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The Magician (1900)

The scene opens on a theatrical stage. The magician enters from the wings, and making a bow to the audience, removes his coat and hat and they disappear mysteriously in the air. He then ... See full summary »

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The scene opens on a theatrical stage. The magician enters from the wings, and making a bow to the audience, removes his coat and hat and they disappear mysteriously in the air. He then takes a white handkerchief from his pocket, holds it over his knees, and his long trousers disappear, and behold! he is clad in knickerbockers. He next makes a pass with a magic wand and a table suddenly appears before the audience, on which is a large pile of tissue paper. The magician takes up the paper and shakes it a few times and three live geese fly out upon the floor. This is a highly pleasing and mystifying subject. Written by Edison Films (1901)

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February 1900 (USA)  »

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Please do not patronise the past
10 September 2015 | by (France) – See all my reviews

There is a continuing popular misconception about early films that treats early film-makers as some kind of naive neophytes for whom allowances have continually to be made and treats audiences as a bunch of idiots who were happy to watch anything that was put on the screen. It is a misconception, alas, that certain modern critics, the pseudo-revisionists, have tendered to pander to by treating early films as "a cinema of attractions." Posterity, as the celebrated witticism has it, may not have done anything for us but the past has done a great deal and does not deserve to be patronised in this way. Do we think medieval or Renaissance art (even cave art for that matter) is good "only for its time" or do we appreciate it for its intrinsic value? Let us try and give early film the same respect.

None of this means that all early film is good and it remains necessary to make distinctions. The habit of "making allowances" often in practice obscures this fact.

From quite early on, long before Trip to the Moon made Georges Méliès internationally famous, Edison, who kept a wary eye on film production in Europe, was aware of the films being made by the French pioneer and set his film-makers to produce similar trick-films. Those films tend all to be credited to Edwin S. Porter but there is no certainty that they were actually made by him and this little film is a case in point.

The plain fact is that this film is not merely crude by the standards of 2015, it is crude by the standards of 1900 and one simply has to look at the contemporary films of Méliès to appreciate that. Colour (hand-colour but often of high quality) was of course perfectly possible but rarely used by the US film-makers (in part through meanness but in part, perhaps. through a genuine concern that it involved rather exploitative labour for the women involved.

Nor were practitioners of screen magic any kind of absolute beginners. They could draw on a vast and sophisticated history of illusionism (the pre-cinema French magician Robert-Houdin remains one of the greatest magicians of all time) and Méliès was particularly well-placed to draw upon that tradition and adapt it to the screen. He was after all a professional magician himself and, as it happens, the owner of the theatre in Paris that had previously belonged to the great Robert-Houdin.

Edwin S.Porter started his career as a projectionist, moved on to being a cinematographer of sorts and ended up as a rather successful director of films. Very few of the US film-makers had the kind of background either in professional design of visual spectacle (like Méliès or Trwey and Georges Hatot chez Lumière) nor as professional photographers (like Louis Lumière himself or Eugène Pirou or Maurice-Clément). Porter's first cameraman, William Heise, was fairly inept (compare his films with those that the Lumière cinematographer, Alexandre Promio, made in the US at the same period)and Porter, at the outset, was not a great improvement.

So in the early years of cinema, French films are of considerably higher quality as compositions than those of their US counterparts and it was several years before the US was able to make up this deficit.

So let us be critics and make distinctions rather than allowances. This film is a pitifully poor and lifeless copy of the work being produced at this time in France by Méliès (or indeed the Lumières who also produced such films).


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