101 Imaginary Nights At The Movies
Seventh in a series of 101 imaginary movies, Cinema of Forgotten Dreams is my attempt to dramatize film history by creating and commenting on a repository of imaginative film viewing. From the earliest days of cinema to the era of blockbusters, my century (plus one) of Movies I Made Up will proceed chronologically through an alternate dimension of films. Will it be allowed? Will anyone read? Though I have no answer to either question, I’m doing it anyway: fortunately, there are no rules in the land of dreams.
(1906, Nikola Tesla)
At a point of transition in movie history, when sophisticated and uniquely cinematic techniques for telling film stories slowly emerged, the New York laboratories of inventor, electricity pioneer, and all-around visionary Nikola Tesla released a one-reel promotional film – an early short feature-length advertisement – whose one-time exhibition and subsequent century-long suppression proved equally baffling both to the audience who first saw the film in 1906 and the film archivists who re-discovered it in 2006. Seeming to answer questions raised by mysterious motion-photographic experiments undertaken by Edison Laboratories from 1888 – ’91, with the exact nature of onetime Edison employee Tesla’s involvement offering a few greater mysteries of its own, Electrosis!!!! can now be viewed as either the culmination of the continuing investigation into light and its recording or as an 11 ½-minute hallucination visualized. Whatever the film reel’s import or effect, its impact certainly cannot be denied.
Some background. Tesla had left Edison’s company in the late 1880s, his development of Alternating Current (AC) allowing Tesla the wherewithal to break from his former sponsor, becoming the latter’s rival and competitor, but not before Tesla’s experiments on a new type of current, deriving from the atmosphere itself, had been inadvertently recorded and secretly submitted to the US Patents office by Edison operatives. That film re-emerged in December 1905 as Dance of Light, and Tesla, furious at recognizing his work among a retrospective of Edison films at Broadway’s Vitagraph Theatre (a program which also included Edwin S. Porter’s recent Cop & Crook), became gripped in the obsession of fully realizing and further visualizing the vast potential of his experiments and discoveries over the past two decades.
Coils, tubes, wires, and bulbs gave way to generators, turbines, motors, and superconductors, while Alternating Current (AC) grew beyond its looped continuum of energy to encompass Tesla’s (to this day, still-)theoretical Universal Current (UC). And while little is known about the practical applications of this mysterious work, its filmed demonstration continues to spark conjecture and galvanize those lucky few who have seen it.
Hearsay and rumor have enshrouded the next few paragraphs of visual description, but ultimately the clarity of Nikola Tesla’s imagery may speak for itself.
The bold, all-caps title resolves on a pitch-black screen, exclaiming its content with a shimmering quality indicating a light source shining directly through, as opposed to the word being optically written on, the projected image. [Eds. note: The film’s next three intertitles will have this exact same character, regrettably unable to be duplicated in print.] The title card cuts to a static long shot of Tesla’s laboratories; two mammoth rotary wheels, resembling twin funnel clouds viewed upside-down, side-frame a triangular field of light streaming from an unseen energy source above. Two additional streams of light appear behind the geometric pattern, inverting the original triangle into a perfect square.
From behind a curtain, now visible in the focal depth of the frame, the electric maestro himself – hands clasped behind his back, tailored suit clinging the sharp angles of his tall, thin frame – steps dapperly between the tri-partite beams and smiles shyly, lips curling his waxed mustache into upward relief. As Tesla pauses in the exact center of the beamed square, two identical bolts of electricity – emanating from both magnetic turbines – simultaneously strike either temple of the inventor, scientist, and mystic, the current quickly coursing the length and breadth of his angular contours, enveloping his undisturbed features in a glowing, static haze. His eyes flicker through the haze with the rapid-mounting rhythm of the electric flow.
Lights flood the chamber and then dim to darkness, leaving Tesla a glowing figure in the center of the frame. Opening his eyes, he purposefully strides screen left and touches the turbine with an outstretched palm. The gears and electric current immediately rev in response, its effulgent arc slowing and stopping as he withdraws the power source to his side. Quickly turning on his heels the opposite way – one can practically hear the squeal of his polished shoe on the concrete floor in this silent film – Tesla repeats the procedure on the other device to precisely the same effect. Withdrawing his hand once more, thus again stopping the turbine in its winding course, Tesla returns to the center of the frame, clasps his hands behind his back, and smiles.
Smiling, and gazing directly into the camera lens, Tesla slowly raises his arms until they are parallel and outstretched from his shoulders, the human dynamo remaining a glowing figure in the center of the still-dark frame. A shimmering beam of light [similar in quality to those which have lit each stenciled frame of the four title cards] escapes Tesla’s now outstretched fingertips and hits the camera lens with precision force, flaring the image in a sudden and overwhelming light.
Although hardly revolutionizing the medium in terms of film style – its static view merely capturing the more literal static of its content – this single-shot, moored camera view, precisely equal to the amount of film – to the 12,340th frame – then contained on a single coiled length of silver nitrate, nonetheless records and answers the basic quality of film itself: that of light. With a neologism born of a second language-speaker’s inventive facility with a foreign language, along with a turn-of-the-century delight in multi-punctuated hyperbole, Electrosis!!!! illuminates with a force again precisely equal to its projection: the continual necessity of light to make clear what was formerly dark singularly impressing itself on the eyes, minds, and hearts of its viewers.
A final word on the film’s mysterious “legacy”. Receiving its debut on May 5th, 1905 in the Vitagraph Theatre, the film’s final moment of light streaming from Tesla’s hands had the curious effect of reaching beyond the screen, out to its first audience, and – here is where accounts vary – disrupting the powered current of Edison’s electrical palace and momentarily replacing its projector’s manufactured glow with that steadily emanating from the screen. Locked away for an entire century, the film’s second exhibition [from which the above account of the film’s content is taken] entirely replicated the effect of its century-earlier debut, with the added after-effect of rendering all viewers’ digital devices – cell phones, laptops, data organizers – unusable for a time.
We may have to wait another century before Electrosis!!! receives its third exhibition, but this forgotten dreamer finds it somehow comforting that, after 112 years, projected light can still apparently overwhelm its manufactured simulacrum.