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Electric Edwardians

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Electric Edwardians

The back cover to Milestone’s upcoming release of Electric Edwardians, available on July 11, reads: “The astonishing discovery of the original Mitchell & Kenyon negatives in Blackburn, England—in a basement about to be demolished—has been described as film’s equivalent of Tutankhamen’s tomb.” This isn’t hyperbole, because there is no substitute for the emotions moving pictures can stir, and this humane collection provides a significant, unparalleled glimpse of Edwardian life during the turn of the 20th century. Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon’s technique typically consisted of a single long take of happy, moving crowds. This may seem rudimentary, but these films are made special by Mitchell and Kenyon’s understanding of their particular place in history, not to mention the popular opinion of film at the time. (When a person or crowd exits one of their frames, it’s as if Mitchell and Kenyon were commenting on what they thought to be the basement-burning fate of their life’s work.) Film historian Tom Gunning once wrote (narrated by Paul McGann on one of the DVD’s features): “The 20th century might be considered the century of the masses, introducing mass production, mass marketing, mass communication, mass culture. We could describe this transformation as the entrance of the working class, putatively the driving force of any age, onto a new stage of visibility.” Mitchell and Kenyon’s films evoke this “driving force” in the way the splendorious crowds enter and exit the camera’s frame—like a train surging across a distant horizon, leaving only plumes of smoke behind. Mitchell and Kenyon’s regard for the pleasure of the working class is obvious and humane. They understood the mass’s communal pleasure-seekingness as a means of relieving workaday stress, extolling their rituals of play as something rhythmic and holy. What this did was to counter the elite’s condescending view of the working class’s pleasures as something vulgar. Scored by the British group In the Nursery (who also provided the music for the remarkable Hindle Wakes), these no-longer lost films of Mitchell and Kenyon convey a profound sense of time-gone-by.

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.