I visited Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park many years ago and can still clearly recall the haunting, magical feeling that permeates the air there. Nearly a thousand years ago, the Anasazi ancients abandoned their cliff dwellings and moved on to the spiritual world, but their handprints and their energy remain.
The same sort of transcendent, surreal experience happens when you are touched by the images in the ELECTRIC EDWARDIANS – THE LOST FILMS OF MITCHELL & KENYON (1900). You don’t just watch a collection of old-timey “home movie” clips from the past, you submit to a sort of time travel sorcery of other worldly-proportions.
ELECTRIC EDWARDIANS is a compilation of lost footage that was miraculously found after being stored for 100 years in someone’s basement. During the turn of the century, filmmakers Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon took to the streets of England and Ireland and captured images of the mundane — people going to work, people walking down the street, people standing around, people cheering at sporting events, children lining up at school. Dreadfully boring, one might understandably think. But in the activities of the every day, there is an ethereal magic. The soundtrack by In The Nursery is impeccable and adds a brilliant dimension to the scenes of daily life in the Industrial Age.
What makes the images so hypnotic is that the individuals being filmed, most of whom probably don’t even know what this thing “film” is, are directly looking into the camera and somehow their souls are being captured in a moment in time for us to meet and connect with.
“Aren’t you a very curious person?” they seem to ask as they look out at us from the screen. And we look back at them in the same curious way.
These clips are mesmerizing, but they are also a bit mournful as well – the people we are watching are gone. But we also are reminded that they once were here. And that’s the mystical part of this viewing experience.
Along the same theme, I was thinking (wrongly) that CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS (2010) would be a moving and appropriate double bill with ELECTRIC EDWARDIANS. In the trailer, director Werner Herzog says that the spirits of the Cave of Chauvet are so palpable that it is “as if the modern human soul has awakened here.”
Unfortunately, the film just doesn’t quite deliver that sense of spiritual awakening. The famous cave, located in southern France, had been hidden from civilization for eons; a landslide had buried its entranceway. When the cave was discovered in 1994, its perfectly preserved, awe-inspiring ancient paintings and handprints — more than 20,000 years old — open a door to a truly lost world.
This award-winning documentary allows us a peak into this realm, and the scientists and the filmmakers are certainly stirred by their experiences in the cave, on both the academic and metaphysical levels. “A strange, irrational sensation – like eyes upon us,” they say. Here, “time and space lose their meaning.” But the film doesn’t award us, the viewers, with a similarly enchanting experience. We just have to believe them. Frankly, the film is most visually interesting when the stunningly attractive scientists talk about the caves in their French-accented English. Ooh la la.
While CAVE is certainly thought-provoking (albeit way too long), it delivers very little of the soulful punch that the ELECTRIC EDWARDIANS has.