READING 6.2

IN THEORY

“A RIOT OF THE CARNIVALESQUE”

In the years 1896-1904, the most successful genre in the French cinema of attractions was the trick film, which French exhibitors called the transformation view or transformation scene. The master of the genre, of course, was Georges Méliès, who used such cinematic tricks—or trucs—as stop action, reverse motion, multiple exposure, and matting to create illusions of displacements, disappearances, and other transformations that culminate in what Richard Abel describes as “a central ‘grand effect’ and a final clou of spectacle.”[1]

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Photographie

         Georges Méliès, La Photographie

            électrique à la distance, 1908

The Return of Mephistophelean Magic

  Particularly in such films as La Photographie électrique à la distance (Long-Distance Wireless Photography, 1908—see Figure 3.25), in which he himself plays the inventor of a magical television-like machine, Méliès is fond of underscoring the equation between the magician’s role and that of the technological wizard.[2] Thus the frequency with which his spectacle combines theatrical and cinematic devices: the truc and clou in L'Homme à la tête de caoutchouc (The Man with the Rubber Head, 1908—see Figure 3.18), for instance, require both tricks of stagecraft (the dollying of Méliès’ body toward the camera) and cinematic manipulation (superimposition and invisible edits).

As in L'Homme à la tête, the object of Méliès’ manipulation is often his own body. In Le Roi du maquillage (The Untamable Whiskers, 1904), he appears as a bewhiskered gentleman standing before a painted backdrop of the river Seine. Producing a blackboard, he proceeds to sketch, in succession, five chalk figures. With each drawing, he himself undergoes a transformation that mimics the newly drawn figure (Figure R6.6). His final incarnation is Méliès’ favorite symbol of the magic-maker as master of his own mischievous powers: the devil.

The magic-maker’s power is reaffirmed in Les Cartes vivantes (The Living Playing Cards, 1905), in which Méliès appears very much as himself: a stage magician with confident and complete power over the props that he proposes to manipulate. After successively enlarging palm-sized versions of each card, he reproduces life-size replicas of a queen of hearts and a king of spades (Figure R6.7). Each figure steps forward, takes a bow, and returns to the blank card. There is, however, a conspicuous difference between the behavior of the queen and king. The queen appears slowly (by means of cuts and dissolves), steps down demurely, and returns obediently. In contrast, the king bursts through the paper background, leaps down, and cavorts triumphantly. He then sheds his kingly robes to reveal himself as the magician (who has exited stage-right), hurls himself back through the blank card, and re-emerges—still the magician—with gleeful self-satisfaction.

Abel proposes that the image of the triumphant magician—especially in his Mephistophelean guise—epitomizes

Méliès’ own desire to evade the strictures of the French social order and perhaps celebrate his successful escape from the family business into magic and fantasy. In that mask, he could . . . invert the hierarchical values of modern French society and hold them up to ridicule in a riot of the carnivalesque.[3]

Ironically, the formulation seems to apply to the figure of Méliès undisguised, as in Les Cartes vivantes, as well as to that of “Mephisto Méliès.”

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Fan

            Georges Méliès, Le Merveilleux

                   éventail vivant, 1904

The Ambivalence of the Commercial Conjurer

  But what about the figure of the magician as buffoon-cum-doddering lecher (as in L’Éclipse du soleil en plain lune) or –cum eccentric savant (as in Le Voyage dans la lune or Le Voyage à travers l'impossible)? Méliès assumes the former guise in Le Merveilleux éventail vivant (The Wonderful Living Fan, 1904—see Figure R6.8), which is in many respects a more elaborate rendition of Les Cartes vivantes. In this film (which exists only as a fragment), Méliès appears as a fat merchant-conjurer who caters to his social superiors by pandering to the king’s chamberlain in the Versailles of Louis XIV. Assisted by a bevy of short-skirted ladies-in-waiting, he produces a big oblong cabinet. He causes the sides to fall open like flower petals, revealing a giant fan which, in turn, opens into seven ornate panels. In each appears a lovely woman, each of whom blows kisses to the chamberlain. The magician then causes the fan to evaporate, leaving the women suspended in mid air by nothing but his conjurer’s will. Like a corps of identical puppets controlled by a single puppet master, they do his bidding for the delectation of the chamberlain (who is also, by the way, a prospective buyer).

At this point, the truncated version of the film comes to an abrupt end. We must turn to the Star-Film catalogue to find out what happens next. After an “exquisite minuet” performed by a company of lords and ladies, “the seven pretty women of the Court” are transformed into

a fascinating animated fountain of which [the] seven women in artistic and dainty positions form the principal groundwork. . . . The lovely vision comes to an end; all disappears. The astonished chamberlain remains before the open fan, which appears as it did at first. The fan folds itself, and, once [it’s] in the box, the lid comes down of its own accord. The chamberlain approaches to examine it, but it suddenly opens with a crash and falls upon him, hitting him upon his shoulders.

The magician bows and departs unscathed, but if we accept the two male characters as partners in pandering, it’s reasonable to regard both as butts of what Abel calls a “comic spectacle of thwarted phallic power.”[4] In any case, the transformations in Le Merveilleux éventail vivant, unlike those in Les Cartes vivantes, refuse to remain under the conjurer’s control, and a comparison of these two little films suggests a certain ambivalence in Méliès’ placement of the magician in a social hierarchy which, as bourgeois, seeks to exclude him but which, as patriarchal, embraces him as a purveyor of voyeuristic pleasure in spectacles of fetishized females.

The Attraction of Voyeurism

  “On the most obvious level,” observes American critic Lucy Fisher,

the act of the male magician conjuring women is simply a demonstration of his power over the female sex. Woman has no existence independent of the male magician; he can make her appear when he wants her and disappear when (to paraphrase [French philosopher Simone] de Beauvoir) he wishes no longer “to contend” with her. Woman is thus a function of male will.

In the rhetoric of magic, the conjured woman is also a decorative object—to be placed here and there like a throw pillow or a piece of sculpture.[5]

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Sirene

           Georges Méliès, La Sirene, 1904

Woman is most certainly a “decorative object” in Le Merveilleux Eventail vivant: by “artistic and dainty positions,” the Star-Film catalogue means a seductive dance performed in skimpy outfits. Clearly, the function of the artist, who possesses the power to conjure fetishized objets d’art, cannot be disentangled from his role within the patriarchy—nor, therefore, from his role as bourgeois functionary. Occasionally, he ventures to reassert his freedom by proclaiming the inherent powers of his art to transcend the world in which he’s obliged to function. Abel speculates that “one of the appeals that magic must have had in turn-of-the-century France [was] the illusion of transcending or evading the barriers of class difference,”[6] and in his search for appropriate metaphors to celebrate the conjurer’s status, Méliès’ artist figure sometimes casts himself in the role of god: in La Sirene (The Mermaid, 1904—see Figure R3.5), for instance, Méliès transforms himself from an ordinary rabbits-out-of-the-hat magician into Neptune, god of the sea, who conjures a harem of nymphs; as the king of the gods in Le Tonnere de Jupiter (Jupiter’s Thunderbolts, 1903—Figure R6.9), he creates women to decorate the heavens.

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Spectre

      Segundo de Chomón, Spectre rouge,

                    Pathé-Frères, 1907

“Loose Scenes of a Provocative Nature”

  Méliès, of course, was by no means the sole purveyor of the “transformation view,” the genre of the corporealized / decorporealized female, nor even the subgenre of the magician film. Fisher, for example, cites a Pathé film from 1907 called Spectre rouge (The Red Specter). Ironically, a female magician not only takes her place alongside a male counterpart but actually bests him in a contest of conjuring, ultimately reducing him to nothing but his costume—a trapping of power which she then appropriates as her own.[7] In Edison’s Pipe Dream (1905), a woman conjures a tiny homunculus out of her cigarette smoke; then, as he pleads for her hand in marriage, she laughs cruelly and closes the hand in question—which happens to be the outsized palm on which he’s kneeling (Figure R6.10). “What these few examples demonstrate,” concludes Fisher,

is the flip side of the male magician / female subject paradigm. In the cases where women magicians exist, they are figures of awe and dread. This makes clear the fact that woman is not always perceived as powerless—a passive prop. Rather, woman’s power is often acknowledged, but it is viewed as perilous and perverse. Perhaps the male magician is not only performing tricks upon the female; he is preventing her from performing more dangerous tricks upon him.[8]

Moreover, the female in the cinema of attraction is typically a figment of the male imagination—a configuration that obtains whether, as the desired subject of the transformation view, she’s being conjured or, as a conventional and convenient subject for voyeuristic views, merely spied upon. As American critic Marjorie Rosen reminds us, even in the era of the cinema of attractions, the “same primitive themes intriguing the adult male children who made movies also intrigued the adult male audience.”[9] Among Méliès’ standard products was what we recall as “stag films”—brief pretexts, usually comic, for the display of women in various stages of undress.[10] In Le Magnétiseur (While under a Hypnotist’s Influence, 1897), a young woman who comes to consult with the titular hypnotist winds up unconscious while stretched across two chairs. Her clothes mysteriously transport themselves from her body to hooks on the wall, and when she’s rudely awakened (the chair is yanked out from under her), she protests her nakedness, only to be reclothed when the hypnotist magically throws her clothing back onto her body.

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Bain

            Le Bain des dames de la cour,

                    Pathé-Frères, 1904

Similar situations are exploited in such titles as L’Indiscret aux bains de mer (Peeping Tom at the Seaside, 1897), Après le bal (le tub) (After the Ball, 1897—see Figure B3.1), and Le Coucher de la mariée ou triste nuit de noce (The Bridegroom's Dilemma, 1899). This last item, according to the catalogue issued by Méliès’ British distributor, was “an excellent film, full of surprises and illusions, the exhibition of which will certainly be welcomed at any Smoking Concert or Stag Party. Space forbids a detailed description.”

The Pathé catalogue called similar items “scènes grivoises d’un caractère piquant”—“loose scenes of a provocative nature.”[11] In films such as The Undressing of the Model (1897), actresses appeared clad only in flesh-colored body stockings, and many of these—Peintre et modèle (1903), Le Bain des dames de la cour (Ladies in Court Bathing, 1904)—mimicked well-known paintings in order to capitalize on the respectable eroticism of “classical” art. In the féeries of Pathé, as in those of Méliès, the conceit of the fantastic spectacle often provided a rationale for pagan wantonness: both Ali Baba et les quarante voleurs (Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, 1901-1902) and Samson et Delila (1902) feature choruses of scantily clad dancing girls.


[1] The Ciné Goes to Town: French Cinema 1896-1914, rev. ed. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1994), p. 62.

[2] On La Photographie électrique à la distance, see: Linda Williams, “Film Body: An Implantation of Perversions,” Ciné-Tracts 3:4 (Winter 1981), pp. 19-35, at http://library.brown.edu (accessed June 26, 2016); rpt. Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader, ed. Philip Rosen (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1986), esp. pp. 528-31, at https://books.google.com (accessed June 26, 2016), and Explorations in Film Theory: Selected Essays from Ciné-Tracts, ed. Ron Burnett (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana Univ. Press, 1991), esp. pp. 86-87, at https://books.google.com (accessed June 26, 2016).

[3] The Ciné Goes to Town, pp. 64-65.

[4] The Ciné Goes to Town, p. 66.

[5] “The Lady Vanishes: Women, Magic and the Movies,” Film Quarterly (Fall 1979), pp. 31-32.

[6] The Ciné Goes to Town, p. 66.

[7] On Spectre rouge, see: Colin Williamson, Hidden in Plain Sight: An Archaeology of Magic and the Cinema (New Brunswick, NJ, and London: Rutgers Univ. Press, 2015), esp. pp. 102-05, at https://books.google.com (accessed June 26, 2016).

[8] “The Lady Vanishes,” pp. 32-33.

[9] Popcorn Venus (1973; rpt. New York: Avon, 1974), pp. 19-20.

[10] See Paul Hammond, Marvellous Méliès (New York: St. Martin’s, 1975), pp. 112-14.

[11] Abel, The Ciné Goes to Town, p. 496n41; Hammond, Marvellous Méliès, p. 112.

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