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dvd review:
Méliès The Magician
Director: Georges Méliès
Studio: Facets Video

reviewed by Jesse Walker

January 13, 2004 | Georges Méliès gets a bad rap. The pioneering filmmaker, who lived from 1861 to 1938, is remembered as one of the founding icons of the movies; in the traditional formulation, he's seen as the godfather of film fantasy while his contemporaries the Lumiere brothers are hailed as the creators of documentary realism. But then the criticisms creep in. He never moved his camera. He almost always shot inside. His editing was primitive. His camera wasn't just stationary -- he kept it bolted to the studio floor. Geoff Andrew's book The Director's Vision sums up the conventional wisdom when it declares that Méliès "was insufficiently imaginative to proceed beyond anecdotal shorts." David Cook's History of Narrative Film is more positive -- it gives Méliès credit for developing the fade-in, the fade-out, the lap dissolve, and stop-motion photography -- but still concludes that he "appropriated a conventional and unimaginative narrative model because it was what he knew best."

In fact, Méliès did occasionally break with his usual pattern -- by shooting outside, by attempting a more realistic story, or by otherwise imitating other directors' work. The results were not inspiring. This shouldn't be surprising: If Méliès had trouble adopting his rivals' innovations, the flipside is that his primitive pictures are still delightful to watch today, while his more forward-looking colleagues' efforts feel dated and dull.

For evidence, turn to Méliès the Magician, a DVD collecting 15 of his films (including his masterpiece, 1902's Voyage to the Moon) alongside Jacques Mény's documentary The Magic of Méliès. The disc is a baroque feast. Each scene is crammed with bizarre details; each film is filled with simple but clever trick shots. A man like Edwin S. Porter may have done more to develop the grammar of the medium, but who today watches The Great Train Robbery for pleasure? The miracle of Méliès' work is that his best films still feel fresh -- that they're interesting as more than an exercise in archeology.

Or perhaps that isn't a miracle. Méliès wasn't a man struggling with the rudiments of a new medium so much as a man using that medium to develop a much older art. His background was in stage magic, and he saw his filmmaking as a natural extension of that work. Magicians had already been projecting slides via magic lanterns for centuries; film simply combined projected images with images that move. (For that matter, magic lantern shows frequently included some forms of movement -- the movies merely pushed that farther.) Méliès' films may not take advantage of every tool cinema has to offer, but as magic they represent an art at one of its peaks. Indeed, according to Modern Enchantments, Simon During's history of stage magic, Méliès didn't fail to adopt the new techniques so much as he refused them, on the grounds that they were a violation of the illusionist's aesthetic.

Méliès the Magician is a fine introduction to his body of work. The selections strike a nice balance between showing the best and the breadth of Méliès, and the documentary is informative if a bit bland. The latter's high points are clips from films that didn't make it onto the disc, some of which look very enticing -- I'd love to see the full version of The Merry Frolics of Satan someday. Perhaps it's time for volume two...

Jesse Walker is managing editor of Reason and author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press).








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