Packed with care into barrels, they sat orphaned in a cellar in Blackburn, England, for literally a century: the pristine negatives of 800 documentary shorts, 28 hours of film methodically recording public daily life in Great Britain at the turn of the 20 th century. Electric Edwardians, opening December 16 at the Coolidge, offers a 70-minute sampling of these films, which were restored between 200l-2004 by the BBC National Film and Television Archive. A larger selection was offered on British TV in a surprisingly popular three-part series. It was entitled, "The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon," celebrating Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon, the filmmaking duo behind the non-fiction shorts.
Should we compare these British "actualities" to those, earlier, of the Lumiere Brothers in France? Mitchell and Kenyon, shooting from tripods just as did the Lumieres, are more skilled cinematographers, their images of people shaped and sculpted like the works of a talented portraitist. Also, they are more skilled than the impersonal, work-for-hire Lumiere cameramen at finding and isolating the human moment. For instance, there's a boys' military procession going through its in-sync routines before the camera, yet one lad is merrily out of step, smiling mischievously as he screws up, as his hat falls from his head, then is placed back on his noggin at a purposefully jaunty angle. Oh, you rascal, probably dead for half a century!
To me, there's something sad and wistful and eerie about watching thousands of the long-gone marching backwards from the grave, no longer dust, often directly addressing the camera, smiling and staring at us. Making meaning of it all is up to the viewer, though a bittersweet soundtrack score encourages a more pessimistic reading of the footage. Is this the pathetic, pickled chronicle of human anonymity, pale shadows who breathe then die without making even a scratch on earth? Or is the footage a fabulous celebration of the quotidian, with the ordinariness of life preserved for immortality, like a gallery of shimmering antique paintings? There are scenes of formally garbed strollers in parks--women with flowered bonnets, men with top hats--which resonate like Seurat's pointilist masterworks.
What else can you see? Football and rugby match, a cricket match, all circa 1905. A peak aboard a Cunard-line passenger ship embarking from Liverpool, with various employees of the boat stopping work to pose for a camera shot. My favorite: a graceful, elongated moving shot from a tram which ends the film, capturing the hub-bub of a vacation spot at the British Atlantic. By the sea, by the sea, 1901.