I’m in New York City, my proper home when I’m not pretending to live in Los Angeles. And it’s impossible to wander around this incredible place without imagining whatever you’re looking at as it might have looked one hundred or more years ago. I find this phenomenon to be specific to certain places (London, San Francisco, certainly all of Italy) but never a more enticing pastime than it is in Manhattan. Walking down Fifth Avenue, near the Metropolitan Museam, I can envision the same scene in, say 1920, or 1940, or 1890.
The below clip is a wonderful piece of found footage. It’s two camera angles–mostly the first is featured–of daily life in New York City at the turn of the century (the date is estimated at 1903). The automobile is not yet a fact of life. No matter how windy it is–and it was quite windy on this particular day–everyone must wear a bowler hat. The more you watch this clip, the more you’ll see and learn: a good many passing pedestrians stare suspiciously at the camera. To me their expressions go beyond “what’s a camera doing here?” into “what’s that machine on stilts?” It’s likely that most of these folks had never seen a movie camera before in their lives.
There is also a cop with a handlebar mustache who passes by at about one minute, twenty seconds. Yes, they really did where them–not just in movies about the “gay nineties” made by Warner Brothers in the forties.
Finally, this is the corner near the Flatiron Building–the V shape created a wind tunnel which led to women’s skirts being blown freely up and away, pre-Marilyn Monrow. Fifth Avenue and Twenty-Third Street. The building of course still stands.
Look at these long dead, long forgotten folks bustling along, on that long forgotten day, busy to get where they were going, their minds filled with their own lives…and now look at yourself and see if–internet and e-mail aside–you’re life is any different, any less busy, any less self-consumed…Ah, the cosmic blackness of it all, as revealed by a piece of mute film, one hundred and four years old!