Short of the Day
Orson Welles, War of the Worlds, and the unfortunate coincidence of the Concrete, WA blackout.
Orson Welles’ October 30th, 1938 radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” was the most successfully unintentional prank of the 20th century. With such convincing aplomb did Welles deliver his reading that many Americans believed it wasn’t a reading at all but a factual news broadcast about events that were actively transpiring. Nowhere was the ensuing paranoia more evident than in Concrete, Washington, a tiny town of about 1,000 souls a few hours north of Seattle. By sheer coincidence, at the same exact moment in the radio play when the Martian invasion began decimating towns countrywide with flashes of light and poison gas, an electrical substation in Concrete shorted, sending out a bright white light and then plunging the town into absolute darkness. It was only a blackout, but given what most of the residents had just been listening to, that’s not what they took it for. Full-blown panic followed, with people taking up arms, heading for the hills, or just going nuts in their living rooms thinking the end was nigh.
It is these events that form the backdrop for writer-director Patrick Biesemans’ Embers & Dust, an 11-minute short that captures what that night must have felt like for the citizens of Concrete, mixed with graceful, creeping cinematography by David Kruta and set to a haunting score from Aled Roberts. Every second and every frame oozes with atmosphere, and Biesemans has rendered the period so faithfully you might confuse the film for a documentary if not for the its obviously cinematic qualities.
Honestly, I’ve been handling the Short of the Day column here at FSR since I came aboard last month, and this might be my favorite one to date. Not only is it gorgeous and steeped in narrative tension, it’s also a fascinating slice of American history that’s worthy of its own feature. Here’s hoping if that feature ever gets greenlit, it’s Biesemans and crew at the helm.