Monday, June 22, 2015

The Films of Georges Melies: Part I

This is the first in a series of writings on the films of Georges Melies. As with the Films of Edwin S. Porter series, this will cover a number of titles from the director's filmography taken from films currently available for viewing. Some of these notes were taken during screenings of the films during a course on silent French cinema at NYU in fall 2009. I plan to expand and publish these notes in the future.

Playing Cards
Melies’ first film, this is shot in the tradition of similar subjects taken by both Lumiere and Guy. Melies appears in the film himself, hinting at the central acting roles he would play in future projects. The film exhibits none of the tricks that Melies would introduce and perfect in his later work. The film is shot from a static position, as with Melies’ other films, but lacks the kind of dynamic action and mise-en-scene that defines his later work.

The Terrible Night
A comedy short, this depicts a comic character trying to sleep while his bed is infested with bugs. It opens with a comically-exaggerated insect climbing up the bed and then up the wall, suggesting that Melies was already interested in exploring the fantastic elements of cinema. The exaggerated makeup of the character, as well as the simple set, suggest the stage origins of sketches like this one.

Vanishing Lady
An early film in the style with which Melies became best known, here he plays a magician performing a vanishing act with his female assistant. Where Melies deviates from the usual stage origins of this act is in his use of stop-motion, which becomes his trademark technique in his later work, in creating special effects (the vanishing lady not only disappears under the sheet, but also re-appears at one point as a skeleton). Both performers directly address the audience at the end of the film. In this subject, we see that Melies was interested in not just re-creating magic acts that could be performed on stage, but also in enhancing them with effects only possible through the camera.

A Nightmare
Another comedy short, this one is staged with an emphasis on special effects humor, as a sleeping man envisions a woman seated at the foot of his bed, who transforms in to a blackface banjo player and a clown. Melies cuts between these different transformations with stop-motion effects. He also plays with spatial perspective by bringing the small figure of the moon closer to the screen so that it appears to have giant proportions as it gets closer.

No comments: