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The Films of Georges Melies
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The Films of Georges Méliés

His name was Georges Méliès, and he was the first ever movie star. Alone among the earliest films, Méliès' retain their allure even after more than a century. No apologies or explanations are needed when screening his films for modern audiences. He made films that were more than records of prosaic events. In fact, they were not records of real events at all, but records of events that never happened, forged documents from a world that cannot exist. The camera had scarcely been invented and here was a man who proved not only that the camera can lie, but that, by its very design, it must. The secret to Méliès' success was his realization that at the heart of film technology was a magic trick, a conjurer's illusion just like those that were already the tools of his trade. It took a magician to understand that movies are, by definition, magic.

Méliès was the proprietor of the fabled Robert-Houdin Theater. When motion pictures took off in 1895 as the hot new thing, he did what every other savvy showman did and bought a projector, to supplement his live shows with movie screenings. But being a savvy showman, he quickly rankled at renting out films from other makers when he could just as well make his own. But he could not just as well make his own, not without a camera. Being a brilliant mechanical engineer, he disassembled the projector and built a camera!

This is an important detail because it puts the lie to a persistent myth about Méliès and the origins of his obsession with trick photography--a myth that, admittedly, Méliès himself started. He claimed that one day, while photographing the street along the Grand Opera, the film jammed in the camera. During the interval needed to unstick the mechanism, events on the street continued on their merry way, creating a discontinuity in the filmed version. When he projected the result, according to the legend, a passing car was magically transformed into a hearse and he was immediately struck by the possibilities of milking the accidental effect on purpose... But a man who reverse-engineered a camera from the bones of a projector, who assembled its sprocket wheels and photographic gates with his own bare hands, could not have failed to understand the fundamental trickery of "motion pictures:" they are but a succession of still frames given the appearance of motion.

As much as he was a visionary, he was also a pilferer--the crime of piracy is rooted deep in cinema's past. The very first thing that Méliès filmed with his homemade camera was a thing he called The Card Game. It runs a trim minute, and features Méliès and some friends playing cards at an outdoor table. It is a copy of an identically titled short that the Lumière brothers had included in their inaugural screening. It was an act of cinematic plagiarism, if you want to be precise, and it is the sort of thing you should keep filed in the back shelf of your mind as you consider Méliès' lifelong battle against plagiarists and pirates. Many of Méliès' earliest films stay rooted in that Lumière tradition of "actualities:" his Panorama from the Top of a Train in 1897 is basically a remake of the Lumières' Arrival of a Train re-imagined from the train's point of view.

Gradually, he began to film his own stage act, beginning with the Vanishing Lady. On stage, the illusion went like this: he took an ordinary chair and placed it on top of a sheet of newspaper, which would remain undisturbed as proof that there could be no trap door. His lady assistant Jeanne D'Alcy would take her seat in the chair, and Méliès would drape a cloth across her body. Although now concealed, her shape would remain as proof of her continued presence. Then, Méliès would yank the cloth away, revealing an empty chair. If you don't mind my spoiling a nineteenth century illusion, the trick is actually painfully simple. The chair is by no means ordinary, the newspaper is a faked-up mockery, and the cloth is lined with a metal frame that shows the woman's shape regardless of her presence. There is of course a trap door on the stage, and the girl ducks into it as soon as the cloth obscures her from the audience. The difference between watching a woman leave the stage like a normal human being and a magical "Vanishing Lady" is some object or mechanism that blocks your view when it counts the most.

Here's where it gets interesting: when in 1896 Méliès performed the trick for his camera, he made a small amendment. Watch the film The Vanishing of a Woman at Robert-Houdin's and you can see an almost imperceptible splice at the moment the sheet is draped over Ms. D'Alcy. The rest of the performance matches the stage version, even down to placing the newspaper beneath the chair. But Méliès can use a real newspaper if he wants, doesn't need the expensive trick chair, and actually doesn't have a trap door. D'Alcy can walk off the stage at a leisurely pace if she wants--her exit is concealed from the viewer not by the cloth, not by any physical object in space, but by a mechanical process interrupting the recording of time.

No sooner had he finished the film did Méliès realize that the editorial trickery obviated the need for the sheet altogether--he could go one better by having the woman vanish in front of the audience directly! And with this realization, he was off to the races.

For all he could do to control his body, his props, and his audience's carefully manipulated attention, he could not control the weather, and so his ability to shoot his films was sublimated to natural forces beyond negotiation. To that end he built an indoor stage, the first of its kind. Inside the controlled environment of Méliès' Star Film Studio, the filmmaker could draw upon the full resources of nineteenth century stagecraft to complement his optical illusions. These techniques, in turn, enabled him to reach beyond merely creating magic tricks for the screen and into crafting entire worlds of fantasy. With Nightmare in 1896, many of the fanciful visions and witty use of stagecraft are already in place, less than a year after he first bought a projector. Has there ever been a learning curve steeper?

Consider the 1903 short The Kingdom of Fairies. It is a Disney-esque fairy tale about a vindictive witch who seeks revenge on a fairy princess. The film is in radiant color, its pastel hues painstakingly applied by hand. Many of the typical Méliès hallmarks are in place: charming set design, relentless action, and Méliès himself--recognizable for his stiff triangular beard. Méliès took to filling the screen with endless dopplegängers--created by meticulous split screens and double exposures. Once Méliès pioneered a particular effect in one film, he'd rework it and embellish it repeatedly in films to come. As the years went on, the cinema of Méliès came to be populated with his limitless duplicates, severed heads, mischievous devils and imps, slapstick havoc, and journeys into impossible lands.

Not all of his duplicates were his own creation. The cost of becoming the world's greatest filmmaker almost overnight was to become a target for every unprincipled soul in the nascent movie business, which was most of them. Some merely ran off unauthorized duplicates of his prints and screened them without paying royalties, others made phony Mélièsque films that pilfered his name recognition. There was another, more troublesome kind of competition not so easily routed. Filmmakers like Ferdinand Zecca mimicked his aesthetics in their own movies. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so they say, and imitative flattery of this sort enabled Méliès to pass his influence down through the generations, indirectly fathering nearly every fantasy film made. But... well, isn't there always a "but?"

Méliès admitted that he built his films around the tricks. He'd think up some crazy image, some outlandish stunt, and design a film to showcase it. If Méliès lived today, he'd be cranking out mindless CGI nonsense with the best of them. He was so many things: an artist, a magician, an engineer, a mogul--but as a dramatist he was a dilettante. Even the most narrative of his films, like his legendary A Trip to the Moon (1898) or Conquest of the Pole (1912) are but strings of grand illusions, not compelling stories on their own merits. And this was where Zecca could hurt him most. Where Zecca lacked Méliès' visionary ambitions and showmanship, he had a sense of drama and character that Méliès did not. The more Zecca's films crowded Méliès' out of the market, the more Méliès attempted to upstage his rival with increasingly expensive spectacles. It was Méliès' only strategy--to be bigger, and bigger still, to compete with the likes of Zecca. The only problem was, it wasn't an especially effective strategy, and his expenses spiraled out of control while his audience shrank.

By 1914, it was over. Méliès had run out of money and had to stop. Meanwhile, the entire French film industry was poised to collectively flush itself down the toilet, sacrificing their 16 year-long domination of the form. World War I had arrived, and the French government decided it had better uses for silver than wasting it on celluloid, and much of the country's existing library of film creations were destroyed to salvage the silver for the war effort. Broke and desperate, fearful of losing his films to his creditors and rivals, Méliès burned his own films, watching his life's work crackle and smoke into oblivion.

You read that right. He took a match and set fire to some of the most important movies ever made. He was like a jealous lover, killing his wife to ensure no one else would have her--how very French. We can take comfort in the fact that this is not how our story ends. Jump-cut across the ocean to New York, where Georges' brother Gaston Méliès is running the U.S. office of Star Films. Life in the states had softened his French attitudes, and when the days of crisis came, his response was decidedly more American character: he sold out for quick cash. While his brother and boss was busy committing pyromaniacal cinemacide, Gaston sold the contents of the American vaults to Vitagraph. Georges was furious, but by the time he found out the deed was done, the films were safe, protected by corporate America.

Film historians tend to laud D.W. Griffith as the inventor of modern editing, for his discovery that stories could be broken into sequences into scenes into shots, assembled as a collage of fragments that the viewer accepts as a continuous whole. Méliès' editing does not get so honored, because his cuts abridge clips in which the camera's point of view does not appear to have changed. However, Méliès' trickery only works because he understood that the viewer, when confronted by an abrupt discontinuity, would mentally join the pieces together into a perceived coherency.

A quick physics lesson: in one minute of 35mm film, we have been shown 1440 still pictures. Somehow, that rapid succession of still pictures is processed in our minds as if we have seen true motion. This is weird enough--but it gets freakier. In any given second, the flashes of still pictures projected on the screen are outnumbered by the intervals of darkness between them. The screen is dark more than it is lit, yet we do not see those empty interruptions at all. No matter how much you think about the artifice of it all, you cannot unmake the illusion. No degree of concentration will allow you to see the static images for what they really are. When we sit in a theater we are shown mostly darkness but yet we see light, we are shown stuttering fragments but yet we see continuous movement, we are shown that which is artificial or unlikely or even wildly impossible yet we become emotionally engaged. Bombarded by discontinuity, we actively engage our minds to rebuild the fragments into something that can thrill us.

Méliès was the first visionary to play with this notion. On the face of it, Méliès' films bear obvious proof that they cannot be unaltered records of uninterrupted events, nevertheless we cannot help but be fooled. The world on the screen is the world inside our heads, and Méliès became the world's first exporter of dreams.

by David Kalat

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