Posted by David Kalat on January 21, 2012
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been exploring competing claims on the creation of movies. The Lumière brothers hold a sizeable claim, for having pioneered the exhibition model that became the norm–and even if modern trends are moving back towards the Edison-style intimacy of one-movie-one-viewer, the bulk of film history belongs to the Lumière tradition. I’ve also given props to Louis LePrince for his role in innovating the technology by which movies are recorded, even if he doesn’t get the credit for that.
But if we talk about the creation of movies as being all about the technology of cinema, or the business models of exhibition and distribution, we leave out the heart of the matter–it is the content of movies that enthralls audiences and creates shared dreams. And if we want to talk about who pioneered what movies ought to be about, then it’s time to talk about George Méliès.
Our story starts at the Robert-Houdin Theater in Paris in May of 1894. Gathered are photographer Antoine Lumière, his assistant Maurice Clément, magician Félecien Trewey, and Georges Méliès, the guy who owns the theater where the experiment in question is being staged.
The subject at hand was Edison’s Kinetoscope. Lumière and his associate wanted to be part of this new movement as photographers, while the two magicians saw its value in entertaining audiences. Apart from the scientific race to develop technology, the seeds of a commercial industry were being sown.
Since Edison had decided not to spend the $150 necessary to extend his patents overseas (!), there was nothing to stop Lumière from taking the device, taking it apart, and reverse engineering something like it. So this is exactly what his sons Auguste and Louis did.
At their factory in Lyons, the Lumière brothers built their own devices that were substantially better than Edison’s. Their camera was lighter and more portable, it used 35mm film, and in a novel twist, it doubled as its own projector. All that remained was giving the contraption a name. Their father Antoine argued that it needed an idiosyncratic moniker that would be distinctive and easy to trademark—but the brothers decided instead to name it the “Cinematograph” (the exact same name already used by Léon Bouly in 1893 for a 3-D still-camera/projector device).
Let us get the caveats out of the way: obviously moving pictures had been captured and shown by various devices previously. And the Lumière brothers had themselves staged no fewer than five public shows of their demonstration films over the course of 1895. Nevertheless, their show at the Indian Salon in the lower floor of the Grand Café in Paris on December 28, 1895 broke important new ground. Now, for the first time, an ongoing show would allow ordinary members of the public to attend—for the meager price of one franc per customer.
As it happened, not very many ordinary members of the public bothered to pay the franc and see the show. It was a cold and blustery day in Paris. In fact, only thirty-three Parisians chose to do this, which just barely covered the Lumière’s rent: the proprietor had been so skeptical of the endeavor that he declined their offer of a percentage of the ticket sales and insisted instead on a fixed fee of thirty francs.
The theater would have looked depressingly empty if the Lumières had not also invited some prominent guests and journalists. One of those invitees was Méliès.
Running the Robert-Houdin Theater was a challenge, with all the fierce competition in show business for increasingly jaded and thrill-hungry audiences. Méliès needed to keep feeding the beast, keep bringing on stage the latest excitements. Perhaps this moving pictures contraption was just the thing. For some in the audience it was all about the scientific arms race, but for Méliès it was an investment opportunity.
By contemporary standards, a movie of people walking through a door is about as primitive as it gets. But in 1895 to a set of virgin eyeballs, the extraordinary novelty of watching pictures move was enough in itself. Over the course of the next few minutes a variety of scenes appeared. In one, a train arrives at the station. In another, Auguste Lumière feeds his baby. In the most popular, L’Arrosuer arrosé (The Waterer Watered, 1895) a gardener is watering a lawn when, unknown to him, a mischievous boy steps on the hose behind him. When the man looks into the suddenly dry hose to see what is the matter, the boy releases his foot and the spray smacks the poor sap full in the face.
Don’t scoff–flash forward 114 years and the stuff of L’Arrosuer arrosé can be shown to still be acceptable as a joke, and with enough self-contained narrative structure to function in isolation:
(I say 114 years because the above cartoon was published in 2009)
While the rest of the program was essentially documentary material—living photographs of things that actually happened– L’Arrosuer had the distinction of being something fictional staged for the camera for the purpose of entertainment. Since motion picture technology had grown out of photography, and photography was almost exclusively devoted to the recording of real life, L’Arrosuer arose represented an extremely important tangent. The possibility existed for this new medium to create images for a specific creative purpose.
It was a possibility that Messieurs Lumière never again explored.
Barely had the house lights gone back up than Méliès approached Antoine Lumière to buy a Cinematograph. “It would be your ruin,” replied the elder Lumière, shaking his head, “Aside from its scientific interest this machine has no future.”
Méliès knew bunkum when he saw it. Antoine had dollar signs in his eyes just the same as Méliès did, he just wanted to keep the business as a family monopoly. The magician smiled and thought to himself, if Lumière can copy Edison’s toy then anyone can.
Méliès contacted British inventors Robert William Paul and Birt Acres and bought their projector which he promptly installed in the Robert-Houdin and started booking Edison’s films, leaving the Lumière clan out of it altogether. Within a year, Méliès had devised and patented his own camera and started to make his own movies.
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 Lumières had included in their inaugural screening. It was an act of cinematic plagiarism, if you want to be precise.
During this period, Méliès was also filming his magic act in piecemeal, with the use of editorial elisions to augment and improve upon his stage technique. 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. What’s a control freak to do? Build an indoor stage, that is, 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 sat and watched the Lumière’s premiere screening. Has there ever been a learning curve steeper?
But even as such flights of fancy started to take shape, Méliès still saw himself as a competitor to the Lumière brothers, and still saw his films in simple terms as just something to show in his projector. He took care in their manufacture and made them well, but he was still making them in the Lumière mold, as documents of real-life events. He would set up the camera and photograph something as it happened.
Sometimes he was obliged to cheat a bit, to fictionalize the facts to suit the camera. When he set out to film the coronation of King Edward VII in Westminster Abbey, Méliès discovered that he could not actually do it—the noise of the cameras and the problems of lighting such a large indoor space prohibited it. So he hired a bunch of actors, built a set, and shot a staged coronation in his own studio. The film was ready June 26 1902, just in time to coincide with the actual event, save for the fact that Edward fell ill and postponed the ceremony to August 9th. As a result, Méliès has his newsreel version available weeks in advance of the news!
By 1902, though, Méliès was an old hand at recreating the world to suit his own needs. His experiments with filmmaking had very quickly led him away from Lumière-style realism and into a fantasy world that exists only in his mind. While he would continue to make documentary subjects throughout his career, Méliès is known for those films that document a reality that cannot exist, that accurately reproduce images that never were, that reveal a world that is uniquely cinematic.
The legend has it that one day Méliès was shooting a scene at the Palace de l’Opera. and the film jammed in the camera. After a few moments, the jam cleared and the film continued its journey past the lens, but in that brief lapse a bus in the frame had driven off and a hearse had driven into more or less the same spot. Later, when Méliès viewed the footage, he saw a remarkable conjuring trick: before his very eyes, a bus had been magically transformed into a hearse.
In October 1896, Méliès shot Escamotage d’une Dame Chez Robert-Houdin (The Vanishing Lady) in which he vanished actress Jehanne d’Alcy in a variation on a classic magic routine created by magician Bualtier de Kolta. This was his first use of the substitution effect, and it enhanced the effectiveness of Kolta’s illusion. And from that propitious moment on, the cinema of Méliès existed for the sole purpose of presenting this magic trick to audiences around the world, over and over with clever variations.
Whether by luck or chance or skill, this conjurer had discovered a genuinely new trick, one that no magician had ever performed before and that no stage magician even could perform. With his own camera, his own studio, his own theater to screen the films in, Méliès had access to a unique venue in which to present a magic show all his own.
The key to it all was the act of stopping the camera, changing the scene in front of it in some way, and starting up the film again. As a form of special effects, it was decidedly simple, and to modern eyes raised on CGI, rather primitive as well. But Méliès performed these effects with panache and flair, and with a precision that could scarcely be equaled even generations later as the motion picture medium matured.
Several of Méliès’s shorts appear as filmed records of stage magic shows. For example, Tchin-chao the Chinese Conjurer (1904) has Méliès in full stereotypical Oriental garb performing some elaborate tricks. It all appears to be a single take, but of course the tricks Tchin-chao executes are wildly impossible.
In The Living Playing Cards (1905), Méliès plays himself, a magician, come on stage before an audience to perform a card trick. He shuffles the deck and holds up a card—the 9 of spades.
All resemblance to any card trick you’ve seen before ends abruptly there.
The card is so small in the frame that he realizes many people in the audience cannot see it, so before he does anything with the card he’ll have to make sure everyone’s seen it. So, he starts stretching the card, caressing it. With every stroke it gets bigger and bigger. At last he flings its contents towards the screen behind him, which suddenly assumes the card’s identity. We can see the moment of transition, more or less, each time the card suddenly grows. But the artifice is visible there and nowhere else. Méliès himself keeps moving, fluidly and without interruption, unaffected by the time lapse that we know, consciously as well-informed viewers, must have taken place. Méliès himself abridges that gap with his very being, a human splice.
The principles of misdirection that conjurers use to disguise the nature of their illusions are just as applicable to Méliès’s special effects as they would be on a stage. He is so meticulous in his body language, so accustomed by years on the stage in controlling his actions, that he can dance through those transitions with seamless precision. In the glory years of silent comedy, slapstick comedians would appropriate Méliès’s tricks for their own sight gags, but few of them could ever match Méliès’s perfectionism. Most of them would unfortunately give away the trick by hesitating, even ever so slightly, at the critical moment, to ensure they remained motionless as the camera cut.
But this hesitation was their downfall, because even tiny shifts in their bodies would register across the cut and reveal the changeover. Méliès knew enough to keep his audiences’ eyes confused, and rather than freeze at the cut he kept on swaying and rocking and dancing and spinning—confident that any shift in his placement between one frame and the next would be invisibly disguised as part of the natural movement of his body as photographed by a twitchy hand-cranked camera.
While many of Méliès’s shorts were basically individual gags, isolated magical sketches, he also engaged in longer and more ambitious works. The best known of these is Le Voyage Dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon, 1902), with its now-iconic image of a space capsule launched painfully into the eye of the Man in the Moon. Its popularity demanded a sequel, and Méliès delivered Le Voyage a Travers L’Impossible (1904), which thankfully still exists in a delightful hand-colored print. The title reveals Méliès’ intentions unambiguously: Voyage Beyond the Possible. In it, Méliès plays Professor Mabouloff of the Institute of Incoherent Geography. Right from the start we know we’re in for something outrageous.
It starts with a vaguely Jules Verne-like set-up with a group of explorers preparing to circumnavigate the world. But where Verne would have concerned himself with the scientific details of the expedition, Méliès veers quickly into the territory of Chuck Jones’ roadrunner and coyote: and why not, since what else are the Looney Tunes but Méliès’s trick realized twenty-four times every second? During the course of this twenty minute film, the intrepid explorers crash through buildings, plunge off cliffs, catapult into space, and emerge unscathed from one explosion after another. Scarcely a minute elapses without them enduring some new absurd catastrophe. Their journey takes them all the way through space to the surface of the sun—where they find it so hot, they are obliged to remove their coats!
It is here, with a group of Frenchmen and women in their shirtsleeves strolling casually across the burning landscape of the sun that we find the most influential if least understood legacy of Méliès’ contribution to film. It has been said that Méliès created fiction films, because he was the first to tell coherent stories in his movies. It has been said that he created the science fiction and fantasy genres of cinema because he was the first to show spaceships and monsters and supernatural beings. It has been said he created the idea of special effects. He was the first to use diffused lighting, he was the first to film nudity, that he was the first art designer, that he inspired animated cartoons.
And, there were some film critics who found his outlandish pictures so unbecoming of what they thought film art should be that they said Méliès’ only worthwhile contribution to film was that he was the first to make films longer than a minute or so, by splicing together more than one spool!
One could fairly argue that, in time, all of these things would have been stumbled across or developed anyway. Méliès’ lasting genius lay in a curious attitude towards the purpose of filmed entertainment. His explorers can walk around on the sun not because he actually thought such a thing was possible, but because such a thing is so clearly impossible.
There are two competing traditions diverging from that seminal show in 1895. One traces its way through literature, theater, and a sense of photographic realism, in which stories are told whose value lie in their relationship to the real world. On the other side is Méliès and the cinema of spectacle. For him, depicting explorers on the sun or a magician teleporting a woman from one side of the stage to the other are two sides of the same coin. All that matters is thrilling the audience with something they cannot see anywhere else, to toy with their perceptions and create illusions. The value of the exercise lies precisely in its disconnection from reality. The more plausible the spectacle, the less interesting it is. It is a tradition that continues to this very day, and the underlying contradiction to realistic drama ought to be better appreciated by viewers. It makes no more sense to question why Tom Cruise can outrun an explosion any more than it does to argue with Penn and Teller that a person can’t possibly catch a bullet in their teeth no matter how good their reflexes are.
The essence of magic, and the fantasy films that descend from it, is to depict the unreal to challenge the audience in a playful way. The camera does lie and you can’t trust your own eyes; it’s an important lesson to learn in a media-saturated age, plus it’s more fun that way. Turn-of-the-century French explorers never did walk on the surface of the sun, but there’s that documentary record of it, plain as day for anyone to see, in all its impossible glory.
The audience of December 28, 1895 delighted to sights of workers leaving a factory, but in the years that followed the pressure to entertain rapidly mounted. What had been a competition to develop cameras and projectors had now turned into a competition for content—what would be put in front of those cameras, what would be shown by those projectors? Edison and the Lumières continued to churn out reels of travelogues, historical reenactments, pictures of trains rushing towards the camera, but by 1900 the novelty had well worn off. It was Méliès who was making innovative movies, full of wild ideas and imaginative visions. He was becoming the most popular and influential moviemaker of the day.
From 1896 through 1914, Méliès made over five hundred films, which he presented to sold-out crowds at his theater. When the original Robert-Houdin burned down, he built a new one and kept on going. He was the first movie star—his company was Star Films, its logo a white star on a black background, a herald to all in the audience that something special was about to be shown.
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 reputation and name recognition. Combating these sorts of pirates was a merely procedural fight: Méliès established a New York office to administer the international distribution of his films, which started to include his company logo worked into the set designs as a sort of branding, proving their authenticity. But there was a more troublesome kind of competition not so easily routed. Filmmakers like Ferdinand Zecca mimicked his aesthetics in their own movies.
To demonstrate Zecca’s proclivities, here’s a Zecca film from 1904. It doesn’t have a soundtrack (sorry) because it’s never been on home video before and this clip is from my personal collection (wait, what the hell was I apologizing for? I’m showing you something you can’t see anywhere else!)
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 are 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. That, and he worked for Pathé-Frères, fast becoming the most powerful movie studio on Earth. 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 II 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 US office of Star Films, charged with fighting international piracy. 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, and the films were safe, protected yet ignored by corporate America.
Méliès’ final film was La Voyage de la Famille Bourrichon (Voyage of the Family Bourrichon, 1912). Like many of his later works, it was drastically recut for distribution by Pathé’s Ferdinand Zecca. Since his arrival on the scene in 1901, Zecca had been one of Pathé’s most valuable players. Single-handedly, Zecca had doubled the company’s revenue with his entertaining, pulpy films. Zecca in turn owed much back to Méliès, whose works he ruthlessly mimicked. He had more up his sleeve than just apeing Méliès, however. In his film Histoire d’un Crime (History of a Crime, 1901), grisly crime scenes from the Grevin waxworks museum were brought to cinematic life. Jim le Glisseur (Slippery Jim,1909) fused the Grand Guignol with wild slapstick action as cops chase a crook who can turn invisible, fly, remove his own limbs, and slip through any opening. Such scenes were more than just extensions of Méliès’ effects—the surreal imagery of a super-powered criminal was familiar to all who thrilled to the Comte de Lautréamont’s Maldoror and anticipated the Fantômas films of Louis Feuillade.
Whether he realized or not, Zecca’s adaptation of Méliès’ imagery was tapping into a deep wellspring of French pulp fiction that was soon to burst out of the pages of nineteenth century books and into the films of the twentieth century.
(And don’tcha just think that’s where we’re headed next week?)
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