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The Technology of the Occult: Méliès and the Invention of Film

From A Trip to the Moon

Like any illusionist, Méliès created wonderment with only the slightest of pretense, creating a filmic language that continues to be explored and exploited today.

The Magic of Méliès

Director: #232;s
Cast: Georges Méliès
Distributor: Kino
MPAA rating: Unrated
Display Artist: Georges Méliès
First date: 1904
US DVD Release Date: 2008-04-22

Film, moving pictures, cinema -- no matter what you call it, this medium has struck many observers as being the most modern of the available expressive arts. Other art forms -- such as dance, painting, and music -- adapted to modernity. Their practitioners sought out a means by which the techniques and expressive qualities of these art forms could be altered to better represent the cultural demands of a modern society, a modern sensibility, and the modern desire for the eternally new. But just as Aphrodite was born out of the loam of the sea, so film seemed to have been born from the perfervid agitation of the modern consciousness.

Photography was the crowning achievement of an older regime of representation. It pinned down its subjects more or less as they were, revealing these subjects as sensuous surfaces made available for scrutiny at the leisure of the observer. Photography, like painting, allowed for the illusion of control. The owner of the photograph preserves this fossilized image, this frozen moment as a sort of fetishized object. The photographed image was nearly always in the position of the submissive.

Film offered something startlingly different. It presented not a series of stills (even if that is the technological apparatus that underwrites its productions) but rather motion itself. Moving pictures differ qualitatively from a series of stills. It is motion that reveals life. A still photograph captures a surface; a motion picture reproduces the flowing, continuous quality of the teeming vitality of life. Film refuses to remain in a state of submission. Simply through the attainment of motion, film asserts itself. It resists one’s attempts to pin it down. It seems to aspire to a kind of agency. It is the embodiment of the modern realization that the closer one comes to total technological control, the more the means of technology rebel against the very domination they were designed to buttress.

And yet film is not Aphrodite nor is it Athena born fully formed (and armed) from the head of Zeus. Film appeared towards the end of the 19th century and indeed witnessed its first flowering in the early decades of the 20th, prior to the First World War -- the conflagration that, in many ways, would give birth to the modern era. And just as World War I pitted the modern technology of trench warfare, machine guns, and tanks against the old world martial values of personal glory and the grandeur of the cavalry charge, so film pitted the rapidly developing new technologies of the stop trick, multiple exposures, and dissolves against an aesthetic sensibility that could only equate such visual deceptions with a lingering obsession with the satanic, the magical, and the occult.

The sorcerer of this new medium, the man who transformed the projection into a dream-screen that could manifest the lunatic fears of an age increasingly suspect of the rationality of the everyday, was Georges Méliès. Often credited with discovering “special effects”, Méliès actually accomplished something far more integral to our understanding of film as a medium. He almost single-handedly invented the language of film itself. He tapped this new resource for precisely those elements that were special to it.

Only in a medium that creates a continuous flow out of a series of undetected discontinuities would the stop trick, in which an image is immediately replaced by (and thus transformed into) another, work. Without the expectation of uninterrupted continuity, there would be no surprise and hence no “trick”. Only in a visual medium that sensitizes its audience to the slightest gradations of tone would the dissolve give rise to a meaningful expressive effect. And only in a medium that offers up a vision of “reality” that seems so authentic would the sheer delight in the impossiblity created through the use of multiple exposures be possible.

And yet, as becomes exceedingly clear while viewing Kino’s wonderful selection of Méliès’s films from 1904-1908 entitled The Magic of Méliès, the visionary of filmic language saw his work as an extension (perhaps even as the perfection) of the magic lantern show and the wonders wrought by the illusionist. In the collection of fifteen short films, we encounter a nineteenth-century mind grappling with a device that seems to manifest in reality all of the flights of fancy of an imagination delighted by the supernatural and haunted by the occult.

From The Man With the Rubber Head

In many of the films, it is Méliès himself that appropriately plays the role of the magician or supernatural creature. Thus the man behind the illusion becomes the figure of illusion within the space of the film. Indeed some films are extended meditations on a single “trick” or the clever combination of two tricks.

For instance, The Untamable Whiskers of 1904 concentrates on the combination of the dissolve and double exposure. This film features Méliès standing next to a chalkboard. He sketches the face of a man with distinctive whiskers and then stands very still. Soon another image of Méliès with the precise facial hair from the drawing is superimposed on the original image of Méliès, while the former dissipates. The film continues to exploit this technique and one might expect such a concentrated exploration of a trick would become cumbersome. However, in a final transformation, Méliès appears as Mephistopheles, Satan’s charming surrogate who tempts Faust in Goethe’s famous poem, in part, through his virtuosic manipulation of illusion.

It is a troubling, if apt, resolution to the short film and it would seem to be an almost programmatic statement on the part of Méliès. It is, of course, no coincidence that Méliès appeared as Mephistopheles in his own films more often than he appeared as any other identifiable character. Moreover, many of his more generic characters (such as magicians, astronomers, imps, and an assortment of other supernatural creatures) were clearly modeled on his representation of Mephistopheles. Méliès seems to have seen his role as the trickster/tempter, luring audiences into a fantasy realm that offers not simply escapism but rather a confrontation with the uncanny presences that still seem to encroach upon our moments of banal conscious rationality. Like Mephistopheles, Méliès offers a delightful illusion that simultaneously masks and reveals the menacing unreality that we constantly face in quotidian life.

The Cook in Trouble (1904), The Black Imp (1905), and The Mysterious Retort (1906) all explore the troubling results that occur when the routine meets the thaumaturgic. After unceremoniously turning away a beggar that turns out to be a disguised magician, a cook is plagued by numerous imps who tamper with his ingredients, jump in and out of cooking pots, emerge from his ovens, and generally wreak havoc upon the proceedings.

Méliès makes a virtue out of necessity. In order to ensure the continuity of the action with so many stop tricks and superimpositions of various images, Méliès anchors the camera to a single position. The entire area is encompassed within the frame; the camera never moves. And yet it is the very implacability of the framing here that allows the film to generate such a dizzying sense of motion. The film acts as a perpetuum mobile that could continue to unravel indefinitely. In The Black Imp, an unfortunate traveler finds himself lodging in a room taken over by the titular figure (played by a manically acrobatic Méliès). The imp causes the furniture to move and reproduce every time the man tries to make use of it. Finally, The Mysterious Retort produces the disturbing image of a spider with a man’s face appearing within an enlarged glass.

Other visions are more alluring than unsettling. The most famous instance of Méliès’s tendency to titillate is The Mermaid (1904). In this film, Méliès pours water into his hat and then proceeds to catch fish from within it. He releases the fish into an aquarium and as the aquarium expands a mermaid appears and the scene is transformed to an underwater cave wherein Méliès becomes Neptune.

A different and altogether strange sexual fantasy emerges in The Eclipse of 1907. An astronomer lectures several unruly schoolboys on the phenomenon of a solar eclipse in anticipation of the event. Once the eclipse begins, the astronomer raises his phallic telescope toward the heavens and witnesses the gradual coupling of the moon and the sun, each replete with a man’s face but devoid of any further human parts. As the sun and moon move together, the faces wink at each other and lick their lips (the film is subtitled “the courtship of the sun and moon”) until the sun is situated perfectly behind the moon in an act of celestial sodomy. The spheres drift apart, both exhibiting varying degrees of post-coital fatigue and coyness.

Georges Méliès

The producers round off the DVD with two extra features: a documentary Georges Méliès: Cinema Magician and some film notes written by Charles Musser. The latter are not terribly informative, generally consisting of a line or two of facts concerning the film in question. The documentary is rather more successful. By combining excerpts and still photographs with a narration derived largely from quotations of the director, the film gives viewers a glimpse into the context in which Méliès created his work and the reasons he faded into obscurity as film increasingly became an industry.

This, after all, is the source of Méliès’s magic. Like any illusionist, his technique created wonderment with only the slightest of pretense. He performed tricks for audiences who knew they were witnessing tricks but took delight in the curious improbability of it all. But in doing so with an eye toward the limits and possibilities presented by the medium itself, Méliès managed to create a filmic language that continues to be explored and exploited today.

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