The history is fascinating, as we are taken back to when people were enchanted by seeing photographic images just about 200 years ago. The title comes from a comment made by British King Edward VII on seeing the film of his coronation, the first ever filmed. Except it wasn’t. The great Georges Méliès, a brilliant filmmaker who pioneered special effects for his delightful fantasies, was commissioned by an American producer to film the coronation in 1902, but the British authorities would not allow him to have access. So, he hired French actors andof what he imagined it would be. Thus, it was able to be released the day after the real-life coronation took place. King Edward is reputed to have said, “The fantastic machine even found a way to record parts of the ceremony that did not take place.”
Throughout the film, there are questions about what is revealed and what is real. The Riefenstahl section is followed with a short excerpt from interviews with filmmaker Sidney Bernstein and editor Peter Tanner, who were charged with documenting the Nazi death camps so thoroughly that no one could ever say it was not true.
Is that even possible? So much of what we see in the archival footage here is about the importance of questioning what we see and the increasing sophistication of those monetizing our attention with whatever technical and psychological tricks they can think up. The whirlwind of clips and soundbites goes by very fast, asking questions that each deserve a full-length documentary or miniseries. It races from a how-to about defrosting your freezer to an ISIS tutorial on making a bomb. Netflix founder CEO Reed Hastings explains that he learned not to rely on customers’ responses about what they want: “People rate as their aspirational self.” They say they like “Schindler’s List,” but then they watch Adam Sandler. Similarly, in an interview with Ted Turner about his first superstation, he explains that it was intended to be “escapist … We show ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ and let them forget their miserable life.” When asked what he’d do if other stations copied him, he smiled, “I’ll do the news.” And later, of course, he founded CNN.
The film is fun to watch and occasionally illuminating, but is over-packed and barely touches on the problems of scammers, the murky world of “influencers,” copycats who engage in dangerous or harmful behavior, or the infinite regression of people filming their reactions or their friends’ or children’s reactions to what they are watching. What kind of parent not only films a very young child seeing the death of Simba’s father in “The Lion King” but then posts it online for public consumption? Hmmm, hang on while I film and post a reaction to that reaction, and then someone else can film their reaction and post that.
Now playing in theaters.