Movies Are My Wife

Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

A Touch Of Méliès

Georges Méliès was a conjuror at heart – a magician who truly had the calling to be an artist of illusion.  Starting in 1888 Méliès performed his magic act at the Theatre Robert-Houdin, an establishment he purchased with money made from selling his share of the family footwear business.  He loved to mystify, and it is fun to think of his own mystification upon first seeing the Lumière brother’s demonstration of their motion picture projector.  This seminal event in film history occurred  at the Grand Cafe in Paris in December of 1895.  Méliès was hooked.  He would soon turn the Robert-Houdin theatre into a movie house, showing the works of Edison, among others.  Before long he designed his own camera, and was not only exhibiting but making films.  He formed his own company, STAR FILM, and his early output was very much like the typical product of the time: Each film was a few seconds long – trains arriving at a station, waves crashing on a beach etc.  But the soul of a magician (and a story-teller) was nagging at him…

It was a discovery he made on a Paris street that would lead to his becoming the first master of special effects and fantasy films.  One day, as he was filming city scenes, his camera jammed.  Fixing the problem in a matter of minutes, he was ready to begin shooting again.  Upon developing the film, he was fascinated by what he saw: People magically transformed into objects; carriages disappeared and reappeared from out of nowhere.  These were in effect, the first jump cuts, as well as the first time-lapse shots.  Melies’ revelation would change the course of cinema.  As far as the visualization of a movie was concerned, anything was now possible.  The Lumière brothers captured reality on the screen, now, led by Méliès, filmmakers could capture true magic.  Of course, this did not mean that he was disinterested in cinema realism.  There were his “reconstructions”, sober recreations of topical events of the day.  Such films as DREYFUS AFFAIR (1899), his reenactment of the French military case.  Because he had to tell the whole story, it was necessary to include dozens of scenes and locations.  Thus his films were longer and more elaborate than much of the product of the time.  He was also known for films of  past historical events.  His JOAN OF ARC (1900) contained a dozen scenes and over 500 performers. 

Most historians believe Méliès to be the great innovator in creating story films, though there are those who credit female director Alice Guy-Blache (also French) with this achievement.  Her film LE FEE AUX CHOUX (1896) may have predated  Méliès’ story films by several months.  In any case, he certainly did more than any other filmmaker to advance the idea of entertaining audiences with narrative movies.  And that magicians soul…

It was the genre of fantasy and science fiction with which Méliès would be most identified.  And with good reason.  Full of mischief and a joyful spirit of adventure, these films offer a dizzying cocktail of trick effects, dancing-girls, fanciful men of science (to Méliès, the ultimate magicians), naughty sprites, playful demons and the overwhelming sense of Méliès (and his audience) having a good time.  In A TRIP TO THE MOON (1902), perhaps his most famous and typical film, he combines many of these elements into a story sixty-seven years ahead of its time.  With over thirty scenes, the film is more than 15 minutes long  and begins with astronomers debating the endeavor and  dissolves to scenes of workmen building the craft that will carry the explores to the moon, depicted as a delightfully cheesy celestial body to say the least.  While there they encounter devilish (but always comical) beings, barely escaping with their lives.   Not exactly scientifically accurate (the director could not be heralded as a prophet of Aeronautics) , the film does foresee the excitement and sheer spectacle of the 1969 moon landing. 

Despite the flights of revolutionary imagination in his films, there is a single, deadly flaw that runs through all of them.  It is a cinematic flaw and it may have led to his downfall.  It seems that this master magician never understood the basic building blocks of cinema, the techniques quickly mastered by his contemporaries, men such as G.A. Smith and Robert W. Paul.  These are the techniques that are still used in modern cinema: Breaking down scenes into different shots of divergent angles.  The use of close-ups, medium shots and long shots.  He never caught on or never cared.  Virtually all of his scenes are photographed using the same master shot.  In BLUEBEARD (1901) a scene called for a detailed shot of a key, screaming for a close-up.  Yet he opted instead  for a giant foot long prop key to get his message across.  Perhaps because of this cinematic blind spot, the market for his films eventually vanished, like in one of his special effects.  In 1911 he had to borrow money from the Pathe brothers to continue production.  His next film THE CONQUEST OF THE POLE (1912) is among his most charming with a giant snow monster that is a marvel of engineering and design.  Nevertheless, he was soon out of business.  Soon after that, he was forgotten.  He destroyed the prints of most of his films (only 200 or so survive) and returned to his first love: Performing his magic act.  In 1923 he filed for bankruptcy.  In 1928 a revival of his films began and a few years after that he was awarded the “Legion Of Honor” by the french government.  He was also awarded a rent free apartment where he would spend the rest of his life. Georges Méliès died in 1938 at the age of 76.

July 23, 2012 Posted by | early cinema, film directors, French cinema, silent film | , , , , , | Leave a comment