At the 7th Orphan Films Symposium, held at the School of Visual Arts Theatre, audiences had a rare treat to experience a Melies film the way it was meant to be seen.
The film was introduced by Matthew Solomon. The print was a gorgeous hand-colored one, although slightly incomplete at the beginning. Donald Sosin provided a splendid piano score, and Solomon read the film's narration, written by Melies himself.
There was nothing like the thrill as the lights went down, the piano music filling the theatre, and the storyteller's voice inviting the audience to get completely wrapped up in the exciting narrative. This is the way Melies was meant to be experienced. Listening to it this way, one could almost imagine themselves stepping into a dark auditorium at a carnival or fair at the turn of the last century, and being taken to new worlds of escapism, fantasy and excitement.
The film itself was the perfect combination of Melies' emphases on narrative and spectacle, integrated into an unforgettable whole. The story of Rip Van Winkle, familiar to viewers, provides a backdrop for the wonderful effects Melies creates, which are theatrical in nature but wholly unique to the cinematic form. The colors in the print recall the influence of the kind of heightened spectacle that audiences would have been familiar with from stage traditions of the time, recalling Charles Musser's points about the "intertextuality" of early cinema (and it was exciting to see the film with Musser in the audience, whose work has probably done more to influence my own writing on early film than any other).
Even though the film was more than 100 years old, it felt as fresh, magical and delightful as ever. It makes the viewer appreciate what a truly magical film can feel like. Recent efforts into the fantasy or spectacle forms have been abysmal failures at every level-lacking the wit, energy, ingenuity and pure joy of the worlds Melies takes viewers to again and again. I'm sure the old master would be delighted to know that his unique blend of comedy and magic, and narrative and spectacle, still hold the power to totally enchant and entrance audiences, as if they were still children listening with rapt attention to the fairy tales told by their parents. Indeed, that's about the only experience I can liken the viewing of a Melies film to. His films contain the ability to "entertain", in the truest sense of that word, more than any other artist in the medium.
The magic of Melies will never pass. His work is timeless, never dated, quaint or old-fashioned. As long as there is a capacity for joy and wonder in the world, Melies will never be irrelevant.