Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Georges Méliès

So this isn't a review about one film, just some thoughts on a bunch that I saw while looking for one in particular. Méliès is called cinema's first magician because he was one of the first guys to figure out the true potential of editing, especially the stop-trick. He called it magic. People believed it and had their Edwardian minds blown. These "magic trick" films are basically how he got his start, and as a stage magician, it's all he really wanted to do. For the modern viewer, when you watch these, you really need to look for other things because you know exactly what's happening. Luckily for us, not only was he cinema's first wizard, but also probably its first horn-dog and just a plain ol' goofball. His brand of physical comedy would be outdone soon enough and his perversions pretty chaste, but it's enough to make you keep watching the dated trappings with a smirk on your face. Then in 1899 he made a film about Joan of Arc (which is alright depending on how much you really care about the story of Joan) that has the basic semblance of narrative flow and he began to expand his film-making techniques to involve dissolves, time-lapse, multiple exposures, and especially hand-painted color on film.

As he got more and more into narrative film, these would help him with his fantastical and sensationalist leanings. This began with dream films, and then began to incorporate other stories which worked well with what Méliès was after. In 1901, he made Bluebeard which features an entire room of dead women hanging on walls. This is the start of a dark streak that happens to involve the frequent use of Satan in all his Dark Lord majesty. He really knew what would get these turn of the century people revved up in excitable way. Films like The Infernal Cauldron (1903), The Witch (1906) and The Merry Frolics of Satan (1906) leave no mysteries in their titles and are actually pretty crazy all things considered. But of course, these are not the films he is remembered for.

In 1902, Méliès made Trip to the Moon and left a mark on cinema that could not be erased: First fantasy film; first sci-fi film; first special effects blockbuster (thanks a lot Georges...). It's a good time, and waaay ahead of its time, but that still doesn't mean that every person could watch this. My favorite intarweb review: "This movie sucks. There's no way a rocket could do that to the moon. And even if it could, those wizards wouldn't be able to breathe without space helmets." There's a part of me that hopes this is a sincere opinion of the film, because it would make it that much more awesome. Méliès really hits his stride though two years later , in what I would say is his best film, The Impossible Voyage. A sequel in its way, its about a flying train that goes to the sun. There's something about the way it's shot though that makes it somewhat different than its predecessor, and more endearing. I can't really place my finger on it, but there you go. It's really, really good. It's not that different, but it is. And then, in 1907, he made another "planetary body" film called The Eclipse. It's incredible. If you ask yourself during a film, "Wait, did the sun just take the moon from behind?," then it might be one of the all time greats.

The film that I was looking for was Tunneling the English Channel (1907), which I could only find through illicit means. Was it worth it? I guess so. It didn't do as much for me as I thought, but it is impossible to ignore the vast imagination that created it along with the innovation to pull it off. Méliès power to entertain began to wane as the 1910s progressed and he went bankrupt. Luckily though, he was "rediscovered" in the 30s and placed on the pedestal he know enjoys. He belongs there, not only fore his ability to amaze and entertain, but for being one of the first people to understand exactly what cinema can do.

1 comment:

Glacier said...

That intranet review shames me. If only I could write with such direct power and grace. I feel like I'm a person on the moon without a space helmet.