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Post No Bills (1896)

Défense d'afficher (original title)
| Short
Two bill posters argue as an incompetent guard patrols the area.




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Two bill posters argue as an incompetent guard patrols the area.

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Messieurs dames. are you sitting comfortably?
11 September 2015 | by (France) – See all my reviews

I have tried in recent reviews to emphasise two points about watching early films (although they apply equally to watching films from any period or from any culture that is not one's own). First, one should not assume that people in the past were idiots and necessarily pleased with anything they were shown. There is plenty of evidence to show that this view is false, that audiences were just as critical of films as modern audiences and voted with their feet when they thought the films being produced were no good. A good film is a good film whenever it is made, and a bad film is a bad one.

As many bad films as good films have survived form the "silent" era and Méliès' films are no exception to that rule. There are good films amongst them (some excellent) and there are also some poor ones and we need not hesitate to say so nor need we assume that a contemporary audience necessarily felt any differently about them.

But (and it is a big but), when we look at films made in the past (and particularly in the relatively distant past)), we do need to try and understand as much as possible of the context in which they were produced and sometimes that requires a little bit of work......

This film, it is clear, is not a classic. But none of the people reviewing it so far seem to have asked themselves what it is and what the context might have been for the making of it. One is aware that Méliès owned and projected his films in a theatre that had previously belonged to the great French magician, Robert-Houdin but does not seem to have registered the fact the poster being pasted in the film is for that very theatre. In other words, this is a brief advertising film. Which immediately I think changes our attitude somewhat towards it, does it not?

We have still a little work to do. While finding the film, these critics might have come across the 1896 Lumière film Colleurs d'affiches, of which this film might be considered a remake. Amongst his first films. Méliès did several remakes of Lumière films but, even when remaking films, had a tendency to redo them in his own particular fashion.

The Lumières had a very good reason for making their film. Everywhere they went, their operators were coming up against other pirate-operators claiming to be exhibiting "the cinématographe", the Lumières own patent system. So they made this short film to warn people against such imitations. One set of bill-stickers is shown putting up a sign for a false cinématographe, which the other set cover with a poster for the genuine article and the two sets of bill-stickers then have a bit of a set-to. Effective and mildly amusing, as much as one would reasonably expect of a film of this kind.

Méliès, in making his version of the film, has added his own surreal touch in the form of this absurd sentry whose sole purpose in life seems to be to guard this tiny stretch of wall where bill-sticking is forbidden but where, thanks to his total ineptitiude, the sticker is going to have no difficulty in posting the advertisement for Méliès' Paris theatre. So the film is both an advert and a parody of the Lumière advert.

We are nearly there now but not quite. One reviewer at least has noticed that sign with which the film begins showing that the setting is 125 kilometers from Paris. Quite clearly that must have meant something to those viewing it. Yet this thought does not seem to have occurred to any of our reviewers.

And here we need to remember something else about so-called "silent" films. The programmes were not silent. They were invariably accompanied by music but often also by commentary. This was particularly the case with Méliès (also a magician, remember), who gave great importance to what he called boniments ("patter" in English), which is still the word used by French magicians to this day.

Since there is nothing in the film itself that gives us any clue to why it is set 125km from Paris, that information must logically have been provided by the bonimenteur. I have no real idea what that was but I am prepared to have a guess. Méliès was in the habit of shutting down his theatre in the month of August so that he and Mme Méliès and the two little Méliès could go off for their annual holiday at the seaside. Normandy was their favourite holiday destination.

So, now, if you please, Messieurs Dames, imagine the scene at the Théâtre Robert-Houdin (are you sitting comfortably?) when, perhaps just before or after the intermission, this little advertising film is to be shown. Don't forget that you, as an assiduous fan of the new moving pictures, are already familiar with the Lumière version, seen perhaps several times in the past few months, rather as someone today might be familiar with some television advert. Ah, says the bonimenteur (surely Méliès himself) before you go for your cup of hot chocolate, Messieurs Dames, let me just tell you about something very strange that I saw when I was on holiday last year. We were going through the town of......and then the film runs.

Now maybe I am just a gullible idiot like all these people back in 1899, but I think I might have been very much amused.

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