Georges Melies: The Most Important Filmmaker You've (Probably) Never Seen

Dave Maine

It’s tempting to say that without Melies, there would be no Avatar, no vampire movies, no Star Wars or Star Trek, no special-effects extravaganzas, no docu-drama like Erin Brockovich, no animation, no Walt Disney, and no porn.

The Demon of Invention

The Infernal Caldron (1903)

The Demon of Invention

It’s doubtful that any single individual -- not Godard, not Fellini, not Kurosawa or Kubrick or Scorsese -- has exercised the totality of vision that Melies did over his work.
More than anyone since, Melies was a true ‘auteur’. In our current age -- and for several decades prior -- the director’s primary role has been that of a shepherd, leading his flock of 300-odd actors, cinematographers, set designers, wardrobe and props people, lighting and sound technicians, and so on. [The epic Troy (2004) reportedly employed five hair stylists, among other necessities.) Melies, on the other hand, was directly involved in every facet of his productions: he wrote the scripts, designed and helped build the sets, sketched out the costumes, directed the action, (usually) starred in the show, and edited the final product.

It’s doubtful that any single individual -- not Godard, not Fellini, not Kurosawa or Kubrick or Scorsese -- has exercised the totality of vision that Melies did over his work. For better or for worse, and it was usually for the better, the films we see today are reflections of what the artist carried in his head, without intervention from intermediaries.

Usually for the better; sometimes not. Melies’ films are peppered with occasional unsavory depictions of savage Africans and goofy Chinese; one scene from The Palace of the Arabian Knights (1905) features a ‘Buddhist priest’ in a mosque, making an animal sacrifice to a Hindu goddess while surrounded by ‘vestal virgins’. (Hey, whatever works.) Entire doctoral dissertations are waiting to be written about the depiction of gender in his oeuvre, with his women generally falling into two categories: pure, noble spirits [as in the heroic Joan of Arc (1900) or the innocent young wife who, in Blue Beard, stumbles upon a grim row of hanged women) or else oddly inhuman creatures, literal objects of the manipulator’s art.

In The Vanishing Lady (1896), a magician tosses a sheet over a woman, causing her to disappear; she reappears as a skeleton, then returns to normalcy. Another woman is transformed from stone to flesh by the artist’s touch in The Magician (1898); the same year brought The Temptation of St Anthony, with its female temptresses, one of whom appears, jarringly, as a Jesus-substitute occupying a crucifix. In The Drawing Lesson (1903) a clownlike artist conjures up a woman piece by piece, who appears first as a statue, and then undergoes a bizarre transformation into a fountain.

Also in 1903 came Extraordinary Illusions, in which Melies removes pieces of manniquins from a “magical box” and assembles them into a living woman, whom he dresses and undresses, transforms into feathers and finally disassembles. Women appear as stars and planets in A Trip to the Moon (1902), as the blades of a fan in The Wonderful Living Fan (1904) and as the Queen of Hearts in The Living Playing Cards (1905); elsewhere they are mermaids and fairies and butterflies and goddesses.

Sometimes it seems that Melies is willing to see women as anything at all -- except actual human beings. All the chorus girls and dancing girls and matrons in crowd scenes are rarely asked to do anything significant or interesting. The titles of Eight Girls in a Barrel (1901) and Ten Ladies in an Umbrella (1903) are pretty much self-explanatory.

However, any criticism along these lines must take into account the fact that in his films, no one suffers more at the hands of Melies than Melies himself. He is constantly tearing off his own head, being harassed by unseen forces, or -- as the Devil -- being chased away and vanquished. If Melies carried the prejudices of his time against women and minorities, as seems likely, he was equally ready to make fun of himself onscreen as well, and to poke fun at established white-male hierarchies such as the university and the army. (Although not, if we are to judge by his surviving films, the church.)

So what does this all have to do with audiences nowadays? Well, quite a lot. As I write this, Avatar has become the highest-grossing movie in history, Twilight is a cultural phenomenon, and special-effects films like Clash of the Titans regularly fill movie houses. The cinema of the fantastic is alive and well; Georges Melies invented it.

He placed vampires onscreen in 1897 with The Devil’s Castle, and sent travelers into space with A Trip to the Moon and The Impossible Voyage (1904), which is nothing less than a trip to the sun. He pioneered ornately staged, special-effects-laden work such as The Palace of the Arabian Knights (1905), The Merry Frolics of Satan (1906) and The Conquest of the Pole (1912) -- a 30-minute epic featuring an enormous ice-giant that eats an explorer and vomits him up again -- and would not be surprised at the longevity of the genre he helped create.

Nor would Melies have raised an eyebrow at the long, long reach and profitability of the video porn industry. After all, he invented that too, when he dressed a thick-hipped actress named Jeanne D’alcy in a flesh-colored body suit and filmed her bathing in a 70-second opus called After the Ball (1897).

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After the Ball doesn’t look like much these days -- it’s more apt to elicit laughter than arousal -- but that’s not the point. It’s the first, faltering step of an industry that would continue unabated to such cultural touchstones as Deep Throat (1972) and beyond, to the Internet depravities of our age. In the same way, A Terrible Night (1896), with its oversized cockroach harrying a guy who just wants a good night’s sleep, foreshadows giant-insect movies from Them! (1955) to Eight-Legged Freaks (2002).

James Cameron’s Avatar, with its indigenous aliens resisting the imperial advances of Earthling soldiers and corporate executives, is a recognizable reinterpretation, or perhaps refutation, of Melies’s most famous film, A Trip to the Moon. That movie, with its iconic image of the moon’s face, tells a surprisingly sinister story of a group of human scientists who, upon finding indigenous life on the moon, promptly try to eradicate it. Given the nature of the era, and the fact that the savage, alien Selenites carried spears and were ruled by an alien monarch, it’s not surprising that the audience was expected to identify with the ‘civilized’ explorers/invaders.

It’s tempting to say that, without Melies, there would be no Avatar, no vampire movies, no Star Wars or Star Trek, no special-effects extravaganzas, no docu-dramas like Erin Brockovich or Monster -- the 2003 version with Charlize Theron -- no animation, no Walt Disney, and no porn. Tempting, yes, but wrong.

Surely even without Melies, someone would have thought to draw pictures on paper and then move them a little at a time between frames. Someone would have thought to invent product placement by adding a consumer item to a scene, as Melies did with a gigantic bottle of champagne in Blue Beard. Without a doubt, someone would have eventually thought to turn the movie camera upon naked women -- or men! -- with or without the questionable benefit of a body stocking.

Yet the fact remains that all of these things were done first by Georges Melies, not by Ferdinand Zecca or Thomas Edison or the Lumiere brothers. His remarkable vision deserves to be recognized and celebrated. For how often is an entirely new art form invented? When it is, consider how vital are the pioneers who, perhaps tormented by the demon of invention, urge that form into new, previously unimagined realms.

The Man With The Rubber Head (1901)

David Maine is a novelist and essayist. His books include The Preservationist (2004), Fallen (2005), The Book of Samson (2006) and Monster, 1959 (2008). He has contributed to The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, and, among other outlets. He currently lives in Honolulu, Hawaii.

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