Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The First Auteur, Part Three

“Don’t forget that my films are the most expensive of all, for only well-wrought pictures are made by me, necessitating sound direction, costly decors and costumes, and a lot of hard work to succeed on account of the tricks in them.”
Georges Méliès, letter of February 6, 1906


Georges Méliès is often remembered as a technician.  The title “Father of Special Effects” reduces his accomplishments.  He is often remembered for one single film, “A Trip to the Moon,” a film Méliès did not think his best, or perhaps even for one single image, that of an anthropomorphized moon with a rocket ship stuck in its eye. 

This image managed to implant itself in the collective popular consciousness in a time when movies were ephemeral, before there were film societies or repertory theaters or home video.  It is an image almost as resounding as the silhouette of the little tramp, still echoing in popular culture.

But it is one image, from one film out of hundreds Méliès created.  Méliès’ is important because he is in fact the first auteur, the first artist to mold this new medium of motion pictures to a singular, uncompromising aesthetic vision.  It was a vision unbroken by montage or camera movement, unchanged by the developing techniques of others.

And adhering to this unique vision would also result in his undoing, as it would later for many of the great cinematic directors, such as Griffith, Chaplin, DeMille, Ford, Capra, and Allen, directors who maintained, for better or worse, a particular style and approach long after it was aesthetically or economically outdated.  Méliès’ whimsical, poetic, childish, metamorphic films became anachronistic as the medium moved more towards melodrama and storytelling and its own concoction of naturalism, and as the business moved more towards cost-effective assembly-line production and corporate oversight.

The business of the movies just passed him by.

Overrun by film piracy, bankrupt by escalating costs and competition, Méliès closed his studio in 1912.  He turned his energy toward his Robert-Houdin Theatre, but World War I financially crippled that institution as well. In 1923, the Robert-Houdin was demolished to clear the way for a road-building project.  A lifetime's worth of possessions - props, equipment, scenery and many of his 500 film negatives - was discarded or sold as scrap.  

Ironically, many of the Méliès films that survive today are illegal copies originally made by distributors or pirates.

By 1925 he was operating a small toy kiosk in the Montparnasse train station in Paris when, as the legend goes, he was recognized by a prominent French film journalist and resurrected from obscurity with a retrospective of his films, induction into the French Legion of Honor, and a lifetime endowment.

If one still questions Méliès' relevance or resonance, it’s worth noting that ...

The 2011 Cannes Film Festival featured a screening of a restored hand colored version of “A Trip to the Moon,”  (The Festival-Cannes Website.)

Author Brian Selznick’s 2007 novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” includes the elder Méliès as a major character,

As does Martin Scorsese’s upcoming film adaptation, wherein Méliès is played by Sir Ben Kingsley. 

Some may remember this music video from the Smashing Pumpkins for their hit "Tonight Tonight."

And there is always “The Mighty Boosh.”

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