Le mystère Méliès
- TV Movie
Son of a shoe manufacturer, Georges Méliès decided to devote himself to magic. In 1888, he used his share of the inheritance to buy the Robert-Houdin Theater, Boulevard des Italiens, where h... Read allSon of a shoe manufacturer, Georges Méliès decided to devote himself to magic. In 1888, he used his share of the inheritance to buy the Robert-Houdin Theater, Boulevard des Italiens, where his fairy-tale shows drew crowds. Seven years later, dazzled by the animated image of the L... Read allSon of a shoe manufacturer, Georges Méliès decided to devote himself to magic. In 1888, he used his share of the inheritance to buy the Robert-Houdin Theater, Boulevard des Italiens, where his fairy-tale shows drew crowds. Seven years later, dazzled by the animated image of the Lumière brothers, he launches into a new art form, cinema. His thirst for enchantment led h... Read all
Anyways, the 1997 "The Magic of Méliès" (La magie Méliès) does more justice to enthusiastically covering the cine-magician's life and films. "The Méliès Mystery" does do a better job discussing the rediscovery and preservation of the films, which isn't surprising given that it's made by the preservationists at Lobster Films--Eric Lange, Serge Bromberg and company. And the same was true of the last Méliès restoration documentary they did, "The Extraordinary Voyage" (2011). Their approach to Méliès himself, however, is popular rather than scholarly.
Evidence of this is that it repeats a couple apocryphal tales, albeit ones told by the cine-magician himself. One narrativizes the novelty of cinema by him witnessing the audience's fear of an approaching train on screen at the public introduction of the Lumière Cinématographe in the basement of a Parisian café on 28 December 1895, which is partly demonstrably false given that there was no such Lumière film of a train until the following month and that the famous approaching one we know to this day may not have been made until 1897 (see Martin Loiperdinger's essay " Lumière's 'Arrival of the Train': Cinema's Founding Myth" for more on that).
The second case is the self-promoted myth that Méliès discovered the stop-substitution effect by an accident of a camera jam as he recorded an ordinary actuality film of a street scene. Fact is many actualities from that era contain jump cuts--where the filmmakers stopped recording and, then, restarted from the same position as the action of a scene picked up again. None I've seen are as enthrallingly full of magical transformations as Méliès would have us believe. If the stop-substitution, touched up by editing, which is how they actually did it back then, weren't already obvious to a magician like Méliès and a connoisseur of screen entertainment such as the magic lantern that had existed for centuries with transformation effects and, more recently, photographic ones, he might've seen that the trick had already been done in the Edison Kinetoscope films, such as "The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots" (1895), where it's employed to substitute a dummy for the decapitation spectacle.
Uh-huh, and Louis Lumière invented cinema from a dream about the mechanics of a sewing machine and not as based on the prior work on film cameras and, sometimes, projectors from the likes of Marey, Anschütz, Dickson, Edison, Jenkins, Armat, Reynaud, Demenÿ, etc. Indeed, the story told in this documentary regarding the impetus for the brothers Lumière inventing the Cinématographe is but one of several the family told over the years. A eureka moment of Archimedes jumping from his bathtub to run naked through the streets, or a falling apple knocking the idea of gravity into Newton's noggin is more entertaining than the reality of invention based on hard work and the long history of making slight variations to other people's work.
Another quibble I had was that the documentarians pretend a mystery over the parallax of the doubled prints Méliès made of his films--speculating it had something to do with stereoscopy (which actually did have a long history in motion pictures before Méliès and long before "Avatar" (2009), but that's another story)--before they explain that it was so that he'd have a European and an American print for duplication. Indeed, thereafter, this practice would become common in Hollywood and elsewhere. A more amusing story is made of Pathé's dedication to making pastiches of Méliès films, although they were the best in the business at imitating others' work in general; it's why they were the biggest movie studio in the world before the counterattack of Edison's Trust for control of the American market, WWI and such got in the way. American piracy of Star films are also covered, as is the tale of the American negatives of Méliès's films from his brother's laboratory, to basement, to Leon Schlesinger's private collection, to the Academy and Library of Congress and back to France. There are plenty of clips, the usual talking heads and a narrator, as well.
But, listen to me, so spoiled, with fading memories of being sustained by a few Méliès trick films and féeries being released on VHS by Kino or from black-and-white reduction prints by smaller distributors, now nitpicking the growing abundance of riches that have come our way, from DVD and Blu-ray and since to streaming. This documentary paired with a few of the more colorful prints of his pictures not only appearing on TCM, but also to a potentially wider audience at HBO Max, and in the same first few months of the year where I could also listen in on a Zoom presentation of early Méliès films that were distributed as flip books. Point is, I make a lot of criticisms, but I am thankful. Keep up the good work, film preservationists.
- May 20, 2021