at which point in the film Krulwich makes the Einstein’s pencil analogy.
The film worked especially well in the context of a film festival in Indianapolis, a city that has taken care to preserve and revive its old structures instead of taking the increasingly popular (and shortsighted) approach of tearing them down and starting over. You can feel love and toil and wisdom in the bones of its buildings. The annual festival takes place largely in the city’s Bottleworks Distict, a vibrant, buzzy neighborhood created from the remains of a Coca-Cola plant. Indianapolis is also the home city of Kurt Vonnegut, who perhaps more than any other author was enchanted by the idea of collapsing time.
“Listen,” he wrote in his most popular book, Slaughterhouse Five. “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” So began the story of man bouncing between now, then, and forever.
Liota is a journalist and former senior producer of a NOVA series called Nova scienceNOW. He notes that Objects is different from his previous works because it has less science. But it has more magic: Objects performs the remarkable trick of condensing decades of memories and meaning into just over an hour. We’re never allowed a spare moment to be less than charmed and captivated. Normally to do something like this you need scores of microchips — or better still, a sugar egg.
Main image: Rick Rawlins and his egg in Objects, by Vincent Liota.
Editor’s Note: This story was first published last year and has been updated to mark the film’s release on TVOD.