The Magical Magician Méliès

georges-melies

So here’s the skinny on this blog…

Initially, I designed it as a venue to share movie reviews and research. While I enjoyed creating these well researched articles, turning one out every week or two became tedious and, as you can well see, eventually failed to happen at all. On the other hand, when I turned to writing only reviews, I found myself bored. So back to the research it is. This year, I will turn out two long form articles on an aspect of a film, filmmaker, or topic in film history — no deadlines, just the knowledge that there must be at least two. But where to begin?

After contemplating several topics of interest, I reminded myself of two adages, “Write what you know,” and “Talk about what you love.” Thus, I begin with a silent filmmaker who captured my interest even as a teenager. From the moment I saw “A Trip to the Moon” for the first time, to two nights ago when I began watching his complete collection of films, the magnificent Georges Méliès has held my imagination in check. Through my research on Méliès (talk about what you love), I will inspect the rise (and I will argue) fall of special effects in cinema (write what you know). I’ll occasionally post my general impressions about what I’ve watched, read, or thought here, and hopefully share a completed essay sometime in the next 6 months. My topic may change along the way, and that’s okay, but Méliès is the key.

To understand why this silent filmmaker matters to me, you must hear our history. I was a Junior in High School, and somehow convinced my friends that our History Day project should be about film — my obsession, not theirs. Despite our grand efforts to showcase in a video the broad topic, “Lights, Camera, Action: How the Movies Began,” the project was a failure with the judges. There was no research, no focused topic — all we did was regurgitate known facts. I share this, because somewhere between the last-minute dash to finish the video (VHS, by the way), the frowns from the judges, and a lack of research with substance, I found George Méliès’, and I never forgot him. Somehow, this seemingly random High School project actually mattered.

In college we talked more about Méliès, and watched the full version of “A Trip to the Moon.” I remember reading about his glass studio, mechanical devices, and multiple exposures with awe. I watched many of his films after college, and always wanted to know more — more about this strange man with his magic; and it was magic. Think about it, while the Lumière brothers and Edison were showing us things we could see for ourselves — a train, a baby eating, a boxing match, Méliès was creating worlds unknown. Watching a Méliès film must’ve been more like watching a stage play, or better yet a magic act, but on film it must’ve seemed so real. I would love to be one of his original audience members, soaking in the fantasy, and wondering what else might be possible. Was this world Méliès created as real to an audience as the cattle running through Edison’s latest picture? Did anyone wonder if he really visited the moon? Did they simply ask, “How’d he do that?” Did his multiple heads and dancing creatures frighten or amaze? I want to know.

A few years ago, as I cracked open Hugo by Brian Selznick for the first time my heart jumped with nervous joy. Hugo features a fictional account of Méliès in his old age. Could this book due him justice? Part of me was jealous — I wanted to keep my little Méliès secret. The other part of me was thrilled — the world would finally know his name, and watch his films. They’d watch is films! When I first became fascinated with him, our library didn’t even own a copy of his work. This was disappointing, and I hoped Hugo would change this. It did.

Last night, I began a DVD set that contains 173 original films, as well as a “documentary” on Méliès by George Franju, which features re-enactments by Méliès’ son, and cameos by his wife. I’m giddy! 173 short films! Wow!

Did you know Méliès burned most of his original pieces? Can you imagine? Artists have a love/hate relationship with their work, this is true, and there are many projects of mine which I hope I never see again, but to burn them takes a different kind of hatred. The documentary by Franju suggests that because so many people copied and showed Méliès’ work without giving him credit or any profits, eventually the joy he once felt towards film turned to anger. After World War I, he stopped making movies entirely, and that’s when he burned what remained. I’m interested to research this story more fully. Certainly, Hugo also suggests this sad tale. If the criminals who copied his work, and showed it without permission hadn’t done so, there may be even fewer Méliès films around today. Then again, if they hadn’t stolen his films, perhaps he wouldn’t have burned what he had. Perhaps, he would’ve kept making movies and who knows what masterpieces he would’ve created. Life is full of what ifs, though, so for now, I’ll focus on the 173 films that remain and have been put so beautifully to DVD.

Welcome to the world of Méliès and the inner-windings of my own mind.

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