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Méliès the Magician / The Magic of Méliès

Director: Jacques Meny

(Facets Video; 1997/2001)

Now You See It, Now You Don't

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When motion picture technology was first introduced at the end of the 19th century, the pioneers of the medium, particularly those at work in France, faced a contrasting set of opportunities. They could either reproduce the world as they found it (more or less) or create an autonomous universe that existed only in their imaginations. The former path was taken by the Lumière brothers, Louis (1864-1948) and August (1862-1954). They made their audiences gasp in fear at a train headed directly for the camera or smile in recognition at images of workers leaving a factory. The Lumières grasped the remarkable truth that images, however homely or shopworn, moving at twenty-four frames per second provide access to some hint of what lies behind the elementary details of everyday life.


George Méliès (1861-1938) embarked upon the other path of visual invention. A stage conjurer and manager-director of the popular Théâtre Robert-Houdin, he initially assumed that films like those produced by the Lumières could provide a breather between the fantastic exhibitions of his performers. Following the lead of the Lumières and other early innovators, he constructed a camera and took to the streets to capture the world about him. However, when Méliès’ camera unexpectedly jammed, it caused a kind of visual hiccup in the action committed to film. Upon developing the footage, Méliès discovered that the pedestrians and carriages he began to shoot would suddenly and inexplicably disappear. As he formerly did with his magic wand, Méliès now vigorously used his camera to make objects appear and disappear, with a speed and fluidity that the stage could not permit. Thus was born the trick shot, along with a host of other special visual effects that allow filmmakers to show imaginary worlds that a more resolute dedication to realism could never achieve.


Méliès capitalized upon his discovery and became one of the first movie moguls, as well as a virtual one-man cinematic band—the primal auteur, so to speak. He built what can be considered the first major film studio, housed at Montreuil-sous-Bois. And, much as he oversaw all aspects of the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, Méliès took on any number of tasks at this facility: he was writer, director, designer, cinematographer, and actor. Between 1896 and 1914, he turned out as many as a thousand films, ranging in length from three-minutes to twenty-minutes.


Until now, most of this work was available only in the form of worn-out public domain dupes or appeared as but brief segments in documentaries on early silent film. The release of Méliès The Magician/The Magic of Méliès by Facets Multimedia provides access not only to valuable information about Méliès’ career in the documentary portion of the DVD, but also, archive-quality examples of some of his most important works. The set includes Jacques Meny’s documentary The Magic of Méliès, originally produced for French television, and fifteen of Méliès’ works, in Méliès’ Magic Show.


Visual conjuring and fantastic scenarios dominate Méliès’ repertoire. He sought to make imagery plastic in a manner that physical nature is not. For instance, a man’s head could be inflated with a pump, and even exploded as a climactic gag (The Man With the Rubber Head [1900]), or images on printed posters could become animated (Hilarious Posters [1905]).


Méliès would go on to expand these short skits into full-blown narratives, as in the film with which contemporary viewers are most likely familiar, the 1902 A Voyage to the Moon. Drawn from the writings of Jules Verne, Méliès’ film showed how cinema could complement the writer’s imagination, turning science fiction narrative into exciting, nearly unbelievable visual images, like a trip to the moon would have been in 1902. Méliès was also fascinated by the imaginative possibilities of fairy tales and legends, and made films based on Cinderella, Bluebeard, and the Arabian Nights.


Yet, even while we tend to associate Méliès with the fantastic rather than the everyday, a significant number of his films were drawn from contemporary events and focused on the observable world. He depicted the eruption of Mont Pelé and recreated the interior of the submarine Maine. Most famously, in 1902, an English company commissioned him to re-stage the coronation of Edward VII. Méliès built a facsimile of Westminster Abbey and captured the ceremony in such detail that the monarch himself felt the film to be a virtual documentary. An even more striking element of this stage in Méliès’ career is that he was quite likely the progenitor of the filmed commercial. He created brief advertising vignettes that were projected on the streets of Paris, and turned the urban metropolis a theater for public promotions.


Despite the breadth of styles and modes he employed, the more films by Méliès that one watches, the more one notices a curious quality to them. They are all flatfootedly stagebound as they are wildly animated. From start to finish, Méliès was man of the theater: he anchored his camera in a single position and did not modify that angle from first shot to last. The frame is treated, in effect, as if it was a proscenium arch, and the audience sees only the perspective that someone in the best seat in the house would have of the action. He compensates for this unvarying point of view with a high degree of physical action within the frame. He delights in crowding the image with a variety of diversions. Few of his performers move at other than a breakneck pace; they scamper, leap, and race about the scene. Ever the showman, Méliès could not resist playing upon an audience’s appetite for theatrical excess. One of the delightful, if incongruous, details in A Voyage to the Moon is that the lunar capsule is moved into place by a line of scantily dressed chorus girls, and famously, when the capsule lands upon its target, its hits the man in the moon smack in the eye.


Méliès’ conflation of stage and screen was ultimately his commercial downfall. It wasn’t long before audiences became accustomed to other filmmakers’ use of a variety of visual perspectives impossible in theater, and began to expect this of their screen entertainments. For the most part, Méliès avoided these devices and stuck to his stylistic guns, while much of the film world passed him by.


It was not solely the changes in audience expectations and the demands of technological innovation that brought an end to Méliès’ career. WWI would intrude and irrevocably upset the European economy. Moreover, Méliès the auteur was unable to compete with the mass production techniques of the emerging film studios, who churned out product at a speed he could not match. Even though Méliès abandoned his independence and joined Pathé in 1923, his creditors forced him to sell his own studio and urban planners tore down his beloved Théâtre Robert-Houdin. Anguished by these losses, Méliès destroyed the negatives of his many films.


Since his death in 1938, devotees of his work have promoted the sense that, like Erich von Stroheim or Orson Welles, Méliès martyred himself for his art and was at the same time a true cinema pioneer. In fact, he witnessed the resurrection of his fame in his own lifetime. Just a few years after he destroyed his negatives, young cineastes recognized his innovations, sought him out, and located surviving prints of his works, culminating in an elegant gala that reintroduced him to the public in 1929.


Meny’s absorbing documentary dramatizes such events in the director’s life, incorporating commentary from a variety of film scholars, most notably Paolo Cherchi Usai, a leading historian of silent cinema and director of the Eastman Archives in Rochester, New York. The compilation of Méliès’ works, nicely evoking Méliès’ own cinematic style, is framed as a screening before a live audience, featuring piano accompaniment and commentary by his granddaughter, Madeleine Malthête-Méliès.


While these two well-constructed and informative films emphasize the romantic dimensions of Méliès’ career, the set provides a more opportunity, that is, to watch a body of his work and reassess its longevity. And, as fascinating and fantastic as these films remain, there is something a bit exhausting in watching one spectacular image after another. While this is due in part to the fact that this DVD features his most effects-driven narratives, one after another, and few of the features drawn from everyday life, one feels at times that Méliès’ desire to please an audience is disturbingly compulsive. A comment by French film historian Georges Sadoul bears contemplation: “Méliès invents the syllables of a future language, but still prefers ‘abracadabra’ to words.” The rapidity of action and the incessant segues from effect to effect draw attention to Méliès’ technical mastery and little more. One cannot help but admire the work, yet wish at the same time that the director were not as steadfastly committed merely to astonishment. No matter how hard he tried, Méliès could not put aside the role of conjurer. A top hat could never be simply a top hat. It had to contain rabbits, birds, colored ribbons, and chorus girls.

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