Friday, June 26, 2015

The Films of Georges Melies: Part V

The Pillar of Fire
A gorgeously hand-tinted print of this film is presented on the Melies DVD set, heightening the fantastic elements that Melies is showcasing here. A devil-like figure dances about, waving a torch over a pit of fire, out of which rises a woman, who proceeds to perform a Serpentine dance. It is interesting to note the difference in the use of the Serpentine dance in the film compared with that used by Alice Guy. Melies heightens the fantasy element by having the dancer conjured up by a devil, and includes such frenetic action and movements that the whole screen seems to come alive through the motion alone. The use of hand-tinting also emphasizes the place of the film within the “Cinema of Attractions” mode, offering a full experience for viewers, who would have most likely encountered the film in fairgrounds.

“Dreyfus” films
A series of tableaux depicting events in the trial of Captain Dreyfus, this ambitious series of films is one of the most un-typical in Melies’ work. The films are difficult to comprehend without a knowledge of who the characters are. While they would have undoubtedly been more familiar to contemporary audiences, it is still difficult to imagine the films playing without some kind of descriptive narration. There are some remarkable moments, such as the scene in which a fight breaks out among reporters, who are seen running toward the camera to create a really claustrophobic sense of being crowded in to the tiny room. Some of the scenes are depicted with a fair amount of realism, while others are clearly staged in front of painted flats. Overall, this series was an extremely ambitious and daring undertaking, and Melies’ defense of Dreyfus is clear in his casting himself in the role of Dreyfus’ defense attorney.

The Magic Lantern
A very self-reflexive film, this depicts two characters viewing moving pictures through a Magic Lantern device. At one point, of the characters is able to see himself on the screen. They also open the Magic Lantern up, and various characters come out from the device. This may be one of the earliest examples of characters in a film interacting with a screen image (a “film-within-a-film”, essentially).

Hilarious Posters
More than any of the other films screened, this one creates the most elaborate manipulations of space within the frame. A giant advertising space, lined with posters, comes to life, with each of the illustrated characters “acting out” the advertisements they appear in. Eventually, they “break out” of the ad, and police chase them around, before becoming “trapped” in the ad themselves. There are a number of levels of screen space and direction, with three separate rows of advertisements across the screen, as well as foreground and background dimensions.

Palace of the Arabian Nights
An elaborate fantasy, Melies develops a strong narrative thrust in this film which is more involved than most of his fantasy films up to this point. It follows a journey into an elaborate palace to retrieve treasure, and the Prince’s encounters with various obstacles along the way. The film is notable for demonstrating the move toward narrative cinema, away from the “Cinema of Attractions” model, while also finding room for isolated moments of spectacle. The elaborate set design, costumes, and placement of actors and props within the frame show the lengths that Melies was going to in order to create a fully-realized fantasy world. The detail in the painted sets, for instance, lends to the overall universe that Melies transports viewers into.

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