I may have mentioned my great love for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which I try my darnest to attend every year (I also try my darnest to see every single showing–last year I finally succeeded!). Probably mentioned it once or twice…or fifty times. (They deserve frequent shoutouts!)
One of the many bonuses of this grand festival is their annual “Amazing Tales From the Archives” presentation, which is always free to attend and always full of interesting info on the exciting projects archivists are working on. The 2019 festival had one presentation that charmed my socks off: about Léon Beaulieu’s teeny tiny cinema flipbooks he manufactured for his unique 1890s “pocket cinematograph.”
Imagine you have a small film studio, and you’ve set up a table-sized platform with an artfully-arranged miniature landscape on top. A couple figurines–maybe dinosaurs–are posed among snippets of shrubs and tree branches serving as a jungle. There’s a painted backdrop of mountains and sky, and everything is lit brightly with hot lights; your hand-cranked camera is in the exact spot you need it, ready to go. You carefully adjust the figurines, then crank the camera–only turning the handle once. You adjust the figurines again, and again crank the camera handle once. You adjust them again–but not because they don’t look right to you.
Indeed, the amount of savagery is just right.
Nope, this is your peculiar, unique art form, requiring complete dedication, patience, and foresight–stop motion animation. Full work days go by as you patiently adjust the figures under the hot lights again and again, now and then stopping to repair them as their latex skins start showing signs of wear and tear. After a few weeks, you’ll have a sequence a few minutes long–and on film, the miniature scene will be full of life.
You knew this one was coming! This is the final post for Méliès Month–I hope you enjoyed this extended tribute to one of the essential pioneers of the cinema!
Upward mount then! clearer, milder,
Robed in splendour far more bright!
Though my heart with grief throbs wilder,
Fraught with rapture is the night!
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “To the Rising Full Moon,” 1828
For thousands of years mankind has gazed at the moon. Deities have been associated with it. We’ve written about it in poems and books, mentioned it in songs and plays, and painted and sculpted its likeness.
So perhaps it’s fitting that one of the earliest milestones of a brand-new artform should feature the elusive moon that’s so haunted our imaginations–a craggy, blinking, papier mache variety with seriously wicked eyebrows, that is.
People talk about how everyone is six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon. Well, I’m here to tell you that as far as cinema history’s concerned, everything’s six degrees of separation from Georges Méliès. Maybe three degrees. If there’s a film trope, storyline, or special effect that you’re trying to trace to its origins, I say give up right now, and just assume it’s Méliès. And by way of demonstration, here are at least six things the French wizard seems to have put on film before they were a twinkle in anyone’s eye. Continue reading →
Sometimes one of today’s films will take you by surprise. Judging by the trailer, you expected it to be pleasant and entertaining enough, but it turned out to have more depth than you’d thought. When it came out on DVD you ended up buying it, and found yourself re-watching it from time to time. One day you realized it’s become one of your go-to classics.
In other words, you’ve fallen for Hugo (2011).
Released during the brief Silent Film Awareness Renaissance of 2011 (when The Artist won Best Picture, remember), Hugo was a film that took many people by surprise. For one thing, it was a magical 3-D family film by Martin Scorsese, of all people, creator of Raging Bull and Gangs of New York among many others. And contrary to what the trailers implied, it was a little less about the boy Hugo himself and more a tribute to the life and work of Georges Méliès. Continue reading →
One of my very favorite Georges Méliès films is Les Quat’Cents Farces du diable, literally translated as The 400 Tricks of the Devil. We just call it The Merry Frolics of Satan (1906), which is a title truly of its time. So is the film itself, but that’s why I love it so much.
While not as widely discussed as A Trip to the Moon and more familiar from clips turning up in documentaries on early cinema, it’s one of Méliès’s most elaborate works and a real treat for the eyes. Its plot can be…quite mystifying even if you’re paying close attention, so here’s a detailed recap (I believe some of the information originally came from the Star Film Company’s catalog): Continue reading →
There is much to love about Georges Méliès. He was a technical wizard, a delightful performer, and an artist whose gorgeous work can still inspire awe. And charmingly, he was a man who believed in dreams. He captured many of them on the screen, one painted set at a time, and today they serve as reminders of an era more open to wonder.
Méliès’s films have a knack for taking us out of our comfort zones in the most enchanting way possible. They’re so old-timey to our eyes that they could almost come from a different planet. At times, we have to remind ourselves to stop holding them at arm’s length.
But to filmgoers in Méliès’s own time, the filmmaker’s work was not only exceptional but also familiar. In fact, he was drawing upon a long history of theatrical enchantment–specifically, the French theater genre of the féerie. Continue reading →
Well over a century old and only over a minute long, Un homme de têtes is one of Georges Méliès’s earliest and best-known works. I think the French title literally translates to “a man of heads,” but we know it today as The Four Troublesome Heads. Either way it’s one of your oddly blunt 1890s silent film titles. Classic 1890s cinema, am I right? Haw!
[His films] had a visual style as distinctive as Douanier Rousseau or Chagall, and a sense of fantasy, fun and nonsense whose exuberance is still infectious…. —David Robinson
His full name was Marie-Georges-Jean Méliès, and he was born on December 8, 1861 in beautiful Paris. His wealthy parents, Jean-Louis-Stanislas Méliès and Johannah-Catherine Schuering, owned a successful factory for high-quality boots. Their parents imagined that Georges and his older brothers Henri and Gaston would simply take over the family business one day. But little did they know that Georges would not only take up a cutting-edge industry they had never even imagined, but that he would attain global fame as one of its greatest pioneers.
Can you imagine a world without horror movies? Their tropes are so familiar–monsters with bloody fangs, screaming teens, tired old jump scares–that it’s hard to imagine pop culture without them. Thanks to Halloween turning autumn into an extended celebration of all things spooky, in many ways the horror genre is part of life’s memories.
As well as being Tim Burton’s reason for life.
But while there were macabre films in the silent era, people wouldn’t start using the term “horror” until Universal started releasing its famous monsters in the early 1930s. Before that, spooky films used to be lumped in under the banner of “mysterious” or “mystery pictures.” In the 1900s, at least. The “mystery” distinction might’ve mattered more to exhibitors than the audiences at your basic moving picture show, who probably just felt that some of the (very) short films in the program were more eerily entertaining than others.
Or simply more pants-wettingly terrifying than others.