CHAPTER 3 / Part 2



Table of Contents

Table of Contents




One version of an oft-told story in the annals of movie history records that when some members of the first audience at the Grand Café in December 1895 inquired about buying his cinématographe, Louis Lumière refused, assuring would-be buyers that “the cinema is an invention without a future” (see Reading 2.4). We don’t know if Lumière really did express such an opinion, but according to some accounts, he said it in turning down a young French magician named Georges Méliès. In his memoirs, Méliès reports that it was Antoine Lumière, father of Louis and Auguste, who refused to part with the family’s trade secret.[19] But Méliès’ own memory is unreliable. Elsewhere, he recalls that


                 Georges Méliès

I rushed up to Auguste Lumière and offered to buy his invention. I offered 10,000, 20,000, 50,000 francs. I would gladly have given him my fortune, my house, my family, in exchange for it. “Young man,” said he, “you should be grateful, since, although my invention is not for sale, it would undoubtedly ruin you. It can be exploited for a certain time as a scientific curiosity, but apart from that, it has no commercial future whatsoever.” [20]

Méliès reports that he then devised his own combination camera and projector—a claim that is, at best, half true. In February 1896, Georges Méliès (1861-1938), a Parisian showman and theater manager, was able to purchase a projector from R.W. Paul (see Chapter 3.1). By April, he was presenting film shows—mostly shorts made by the Edison Company and Lumière et fils—at his Théâtre Robert-Houdin. Up until 1895, his specialty on the stage had been “theatrical compositions” featuring optical illusions that were often accompanied by magic-lantern shows (see Figure 3.14).[21]

“The Creator of the Cinematic Spectacle”

Méliès had begun showing his own “personal views” at the Théâtre Robert-Houdin in May 1896, and by the end of the year, he was producing films under the banner of his own firm, the Star Film Company. Before the year was out, he had completed no fewer than 78 films. Many of these were shameless variations on themes already treated by Louis Lumière: Arrivée d’un train, Gare de Vincennes (Arrival of a Train at Vincennes Station); Barque sortant du port de Trouville (Boat Leaving the Harbor of Trouville); L’Arroseur (Watering Flowers); Sortie des Atelier Vibert (Closing Hours at Vibert’s Perfume Factory). But already by late summer, Méliès was experimenting with the sort of cinematic sleight of hand that would ultimately prompt Louis Lumière to dub him “le créateur du spectacle cinématographique”—“the creator of the cinematic spectacle.”[22]

The “Substitution Trick”
  Méliès says that it was a lucky accident that he discovered the one “trick” which made possible almost all the others that he would gradually develop. While he was shooting one day on the streets of Paris, his camera jammed, and he spent a minute fixing it:

During this minute, the passersby, buses, and carriages had moved, of course. When I projected the film, joined at the place where the break had occurred, I suddenly saw a . . . bus changed into a hearse and men changed into women. The substitution trick, called stop motion, had been discovered.[23]

In reality, the stop-motion effect (see Chapter 3.1) had already been used in a film that Méliès had probably seen. In August 1895, an Edison director named Alfred Clark had decapitated the titular heroine of The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots by stopping his camera, replacing his star with a dummy, and starting the camera again to capture the beheading of the dummy, thus creating the illusion of a single continuous shot (see Figure 3.15).[24]

Substitution versus Stop Motion
  There is, however, a fine distinction to be made between the stop-motion effect in a film like The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots and the effect of the “substitution trick” as Méliès characteristically deploys it. Consider, for instance, Escamotage d’une dame chez Robert-Houdin (The Vanishing LadyFigure 3.16), which is one of only two surviving Méliès films from 1896:

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                   Escamotage d’un dame

                      chez Robert- Houdin

What’s the difference between the two uses of stop motion? In The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, the place of one object (an actor’s figure) has simply been taken by another (the figure of the dummy). The filmmaker has solved a technical problem (how to cut off a character’s head), but he has not (insofar as the trick is undetected) altered the course of an event that unfolds after the cut precisely as it was unfolding before the cut. The same can be said about the use of stop motion in R.W. Paul’s Extraordinary Cab accident. In Escamotage d’une dame, however, one object (the body of a woman) has been changed into another (the “body” of a skeleton) and back again. By virtue of this transformation, Méliès not only strikes a much richer vein of humor and surprise, but constructs a little metaphor: under the magician’s power, the woman is stripped of her identity— indeed, suffers the death” of her identity—until the magician (who is a male) gives it back to her.[25]

Intimations of Instability
  How intentional is this metaphor? As the storyteller, Méliès’ intentions are irrelevant. His own actions are indistinguishable from those of the magicians that he’s so fond of depicting (and impersonating). His magicians, like all magicians, enjoy power because the world and the things in it are unstable. As such, they can be transformed, whether from one thing into another or from one thing that’s present into the same thing when it’s not. Also transformable are people, who are treated throughout Méliès’ films, as in Escamotage d’une dame, as objects whose identities are no more stable than those of runaway furniture, shape-shifting boxes, exploding ballerinas, floating body parts, and dancing playing cards. We all have some inklings or suspicions that our lives—even our physical beings—are not entirely “stable”: that sense or intimation of “instability” has always been a recurrent theme of our dreams, our fairy tales, and our fascination with magic—all of which entertain our suspicion that things aren’t quite as stable as we’d like them to be.

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          L’Éclipse du soleil en pleine lune

A Fractured Fairy Tale: L’Éclipse du soleil en pleine lune
  Consider, for instance, the universe. If it were stable, then the things that happen in it would be more predictable and more readily understandable. In L’Éclipse du soleil en pleine lune (The Eclipse: The Courtship of Sun and Moon, 1907—Figure 3.17), Méliès concocts a combination fairy and morality tale about the foolishness of trying to look too deeply into the workings of an unstable and inscrutable universe. At a medieval school, an old astronomer begins to teach a class of young men, all armed with telescopes, about the art of scrutinizing an imminent eclipse. When a mechanical clock strikes twelve, all the young men rush to the windows and fix their telescopes on the heavens. The old astronomer, meanwhile, climbs up to his personal observatory, where he and his two assistants, each armed with a phallic telescope only slightly smaller than the old man’s outsized equipment, also look skyward. We then see what they see, starting with seductively clad women riding the skies on shooting stars and crescent moons.[26]. Next, the Man in the Moon, a coy baby-faced lad, passes in front of Mr. Sun, who is a lecherous tongue-smacking goblin, and there transpires what appears to be (at least judging from the look on the Man in the Moon’s face) a little episode of empyrean intimacy, which is followed by the release of some more seductively clad shooting stars.

In an interesting interlude, one female on a crescent moon is wooed by a young soldier and then by a wizened old man. They both manage to mount her crescent, but it frustrates their lovemaking by rocking back and forth under their weight until an intertitle announces “An Unexpected Bath.” At this point, the heavens pour forth raindrops in the form of yet more seductive girls. Back in his observatory, the old astronomer becomes so excited that he mounts his window sill for a better look, only to fall head first into a rain barrel. Brought back inside, he is toweled off by his students but expires nonetheless.

Clearly, the heavenly bodies in this astronomical wonderland are projections of our scientists’ erotic fantasies. We know that they’re external visions of interior desires because they’re figments inspired by dreams. We know in turn that they’re transformed dream images because the desire to possess them is doomed to frustration. Thus the scientists’ struggle to contemplate the heavens is really a substitution for the impulse to contemplate—and figure out how to satisfy—the desires that spring from within. The effort, like that of most dreams, is likely to end in the kind of frustration symbolized in the old astronomer’s “unexpected bath.”

Méliès’ approach to this theme is almost always genial and his treatment typically comic. After all, the audience for his films consisted of patrons at variety theaters and fairgrounds—amusement seekers. Both technical trickery and humor came naturally to the kind of cinema that had to compete with the freak shows, wax museums, pantomimes and palm readers, human anomalies and other morbid scientific curiosities that could be found up and down the same midway. In fact, exhibitors of “animated photographs” often had to use acrobats, jugglers, contortionists, and trapeze artists to attract the attention of milling fairgoers.[27] Why did Méliès have more success than his competitors in appealing to this audience? In large part, he amused them by exploiting the surprise and humor inherent in the magical transformations made possible by the apparatus of the motion picture.

“The Film of Poetic Freedom”
  At the risk of oversimplifying, we can say two things about the thrust of Méliès’ humor:

  1. It appeals not to logic but rather to the irrational—indeed, to the absurd—because it frees the object and the event from the “rules” or “laws” that govern the physical world.[28]
  2. In so doing, it offers joking as a form of liberation—and thereby satisfies the audience’s desire to be amused in the first place.

The joke is often antiauthoritarian and typically intended to celebrate the freedom to laugh at the breakdown of social order and the violation of natural laws. At one fell swoop, argues the French director René Clair, Méliès “created the fiction film and the film of poetic freedom.”[29]

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          L’Homme à la tête de caoutchouc

The Magician as Fathead: L’Homme à la tête de caoutchouc
  Like the old astronomer in L’Éclipse du soleil, the Méliès magician gets in trouble—and becomes the butt of the joke—whenever he becomes captivated by the exercise of his own powers and neglects his essential role of liberator. Which is to say, when his head becomes too big. In the famous L’Homme à la tête de caoutchouc (The Man with the Rubber Head, 1902), Méliès appears as the magician in the guise of a scientist. He produces a living duplicate of his own head, places it on a table, and proceeds to blow it up with a bellows to a height of four feet, before finally letting the air back out (see Figure 3.18). His assistant (and alter ego) enters the lab, takes over the bellows, and re-inflates the head—until it explodes, hurling both characters across the room. The decapitation illusion—one of the oldest in the conjurer’s bag of tricks—was among Méliès’ favorites because the head is such a useful symbol. In L’Homme à la tête, it symbolizes the arrogance of the magician in presuming to exercise “authority” over the phenomenon of living matter. He is punished for becoming his own worst enemy—an authoritarian figure instead of a liberating figure—when he’s turned into a clown who reduces everything to a humiliating disaster.[30]

The Magician and the Imp of the Perverse

For Méliès, then, the magician is a paradoxical figure. He has the real power to transform things but is doomed to humiliating failure whenever he takes his power too seriously: only when he uses his power to surprise, to disrupt social order and natural law, and to cause laughter does he properly celebrate his gift. Another paradoxical role of the Méliès magician is that of the devil, which is also a favorite among the roles that Méliès reserved for himself (see Figure 3.19). Méliès’ vision of the devil is that of a subversive imp whose deviltry consists largely in wreaking disorder rather than in damning souls. This he does either by playing direct havoc with a man’s thoughts or by making him doubt the usefulness of his thoughts in figuring out the world around him.

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              L'Alchemiste Parafaragamus

                    ou la cornue infernale

The Strain of Repressed Thoughts: L’Alchemiste Parafaragamus
  In L’Alchemiste Parafaragamus ou la cornue infernale (The Mysterious Retort, 1906), a magician falls asleep in a chair next to a table on which there sits a retort (a glass vessel with an outlet tube). From beneath the table crawls a snake, which turns into a devil. After a few somersaults, the devil wakens the magician and prepares him for a series of visions of his own repressed thoughts: we know that they’re his own thoughts because the devil begins by giving him a mirror in which to see the face behind which they lurk. The retort expands to enormous size, looking, appropriately, like a bubble in which are expressed the thoughts of characters in comic strips. Falling back into sleep, the magician tosses and turns in psychic distress as the devil brews up a series of dream images that are both horrific (a giant spider and a flying ghost) and frustrating (an inaccessible maiden strewing flowers). The magician wakes, only to collapse from the strain, and when his two servants enter to find him prostrate on the floor, his mind finally blows: the retort explodes to reveal the devil again, who gloats in his victory (Figure 3.20). Like the overconfident assistant in L’Homme à la tête, the magician in L’Alchemiste Parafaragamus has been punished for the arrogance that’s common to his profession: the delusion that he can actually control forces that are much more powerful than he is.

The Féerie: Devilment and Reversed Symbols
  During the nineteenth century, one type of theater that flourished in France was called the féerie. Most of these brief melodramas were fairy tales featuring music and acrobatics. Supernatural creatures (including amiable devils) interrupted the affairs of real people, and increasingly sophisticated stage machinery permitted a variety of trick disappearances and transformations.

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                          Le Diable noir

Le Diable noir (The Black Imp, 1905) is one of many films in which Méliès adapts the conventions of the féerie to his own special brand of cinematic shenanigans. Characteristically, he reduces to an elaborate gag the féerie convention of the supernatural figure intervening in human affairs: aided by a nonstop battery of substitution tricks, an imp (played by an acrobatic Georges Méliès) torments a traveler in his hotel room by shifting his furniture and otherwise thwarting his effort to get a good night’s sleep.

In keeping with the conventions of the féerie, Méliès invests his devil figure with a kind of reversed symbolism: the devil, for example, can be used as an agent of liberation from psychological constraints (stuffy, convention-bound behavior), and even from physical constraints (the laws governing matter in motion), rather than as an agent of damnation for life’s unavoidable transgressions. In amusements taking this approach, it becomes acceptable to treat the diabolical as mere devilment—as a subject of fun rather than fear, as in Méliès’ Le Diable noir.

Faust in the “Domain of the Marvelous”
  The plot of the féerie usually concerns a battle between good and evil and typically embodies these forces in such features as magic objects and supernatural creatures.[31] Among these creatures is frequently a devil figure who often takes the form of a goblin, witch, or some other character common to fairy tales. Remember, however, that Méliès likes to transform his devils into creatures who, if not exactly benevolent, are not strictly diabolical. Besides acrobatic imps and gremlins, Méliès had a pronounced fondness for playing either Satan himself or one of his better known subsidiary devils. Among Méliès’ favorite characters was Mephistopheles, the demon to whom Faust sells his soul in return for knowledge and power in the classic tale (see Figure 3.21).

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          Les Quatre cents farces du diable

Le Voyage dans l’Enfer: Les Quatre cents farces du diable
  Méliès tells his version of the Faust story in Les Quatre cents farces du diable (The Merry Frolics of Satan, 1906). Here, a young engineer sells his soul to Mephistopheles for some magic pills. The demon then pursues him, demanding his soul and tormenting him with diabolical practical jokes (such as spiriting away his dinner). When the hero tries to escape, his carriage is transformed into a ghostly vehicle and drawn by a skeletal horse on a dizzying outer space trip until his time runs out and he’s roasted, via the substitution trick and a dummy, on the devil’s spit (Figure 3.22).

In Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s classic treatment of the Faust theme, the hero conjures up a demon who represents his own anxieties and guides him, on a dark night of his own soul, through an underworld full of mythic and psychic terrors. Needless to say, this approach isn’t very congenial to Méliès’ whimsical turn of mind. Fortunately, there’s a more amiable variation on the theme in the féerie. In this context, the hero and heroine summon up some non-human force to help them pursue one another not through a realm of personal anxiety, but rather through a variety of fantastic regions where their adventures are exotic rather than traumatic. Typically, they return home to be reunited in a final scene of romantic triumph.[32]

Prince Charming’s Marvelous Adventure: Le Palais des 1001 nuits
  The two versions of this theme are combined in Méliès’ Le Palais des 1001 nuits (The Palace of the Arabian Nights, 1905). Prince Charming enlists a genie to help him find the treasure that he must possess before winning the hand of the Rajah’s daughter. Aided also in his quest by the Blue Dwarf, the Fairy of Gold, and the High Priest, the Prince descends through an enchanted realm that appears in numerous forms—the Magic Forest, the Wonderful Caverns, the Crystal Grotto, the Miraculous Caves. Méliès delights in creating intricate sets and using cinematic and stage magic to depict the Prince’s trials: amidst fires, volcanic eruptions, and snowfalls, papier-mâché monsters roam about, statues come to life, enormous toads turn to stone, and stone monsters soften into flowers (see Figure 3.23).[33]

In his fascination with dreams of frustration, Méliès shares Sigmund Freud’s abiding interest in the effect on the psyche of unfulfilled wishes and desires. For more on the psychoanalytic ramifications of Méliès’ jokes and images, see Reading 3.1: “Jump Cut: ‘The Repressed Thought Returns at the Very Moment of Its Repression’” and Reading 3.2: “In Theory: Faust and Freud at the Crossroads of Frustration.”

“The Scenario Has No More Than a Secondary Importance”
  Although most of the tricks in Le Palais rely on stage machinery rather than cinematic ingenuity, it’s the camera that permits Méliès to create an atmosphere in which everything seems capable of transforming and surprising. In his fully equipped film studio at Montreuil (see Figure 3.24), he can replace elevators, movable stages, and falling flaps with instantaneous changes made by stop motion. At the same time, he speeds up the pace with which one illusion gives way to the next, discouraging viewers from scrutinizing his tricks and inspiring them instead to marvel at them. For Méliès, in short, the cinema was a better forum than the stage for conjuring: “In conjuring,” he explained,

you work under the attentive gaze of the public, who never fail to spot a suspicious movement. . . . Their eyes never leave you . . ., while in the cinema . . . you can do your confecting quietly, far from those profane gazes. . . . This allows you to travel further in the domain of the marvelous.[34]

Likewise, because there is no obtrusive stage apparatus to detract from his visual effects, Méliès could put his energy into creating effects-powered images that punctuate stories which are, admittedly, only loosely woven. He is quoted as saying that his goal was to stage “theater scenes not possible on the stage,” and in so doing, he was certainly playing to his strength. “The scenario,” he admitted,

is in this case simply a thread intended to link the “effects,” in themselves, without much relation to each other. I mean to say that the scenario has no more than a secondary importance in this genre of composition. . . . I was appealing to the spectator’s eyes alone, trying to charm and intrigue him.[35]

The Mad Scientist as Genial Crank
  With his various astronomers, alchemists, and conjurers, Méliès may also be the father of the mad scientist in the cinema—a figure who is not, in fact, far removed from Méliès’ devil figure.[36] Méliès’ devil, for example, is a specialist in transforming things via poofs of smoke and bursts of flame, and as the master of fire, the devil is the prototype of the evil genius who harnesses powerful forces that are simultaneously destructive and creative. At the same time, Méliès’ scientists, though often genial cranks, are frequently the butts of satire, especially when their quest for power over the physical world threatens to strip it of its capacity to inspire us with a sense of wonder.

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    La Photographie électrique à la distance

And of course, like the astronomer of L’Éclipse du soleil, we almost always find Méliès’ scientists playing the genius in the service of their own libidos. From a technical standpoint, La Photographie électrique à la distance (Long-Distance Wireless Photography, 1908) is one of Méliès’ most ingenious spoofs of scientific wizardry gone awry. Here Méliès plays a combination magician/scientist/showman who has invented a forerunner of television. In his laboratory/studio, he sits customers before a streamlined “camera” that “broadcasts” their images onto a black viewing screen. In order to demonstrate the device to prospective customers, he projects for them what he regards as the most universally appealing of all possible images: a pretty girl in a seductive costume. Unfortunately, his machine can accurately reproduce only the ideal images that inhabit his brain, which is unsullied by reality: while the pretty girl is faithfully reproduced no matter where she and the screen are placed, two sitters from the outside world reproduce grotesquely ugly portraits (Figure 3.25).

Reading 3.3, “Jump Cut: From Black Sacks to Greenscreening,” explains the special-effects process by which Méliès was able to photograph disparate images in a single frame, as well as the development of new generations of the process into the computer age.

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                    Le Voyage dans la lune

“The Ludicrous Expedition”: Le Voyage dans la lune
  Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon, 1902) is undoubtedly Méliès’ most famous film—an “epic” in 30 scenes that spoofs Jules Verne’s novel about Victorian-era space travel.[37] Méliès served as producer, writer, director, and set and costume designer. He also plays Professeur Barbenfouillis (“Messybeard”), who is selected by the Astronomers’ Club to head a six-man mission to the moon (Figure 3.26). Launched with the aide of a bevy of chorus girls, the Club’s spaceship heads for the heavens and approaches the eye of the Man in the Moon—in which it lands with a silent plop. The adventurers sleep and dream (as planets and constellations and other heavenly bodies dance by), and a snowstorm sets in. In the morning, they’re attacked by Moon Men who are dispatched in volleys of substitution-trick blows and puffs of smoke. Retreating to their spaceship, the travelers return to earth via a sea landing (in which a real image of the sea is followed by a shot taken in a tank). Rescued, they are given a heroes’ welcome (Figure 3.27).

At nearly 14 minutes, Le Voyage is almost three times the length of the typical Edison or Lumière short, but—technically speaking—its “innovative” achievement essentially ends there. It’s conceived strictly as a photographed stage play and consists entirely of what Méliès called “artifically arranged scenes” or “moving tableaux” connected by dissolves—the superimposition of the beginning of one “scene” over the end of the previous one. No scene is broken down into component shots, and within each scene, the camera maintains the fixed viewpoint of a theater spectator (the papier-mâché moon, for example, dollies toward the camera rather than vice versa).

At the same time, however, Le Voyage contains an ample share of Méliès’ pictorial wit, imaginative conjuring, and good-natured satire. While the sets, for example, evoke a decidedly childlike fantasy world, the launch crew of bare-legged chorines is recruited from the realm of adult fantasy. Similarly, Le Voyage has been called an extremely economical “combination of pageantry and parody.”[38] As such, it’s probably designed to exploit the ambivalent attitude of contemporary audiences toward modern science: it’s fairly clear that what Jules Verne took seriously—a fictional treatment of the knowledge compiled by modern science—Méliès seized as grist for a satiric mill.

Is Le Voyage dans la lune the first “science fiction” film? This question is addressed in Reading 3.4, “In Theory: Is Le Voyage dans la lune ‘Science Fiction’; Or, Vehicles for Fugitive Enterprises.”

“A Theater of Illusions Rather Than a Theater of Illusionism”

American film historian Tom Gunning reminds us that Méliès’ practice of the cinema stood in the tradition of moving-picture entertainment as an extension of magic theater, including “the magic lantern and related projected illusions.”[39] Although he sought to establish a “realistic” basis for each spectacle that he created, this form of “realism” aimed for something much different than that of filmmakers who sought to convey the illusion of reality through impressions of “naturalistic” images. Méliès sought to establish a context within which to present the spectacle as a “magical”—or even quasi-“scientific”—disruption of the laws that govern the real world. To accomplish this trick, he had to create an image of the “real world” which, however fanciful or absurd, the audience could accept as a representation of the “real.” In other words, he wanted his audience to appreciate the “trick” for what it was: his was “a theater of illusions,” contends Gunning, “rather than a theater of illusionism.”[40]

The “Substitution Splice” versus the “Classical Continuity System”
  To appreciate the approach of Méliès (and of those filmmakers who followed in his footsteps), Gunning insists that we reject—or at least modify—the picture of Méliès that so many historians and theorists have etched into the annals of film history. Take, for example, the influential German-born critic Siegfried Kracauer. “Notwithstanding his film sense,” lamented Kracauer,

Méliès still remained the theater director he had been. He used photography in a pre-photographic spirit—for the reproduction of a papier-mâché universe inspired by stage traditions. . . . [H]is actors bowed to the audience, as if they performed on the stage. Much as his films differed from the theater on a technical plane, they failed to transcend its scope by incorporating genuinely cinematic subjects. This also explains why Méliès, for all his inventiveness, never thought of moving his camera; the stationary camera perpetuated the spectator’s relation to the stage. His ideal spectator was the traditional theatergoer, child or adult.[41]

Gunning agrees that the key to Méliès’ technique is in fact “stop-motion substitution”—“a stopping of the camera at a predetermined point, [an] arrangement of actors or props [that takes place beyond the view of the camera], and then a resumption of the turning of the camera.” He goes on, however, to report that

examination of the actual prints of Méliès films reveals that in every case, this stop-motion technique was in fact revised through splicing. Variation in hand-cranked speed when stopping and starting, as well as refinements possible only at [the splicing] stage, called for the actual cutting of the film at the beginning and end of the interrupted action and for the subsequent splicing of it together (emphasis added).[42]

In short, Méliès used editing to “doctor” the film in order to enhance “a seamless illusion of transformation. . . . The splices in Méliès films are managed in order to maintain the flow and rhythm of action that a mere stopping of the camera could not provide.”[43]

Continuity of Framing
  Méliès’ final effect was thus achieved by a process normally associated with “the classical continuity system,” whose goal was make coherent transitions between or among different shots. It was, in other words, an approach to technique in which, as Gunning puts it, “a variety of viewing angles and distances are related to a larger spatial whole.” In Méliès, however, there is no “larger spatial whole.” He is satisfied if we accept as an adequate representation of reality the space that’s delineated by each frame. He doesn’t ask us to deduce some “larger spatial whole” which, though never glimpsed all at one time, is the theoretical sum of the parts revealed in his frames. For Méliès, therefore, the most important thing is the integrity of the frame. Before introducing any magical tricks, he wants the images in his frames to appear stable, just as things appear to us in our everyday world. But the illusion of stability is “violated” by the process of cutting to continuity. “A consideration of Méliès’ use of the ‘substitution splice,’” argues Gunning,

shows that what is maintained is both a continuity of action and (in contrast to later continuity editing) a continuity of framing. It is the absolute duplication of framing over the splice which, along with the continuity of action, allows the interruption to be all but imperceptible to the viewer.[44]

Why does Méliès try to make the interruption imperceptible? To protect the illusion that it’s the fabric of reality itself which is being pierced by the magic transformation.

It’s little wonder, then, that Méliès took such delight in the failure of his competitors to duplicate the illusion of the expanding head in L’Homme à la tete. Rival directors, he suggests, might have figured out the trick if they’d understood his purpose. Because they tried to enlarge the head by moving the camera toward the actor, the image of the head expanded until the tabletop that formed the lower frame of the film within the film disappeared. “I did it otherwise,” reported Méliès, “advancing [my head] toward the camera.”[45] In this case, intent and necessity coincide: Méliès’ desire for a realistically stable image was satisfied by his need to stabilize the frame around it. As you can see from Figure 3.28, it would clearly have been easier to move the camera instead of the prop. This is also true in Le Voyage dans la lune when Méliès dollies forth his papier-mâché moon instead of his camera (see Figure 3.29). Thus it’s not entirely accurate to say that the decision in Le Voyage to reproduce the proscenium arch in the photographic frame reveals Méliès’ deficient grasp of the new medium: moving the camera would have collapsed the frame about the stable, centered image of the moon, and Méliès’ artistry depended upon stabilizing the frame in order to enhance the illusion of “realistic” context.

Reading 3.5, “In Theory: Proto-Films and ‘The Most Elementary Dichotomy of Film Aesthetics’; or, What Is Intrinsically Cinematic?” addresses the charge that Méliès’ contrived scenes violate the inherent properties of photography, whose goal—according to one school of thought—should be recording and revealing physical reality. It also explores the theory that the actualité of Louis Lumière and the “fantasy” of Georges Méliès defined the two poles which the cinema has observed, and between which it has fluctuated, since the very beginning. For more on the life of Méliès, see Biographical Sketch 3.1: Georges Méliès. Reading 3.6, “Jump Cut: ‘Méliès Invented Everything, Basically,’” discusses Martin Scorsese’s 3D homage to Méliès, Hugo.


dissolve   Superimposition of the beginning of one “scene” over the end of the previous one

substitution trick   Georges Méliès’ usage of stop motion to transform one photographic object into another


[19] The material on Méliès is drawn principally from Paul Hammond, Marvellous Méliès (New York: St. Martin’s, 1975); Richard Abel, The Ciné Goes to Town: French Cinema 1896-1914 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1994), pp. 13-14, 61-87, 90-93; Miriam Rosen, “Méliès, Georges,” in World Film Directors. Volume I. 1890-1945, ed. John Wakeman (New York: H.W. Wilson, 1987), pp. 747-65.

See also Elizabeth Ezra, Georges Méliès (Manchester, UK: Manchester Univ. Press, 2000), at (accessed June 7, 2016); John Frazer, Artificially Arranged Scenes: The Films of Georges Méliès (Boston: G.K. Hall and Co., 1979); David Robinson, Georges Méliès: Father of Film Fantasy (New York: Museum of the Moving Image, 1993); Robinson, “Georges Méliès,” Cinema: A Critical Dictionary. Volume Two, ed. Richard Roud (London: Martin Secker & Warburg, 1980), pp. 676-81; Paolo Cherchi Usai, “A Trip to the Movies: Georges Méliès, Filmmaker and Magician (1861-1938),” Image 34:3-4 (1991), pp. 3-11, at (accessed June 7, 2016); Alan Williams, Republic of Images: A History of French Filmmaking (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard Univ. Press, 1992), pp. 32-39; Ian Christie, The Last Machine: Early Cinema and the Birth of the Modern World (London: British Film Institute, 1994), pp. 35-36; Roy Armes, Film and Reality: An Historical Survey (1974; rpt. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1975), pp. 25-29; Pauline D-L Méliès, Georges Méliès: Official Website, at (accessed June 7, 2016); Darragh O’Donoghue, “Georges Méliès,” Senses of Cinema 32 (July-September 2004), at (accessed June 7, 2016).

In 1907, Méliès published an article entitled “Les Vues cinématographiques,” in which he detailed his approach to constructing moving pictures: “Cinematographic Views,” trans. Stuart Liebman, in French Film Theory and Criticism: A History/Anthology, 1907-1939. Volume 1: 1907-1929, ed. Richard Abel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1993), pp. 35-50. A shorter version of the translation appears in October 29 (Summer 1984), pp. 23-31. Extensive excerpts from Méliès’ Mes mémoires (1938) can be found in Maurice Bessy and Giuseppe Maria Lo Duca, Georges Méliès, Mage et “Mes Mémoires” par Méliès [in French] (1945; rpt. Paris: Jean-Jacques Pauvert, 1961). This book has not been translated into English.

[20] Quoted by Roger Manvell, The Film and the Public (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1955), p. 17. The recollection appears originally in Maurice Bardèche and Robert Brasillach, History of the Film, ed. and trans. Iris Barry (London: Allen and Unwin, 1938).

[21] For a discussion of the magicians who influenced Méliès and an overview of his own career as a stage magician, see Hammond, Marvellous Méliès, pp. 15-26; Dan North, “Illusory Bodies: Magical Performance on Stage and Screen,” Early Popular Visual Culture 5:2 (July 2007), pp. 175-88, at (accessed June 7, 2016); and Simon During, Modern Enchantments: The Cultural Power of Secular Magic (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2002), pp. 167-73. For a discussion of how Méliès’ penchant for setting his films on stages like those on which he performed as a magician influenced his concept of audiences in a cinema, see Frank Kessler, “The Gentleman in the Stalls: Georges Méliès and Spectatorship in Early Cinema,” in Audiences, ed. Ian Christie (Amsterdam: Amsterdam Univ. Press, 2012), pp. 35-44, at (accessed June 7, 2016).

[22] Quoted by Rosen, “Méliès,” p. 750.

[23] Quoted by Rosen, “Méliès,” p. 750. See Paolo Cherchi Usai, Burning Passions: An Introduction to the Study of Silent Cinema, trans. Emma Sansone Rittle (London: British Film Institute, 1994), p. 59.

[24] On the origin of the stop-motion trick, see Barry Salt, Film Style and Technology: History and Analysis (London: Starword, 1983), p. 72. On The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, see Scott Combs, “Cut: Execution, Editing, and Instant Death,” Spectator 28:2 (Fall 2008), pp. 31-41, at (accessed June 7, 2016); Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, pp. 86-87; and The Sprocket Society, “Silent Magic: Trick Films and Special Effects 1895-1912” (October 20, 2013), at (accessed June 7, 2016.

[25] See Lucy Fischer, “The Lady Vanishes: Women, Magic and the Movies,” Film Quarterly (Fall 1979), pp. 30-40. Rpt. in Film before Griffith, ed. John Fell (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1983), pp. 339-54.

[26] See Fischer, “The Lady Vanishes,” pp. 30-32.

[27] See Hammond, Marvellous Méliès, pp. 91, 95-96.

[28] See Hammond, Marvellous Méliès, p. 92.

[29] Cinema Yesterday and Today, ed. R.C. Dale, trans. Stanley Applebaum (New York: Dover, 1972), p. 124.

[30] Consulted on L’Homme à la tête de caoutchouc: Michael Brooke, “The Man with the Rubber Head,” Georges Méliès: An In-Depth Look at Cinema’s First Creative Genius,, July 4, 2008, at (accessed February 16, 2014). See also Pasi Väliaho, Mapping the Moving Image: Gesture, Thought and Cinema Circa 1900 (Amsterdam: Amsterdam Univ. Press, 2010), p. 62, at (accessed June 7, 2016).

[31] This description of the féerie is based on Katherine Singer Kovács, “Georges Méliès and the Féerie,” in Film before Griffith, ed. Fell, pp. 244-57. See also Frank Kessler, “The Féerie between Stage and Screen,” in A Companion to Early Cinema, ed. André Gaudreault, Nicolas Dulac, and Santiago Hidalgo (Malden, MA, and Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), pp. 64-79; Kessler, “A Trip to the Moon as Féerie,” in Fantastic Voyages of the Cinematic Imagination: Georges Méliès’ “A Trip to the Moon,” ed. Matthew Solomon (Albany, NY: State Univ. of New York Press, 2011), pp. 115-28; Jack Zipes, The Enchanted Screen: The Unknown History of Fairy-Tale Films (Abington, UK: Routledge, 2011), Chapter 3, at (accessed June 7, 2016); Richard Abel,“The Cinema of Attractions in France, 1896-1904,” in The Silent Cinema Reader, ed. Lee Grieveson and Peter Krämer (Abington, UK: Psychology Press, 2004), esp. pp. 64-68. On the use of color in the féeries and other spectacle films of Méliès, see Joshua Yumibe, Moving Color: Mass Culture, Modernism (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press, 2012), Chapter 2.

[32] See Kovács, “Georges Méliès and the Féerie,” p. 245. On Les Quatre cents farces du diable and Le Palais des 1001 nuits, see Abel, The Ciné Goes to Town, pp. 158-59 and 157-58. Brief but informative descriptions of both films can also be found at Northwest Film Forum, Georges Méliès: Impossible Voyager: Special Effects Epics, 1902-1912 (May 15, 2008), at (accessed June 7, 2016). The site also includes descriptions of Le Voyage dans la lune, Le Royaume des fées, Le Raid Paris-Monte Carlo en 2 heures (An Adventurous Automobile Trip), Voyage à travers l’impossible (The Impossible Voyage), and À la conquête du Pole (Conquest of the Pole).

[33] On Le Palais des 1001 nuits, see also Hammond, Marvellous Méliès, pp. 118-19; and Kovács, “Georges Méliès and the Féerie,” pp. 251-52.

[34] Méliès, “En marge de l’histoire du cinématographe” (1920), quoted by Hammond, Marvellous Méliès, p. 57.

[35] Méliès, “L’Importance du scénario” (1932), quoted in Hammond, Marvellous Méliès, p. 57.

[36] See Christopher Frayling, Mad, Bad and Dangerous?: The Scientist and the Cinema (London: Reaktion Books, 2012), Chapter 2. On La Photographie électrique à la distance, see Reading 6.2.

[37] On Le Voyage dans la lune, see Solomon, ed., Fantastic Voyages of the Cinematic Imagination; see “Introduction” at (accessed June 7, 2016). See also Frank Kessler, “On Fairies and Technologies,” in Moving Images: From Edison to the Webcam, ed. John Fullerton and Astrid Söderbergh-Widding (New Barnet, UK: John Libbey Publishing, 2000), pp. 39-46; Maurice Bessy, “From ‘Méliès,’” in Focus on the Science Fiction Film, ed. William Johnson (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972), pp. 26-30. On the popularity of Le Voyage dans la lune in America, see Richard Abel, The Red Rooster Scare: Making Cinema American, 1900-1910 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1999), pp. 7-8, 21-23. On the restoration of Le Voyage dans la lune and other Méliès films, see Biographical Sketch 3.1.

[38] Rosen, “Méliès,” p. 755.

[39] “‘Primitive’ Cinema—A Frame up? or The Trick’s on Us,” Cinema Journal 28 (Winter 1989), pp. 3-12.

[40] “‘Primitive’ Cinema,” p. 10.

[41] Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1976), p. 33.

[42] “‘Primitive’ Cinema,” p. 6.

[43] “‘Primitive’ Cinema,” p. 6.

[44] “Primitive’ Cinema,” p. 7. Mary Ann Doane argues that, paradoxically, Méliès makes careful use of such techniques as the substitution trick in order to give the impression of a world in which things happen by chance: The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2002), pp. 137-39, at (accessed June 7, 2016).

[45] “Les Vues cinématographiques” (1907), quoted by Rosen, “Méliès,” p. 754.

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