Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Georges Méliès and the Dawn of Fantastical Cinema

In an age when innovation was everything, the French film maker Georges Méliès was the greatest innovator in a pantheon of greats. With a studio -- literally -- in his back yard, and his wife, family, and neighbors as his most frequent cast, he made a vast variety of films -- "trick" films, comedies, farces, and especially films of discovery and adventure -- far beyond anything else made in his era. His background as a stage magician was surely of some help, but so was his sense of fun, his stage presence, and his showmanship. More than anyone else, he bridged the gap from stage to screen.

Legend has it that, in the mid-1890's, he saw a demonstration of film by the Lumière Brothers, and approached them to ask how he could do what they did. He was told that this new art was "merely a fashion of the time," and that in a few years there would be no money in it -- don't waste your time. Perhaps the Lumières were being facetious, but in any case, Méliès bought a camera on his own and in 1896 made his first film, "Une Partie de Cartes" (A card-playing party). Further fancies followed: a woman (his wife) was placed in a chair under a sheet -- with a flourish, she was a skeleton! A lodger checked into a haunted hotel; his coat was stolen, the hat-rack vanished, and he was plagued by enormous bedbugs. Soon, no tale was too wild or strange: a man sang a quartet with his dislocated heads; he inflated his head until it exploded; sailors brought up bodies from the USS Maine as magnified goldfish swam before them. Most famously, a voyage from the earth to the moon was filmed, complete with a crash landing in the "Man in the Moon's" eye; Joan of Arc revived the Kingdom of France, and a bearded explorer -- Méliès again, as usual -- conquered the North Pole (above).

Nearly 200 of Méliès' films survive, out of perhaps 500 that he made. After World War I, the market for his kind of cinema spectacles decreased with the rise of narrative, multi-reel films. By the early 1920's, his company collapsed, and the great director was reduced to selling magic trinkets from a stall at a Paris railway station. Happily, in the 1930's, shortly before his death, he received fresh accolades, and was awarded a pension from the French government, which enabled his widow to live out her days in comfort. Most recently, he was portrayed by Ben Kingsley in Martin Scorsese's brilliant Hugo, which includes both actual footage and re-enactments of some of his most famous films.

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