I first became aware of this indie documentary in September 2005, when critic Dave LeBlanc in Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper lauded it. Dave correctly zeroed in on the breathtaking gothic beauty of the crumbling and abandoned: Wind rustles a ratty curtain hanging on a glassless window. A gauge, its lens cracked into a brilliant starburst shape, is fixed at 600 kilopascals -- its last measurement. An old desk, drawers open as if gasping for air, sits crookedly beside its lifelong mate, a limp and dusty chair. Cool, I thought. And potentially very Ballardian, like a drained swimming pool with an enigmatic symbol crudely carved in its leafy floor.
Is the actual documentary as good as Dave’s florid prose? Yes and No. Yes, insofar as the piece is filled with enigmatically beautiful shots of the insides of creepily crumbling places, but No, insofar as Industrial Archaeologist Robert Fantinatto and Urban Explorer Leesa Beales unfortunately get all sentimental and miss their opportunity to go beyond the vid's weak premise that these derelicts of the past should be respected, honoured, even saved for future generations, based not on their value as examples of architecture, but as mementos to long-dead workers and the tasks they performed. What?
And that’s too bad, because this documentary could have been a lot more, well, psychological, rather than just tree-hugger logical, and the point of the exercise to explore some very compelling spaces would not have been usurped by Robert and Leesa’s often-cornball script, which over-romanticizes both the empty buildings and the long-gone workers who once used the place. They come close to exploring their own psychopathology certainly they admit to a desire since childhood to explore abandoned places, and they do it today to experience a sense of wonder -- but then they lose it by going all rational and self-conscious, rather than losing themselves in their imagination and perhaps revealing these spaces as ciphers of alienation, as landscapes of transition, as metaphors not of death, but of time and entropy. And having some fun.
Gothic vs Romantic
Sad to say, this documentary should have followed the Gothic subterranean path, not the Romantic high road of archaeologists (vs trespassers), explorers (vs grave-robbers), and official mourners for past Houses of Work, which, ironically, were no doubt replaced by much more worker-friendly environments. By the end of the documentary Bob and Leesa and their fellow wanderers come across as highly ethical, almost scientific explorers, going so far as to risk their safety in time-pressured attempts to create visual records of these doomed structures before they are either modified (into malls or condos) or (gasp) blown up (real good).
Yes, High Standards all round, yadda yadda, but while you watch the actual montage of interior shots with Robin Guthrie’s sensitive soundtrack pulsing away (and Leesa, thankfully, keeping her mouth shut), the true enigmatic power of these eerie spaces is revealed, and the watcher is rewarded with emotional shudders of forbidden pleasure, sudden fear, visual wonder, and a sort of creepy feeling at the alone-ness of these now-alien landscapes. To try and twist this obvious emotive power into a Remembrance Day for the unlucky proles who once toiled in these Dickensian monstrosities is, I think, to miss the entire point of sneaking around these cool places.
The marketing blurb on Echoes of Forgotten Spaces says it tries to “bring the past alive, illuminates the present, and points a cautionary way towards the future.” In reality, however, the psychopathology of this documentary is revealed in its graffiti artist roots. Like these nocturnal outsiders who mark spaces with their personal “tag” to prove they've been there, I suspect this group of urban explorers basically has fun just getting out and crawling through abandoned industrial areas, despite their protestations of higher motivations. For example, the first decaying building we visit is highly tagged with graffiti, and in the screen credits kudos are given to guys with names like Blueskunk, Drei, Ferret, Leftist, Panic! and a number of other obvious graffiti tags. One suspects there's a common bond between the taggers and industrial archaeologists, as the boys with the spray cans have no doubt explored (and marked) virtually every abandoned building around here... and any other city you might be living in. And, just in case you were wondering, the cameramen in Echoes sneak around decommissioned electric power stations (coolest), storm drain systems, huge brick factories, assorted abandoned manufacturing plants, maintenance yards, storage spaces and unidentifiable rooms with lots of pipes and valves.
Cocteau Twin Robin Guthrie's soundtrack -- in actuality cuts from his latest solo album, Imperial -- senses the "gothness" of the images right away. His minimalist soundscapes are stunningly appropriate for the images, emotively leading you through these decrepit canyons of the imagination as the music meanders through otherwordly landscapes, thowing out sounds which alter and illuminate the meanings of the pictures. Personally, I’d love to see a copy of this dvd with no rap, just the images montaged to Guthrie's soundtrack… now that would be darkly wicked.
Not much. There’s a 1936 US Iron & Steel association flack piece called Steel: A Symphony Of Industry. Some great shots of stupendous machines whacking & pouring liquid metal, and a lot of blather about steel mill safety records and one great scene in which the announcer brags a worker is safe from the heat because he’s wearing an asbestos suit! I couldn't tell if the unlucky guy was coughing. In a way, that anomaly is representative of the gap between what this documentary shows and what it says. Ironic, eh?
The other extra on the dvd is a collection of 125 still photographs, taken by eight photogs from around the world. The shots are of more urban decay, and they flip automatically, slideshow-style, but they play with no soundtrack, which is a shame, and just shows how much Guthrie’s music enhances and explains the images in the documentary. These shots are great, artistic, but they need music. I’d recommend anything off Sunset Mission, by Bohren und der Club of Gore. Come to think of it, I may watch the entire dvd with the sound off and Bohren's minimalist doom-jazz creeping thru the headphones.
Bottom Line: Decay Is Debest
Do I recommend Echoes? I do and I don't. I can't figure out Robert & Leesa's sentimentality about these monuments to old-technology industry, unless they’re looking for a more socially-acceptable excuse to be creeping around old buildings, or perhaps to legitimize themselves in an effort to gain entrance to other, more funky, abandoned spaces in the future. Hey, ya never know. Even worse, you may like what these cats have to say about preserving the basically useless industrial past. I say let's toast the old buildings tout de suite and get moving on abandoning the spaces we're using today. On the other hand, the music is great and the images are often exquisite -- so it's a trade-off.
You also don't receive much content for the $18 (Cdn) this thing will set you back, plus shipping & handling. The 43 minutes of Echoes (and a lot of it is filler) whips by quickly, and all that's left is a short film... for about an hour of vid. Still, where else ya gonna go to find other examples of such large industrial edifices in such a near-death state? Granted, the web has a huge storehouse of similar photos of urban dissolution, but tiny files at 72 dpi don't cut it like colour moving pictures on a widescreen HDTV. If you're tempted to buy, Scribble Media have a website with info on how to order a copy of Echoes Of Forgotten Places. Remember to take a flashlight.
I give it 3 eyes out of 5 because of the boring political bits.
© Rick McGrath November 2005