Saturday, May 21, 2011

The First Auteur, Part One

Georges Méliès. More than anything else, when I think about Georges Méliès, I think of joy – the joy of discovery, the joy of experimentation, the joy of play, the joy of filmmaking.

Between 1896, when he shot his first film, and 1902, when he created what most consider his masterpiece, "A Trip to the Moon," Méliès produced more than 280 movies. They were among the most innovative, creative and groundbreaking films ever made. Take a look at this sampling:

Georges Méliès: The First Auteur, Films 1896-1902, by Edward Bowen

Méliès was bitten by the moviemaking bug early, not early in his own life, but early in the life of the medium itself. He was almost 35, a successful professional magician who had developed over 25 major original stage illusions, and the owner of the famous Theatre Robert-Houdin, when he and 32 others paid one franc each to attend one of the first public exhibitions of projected motion pictures in history.

It was December 28, 1895. The place was Salon Indien, an empty basement beneath the Grand Café, a gathering place for cultivated Parisians to discuss art and literature and politics near the famous Paris Opera House. Méliès was invited by his friend Antoine Lumière, whose sons Auguste and Louis had developed the technology and produced the simplistic films projected there. "You who amaze everyone with your tricks,” Antoine Lumière told Méliès, “you must come and see something which might well amaze you."

Amazed Méliès was, and amaze he would.  In 1896, Louis Lumière was famously quoted describing motion pictures as “an invention without any commercial future.” Méliès, convinced of the potential of the medium, launched into one of (if not the) greatest periods of inventiveness, creativity, innovation and enthusiasm in motion picture history, producing over 500 movies before he “retired” in 1912.

Drawing on his background as a magician, Méliès invented motion picture special effects – mechanical and optical. He built the most sophisticated film studio of his time, with elaborate and complicated scenery and props. He incorporated complex color in his films, the hues individually painted onto each frame by hand in an assembly line process.

While the Lumières and Thomas Edison and Robert W. Paul, among the earliest motion picture producers, were creating short, narrative-less actualities, one shot films involving trains pulling into stations, or bicycling, or walls collapsing, or workers exiting a factory, or boxing matches, or vaudeville, carny and circus acts, Méliès was staging extravagant cinematic illusions and developing the motion picture as a complex story-telling medium. In 1899, he produced eleven short films on the Dreyfuss Affair, a recent political scandal in France. Separate, they are a kind of serial; strung together, they are an early example of a multiple-scene movie. That same year he produced a version of “Cinderella” which was a staggering six minutes long and contained an unprecedented 20 individual scenes in four settings. It was not until 1902 that Edwin S. Porter, often credited as the first to string movie scenes together to tell a narrative, would do the same in “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Méliès’ greatest achievement, the whimsical, irreverent and technically sophisticated “A Trip to the Moon" (1902), with seventeen shot/scenes in fourteen minutes, was released a year before the “groundbreaking” work of Porter in “Life of an American Fireman,” and “The Great Train Robbery” in 1903.

But it remains for me the sense of joy that pervades his work. Since he performs in almost each of his films, you can see first hand how much fun he is having. His enthusiasm and energy on-screen are mirrored by his zeal and élan behind the camera.

“A Trip to the Moon” would prove to be his greatest victory and his most shattering defeat. The popularity of the film led Méliès to be one of the first whose career was victimized and subverted by movie piracy.

But more on that later …

Michael Brooke is in the process of a staggeringly detailed study of the extant works of George Méliès. Visit his website here.

Buy Georges Melies: First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913)

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