Archive for May, 2008

Dreyfus Put In Irons

L’Affaire Dreyfus, Mise aux fers de Dreyfus, 1899, 1m06s
Star Film Catalogue No. 208

1896. In a hut in the Devil’s Island stockade, Alfred Dreyfus is sleeping. Two guards walk in, one holding a lantern and some leg-irons. The other wakes him, and produces a written order, which he reads aloud. Dreyfus is clearly distressed by its contents, and pleads for mercy. However, the guards hold him down on his bed, fit metal bands round his ankles, attach them to the leg-irons and fix the latter to the bed. The guards quickly check the contents of the room and leave.

Dreyfus Put In Irons is, in effect, the second half of a diptych that began with Devil’s Island - Within the Palisade (L’Affaire Dreyfus, L’Île du Diable, 1899), the two films from Georges Méliès’ eleven-film The Dreyfus Affair series that specifically cover his incarceration in the French Guyana prison. While the earlier film showed his psychological torment (denied all but the most basic of human contact, as the guards are barred from speaking to him), this depicts rather more physical discomfort.

The film is clearly set within the same stockade depicted in the previous film, as the same distinctive outer wall made from pointed whitewashed wooden planks is visible through the rear window. However, this time we’re in Dreyfus’ cell, reasonably spacious but otherwise spartan in both décor and amenities: a bowl, a bucket and a jug. Even these will shortly be out of reach, as soldiers clap him in leg-irons that fasten him to the bed, performing the task with a matter-of-factness that underlines the fact that they’re only obeying (written) orders.

Curiously, one of the soldiers has been given a lot of business to do with the lantern - he’s constantly holding it up with the apparent intention of revealing important details. However, the ambient light in the cell is more than adequate, and the lantern doesn’t appear to be emitting any of its own: presumably the insensitive film stock of the time would not have been capable of registering a genuinely lantern-lit scene. So while this is arguably both a technical and a dramatic flaw (the soldiers’ gestures suggest an altogether more crepuscular environment), it’s a forgivable one under the circumstances.

While the untinted print on Flicker Alley’s DVD displays the usual blend of surface and chemical damage, the underlying image is so sharp and clear that this is very easy to tune out. Eric Beheim’s electronic score consists of a slow descent, paralleling Dreyfus’s darkening mood as the guards make it clear that there’s no room for clemency.

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Posted on 31st May 2008
Under: Historical Re-enactments, 1899 | No Comments »

Devil’s Island - Within the Palisade

L’Affaire Dreyfus, L’Île du Diable, 1899, 1m06s
Star Film Catalogue No. 207

Alfred Dreyfus, clad in white suit and helmet, paces up and down in a small prison stockade. He eventually sits down to read a book, but dashes it to the ground in frustration before holding his head in his hands. A guard enters and hands him a letter. Dreyfus attempts to engage him in conversation, but without success. After the guard leaves, Dreyfus reads the letter, but it does nothing to alleviate the gloom.

The second film in Georges Méliès’ series about the so-called Dreyfus Affair (following Dreyfus Court Martial - Arrest of Dreyfus/L’Affaire Dreyfus, La Dictée du Bordereau, 1899) is set in the notorious Devil’s Island prison, to which the former artillery captain Alfred Dreyfus had been sentenced to life following his conviction by a military tribunal on the back of dubious evidence. The Star Film catalogue entries suggest that this film was intended to be screened immediately after its predecessor, though there is a strong possibility that the now-lost film The Disgrace (La Dégradation, 1899) depicted the key event between arrest and incarceration, namely the “cashiering” ceremony, where Dreyfus was publicly stripped of his status, his epaulettes and decorations torn off and his sword broken in front of him.

The narrative content of Devil’s Island - Within the Palisade is far simpler than its predecessor - in essence, Dreyfus, now imprisoned in the French Guyanan penal colony, receives a letter - but it marks an important advance not just on the earlier film but also anything else in Méliès’ surviving pre-1899 catalogue in that he’s striving for a genuinely emotional effect without the aid of either special effects or crude melodrama (the exaggerated gestures of the anonymous ironworker playing Dreyfus can be forgiven). The audience at the time would undoubtedly have been more than familiar with the story, so the lack of any contextual detail beyond the title is understandable.

If there was any lingering doubt about Méliès’ sympathies for Dreyfus, it should be definitively dismissed here, as the clear purpose of this film and the next, Dreyfus Put in Irons (Mise aux fers de Dreyfus, 1899), is to highlight his plight by showing both his psychological and physical discomfort. Here, he tries to engage the guard in conversation, but is rebuffed, not because the guard is instinctively unsociable but because he’s been ordered not to talk to him. He has a book and a letter (presumably from his wife), but they provide scant compensation. That all this is conveyed without the aid of a single special effect or narrative contrivance shows how far Méliès had come in terms of pure mise en scène.

To emphasise this, two additional touches contribute to the overall effect. Firstly, the set (or backdrop) has been painted using Méliès’ usual foreshortened perspective, which here has the side-effect of intensifying the sense of being hemmed in (the backdrop, lighting and Dreyfus’s white suite all contribute to the impression of scorching heat). Secondly, the guard delivering the letter is walking with the aid of a stick, suggesting that he has either been invalided out of more conventional military duties or has sustained an injury in the course of his work at the prison.

Aside from some chemical blotches that become less damaging but which never entirely disappear, the print on Flicker Alley’s DVD is generally in excellent condition, effectively conveying the harshness of the lighting but with enough of a contrast range to show plenty of fine detail. Eric Beheim’s electronic score continues the pattern set in the previous film of opting for subtle atmospheric sketching instead of trying to artificially boost the drama.

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Posted on 30th May 2008
Under: Historical Re-enactments, 1899 | No Comments »

Dreyfus Court Martial - Arrest of Dreyfus

L’Affaire Dreyfus, La Dictée du Bordereau, 1899, 1m06s
Star Film Catalogue No. 206

France, late 1894. After consulting with colleagues, French Army officer Mercier du Paty de Clam orders an underling to bring Captain Dreyfus to him. Dreyfus enters and salutes, and du Paty de Clam orders him to sit down at the table. He takes out a piece of paper and dictates names to Dreyfus, who writes them down. When he has finished, du Paty de Clam accuses Dreyfus of being the author of the ‘bordereau’, the list of military secrets from which he was dictating. Dreyfus denies it. Du Paty de Clam indicates the revolver on the table, and turns his back. Dreyfus refuses to commit suicide. Du Paty de Clam’s colleagues escort him out of the office.

The Dreyfus Affair (L’Affaire Dreyfus, 1899) was neither Georges Méliès’ first historical reconstruction (The Surrender at Tournavos/La Prise de Tournavos was made in 1897) nor his first multi-film narrative - Divers at Work on the Wreck of the ‘Maine’ (Visite sous-marine du Maine, 1898) was originally one of several films about the ‘Maine’ disaster. However, his Dreyfus cycle was by far his most ambitious attempt at telling a story across several films, and although they were listed separately in his Star Film catalogue (exhibitors were encouraged to book the episodes they found most appealing), they effectively add up to a 13-minute mini-epic and could easily be screened in that form.

The cycle originally comprised eleven productions (one double-length, hence twelve catalogue numbers), and was listed in Méliès’ catalogue as follows:

The last two are missing believed lost, but the first nine are included in Flicker Alley’s set. The order is broadly chronological, though it is assumed that The Disgrace (assumed to be an account of Dreyfus’s ritual dismissal between his arrest and incarceration) should be screened second.

Equally significantly, the cycle saw Méliès tackling not merely a topical news story but possibly the most controversial one of its day. The Dreyfus Affair had begun in late 1894, when French Army captain Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935) was arrested and charged with treason - the sole ‘evidence’ being a list of military secrets allegedly in his handwriting (this is the ‘bordereau’ referred to in the film’s French title). Dreyfus was Jewish, and it was later widely assumed that anti-Semitism was a key factor in his treatment. In January 1895, he was sentenced to life imprisonment at the notorious prison on Devil’s Island in French Guyana. It was a contentious issue from the start, but the real scandal broke when the distinguished novelist Émile Zola wrote an open letter to the French President entitled ‘J’accuse!’, published on the front page of the 13 January 1898 edition of the newspaper L’Aurore. This sent shockwaves through the French establishment, and Dreyfus was subjected to a fresh court-martial in the summer of 1899, an event that was comprehensively covered by the French and international media, and which inspired Méliès to make his films.

He began work on the cycle in August 1899, while the court-martial was still under way. Extremely uncharacteristically for Méliès, his primary concern was accuracy. Dreyfus himself was played by an unknown ironworker who bore a strong physical resemblance, and while the sets were the usual painted backdrops, they were the product of considerable research that may well have included a reconnaissance mission to the actual trial. Méliès made little secret of his pro-Dreyfus views, which are clear from his treatment of the disgraced captain as a tragic figure. Accordingly, the films were almost as controversial as the events that inspired them, with screenings leading to fights between Dreyfus supporters and detractors. Finally, the French government banned the films altogether, in an act that is believed to be the cinema’s first instance of political censorship - compounded by a subsequent ban on any films tackling the Dreyfus case, which wasn’t lifted until 1950. (I am hugely indebted to Stephen Bottomore’s article ‘Dreyfus and Documentary’, published in the Autumn 1984 issue of Sight & Sound, for much of the foregoing)

The first film in the Dreyfus cycle started as Méliès meant to go on, presenting a sober, largely unsensationalised account of the initial investigation. This was conducted by French Army officer Mercier du Paty de Clam (1853-1916), later accused of being one of the key conspirators behind the plot to frame Dreyfus. Dreyfus is summoned to his office and du Paty de Clam asks him to take down a document, which turns out to be the notorious ‘bordereau’ (the film’s original French title translates as “the dictation of the ‘bordereau’”). Du Paty de Clam claims that the handwriting is a perfect match and - in the film’s one lurch into melodrama - signals to Dreyfus that he should commit suicide. Dreyfus proudly refuses to do so, and sets in train what may well be the cinema’s first genuine serial. To coin a phrase that Méliès himself eschews, To Be Continued…

The untinted print on Flicker Alley’s DVD begins with chemical decomposition so severe that it almost resembles a deliberate vignette effect, and, while this clears up quite quickly, the rest of the print is marred by near-constant surface damage, chemical blotches and exposure fluctuations, though there’s still enough fine detail visible to make the film perfectly watchable. Eric Beheim’s electronic score consists of a series of descending motifs, a musical approach that will crop up again in later films in the cycle that suggests the trajectory of Dreyfus’s career and reputation.

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Posted on 29th May 2008
Under: Historical Re-enactments, 1899 | No Comments »

The Mysterious Portrait

Le Portrait mystérieux, 1899, 1m07s
Star Film Catalogue No. 196

A man walks behind a large, empty gilded picture frame, then round the front, then round the back again before stepping through it. He then rolls up the background scenery to reveal the grounds of a chateau. He picks up a canvas depicting a landscape and fits it into the frame. He then picks up a stool and places it within the frame. He takes a seat and observes the painting, which slips out of focus and then gradually sharpens to reveal the same man sitting on the stool. They gesture and react to each other, and appear to share a joke. Finally, the portrait slips out of focus again, revealing the empty stool in front of the landscape. (print ends here)

Like The Four Troublesome Heads (Un Homme de têtes, 1898), The Mysterious Portrait makes use of superimposition, though the technique here is deployed in an altogether more sedate fashion. Essentially, the “mysterious portrait” of the title is one of Georges Méliès himself, which comes to life and conducts a conversation with the real Méliès, who reacts with considerable amusement.

The film’s main technical point of interest is that Méliès has clearly given some thought to how best to present the transition from static landscape to live-action portrait. Instead of resorting to a simple jump-cut, as one might expect, he lets the portrait gradually come into focus, the effect enhanced by the fact that the surroundings (frame, backdrop and real-life Méliès) remain sharp throughout. That aside, it’s primarily an exercise in timing, with both Mélièses reacting to each other and sharing a private joke.

The essential theatricality of The Mysterious Portrait is emphasised at the start, when Méliès, after demonstrating that the frame is indeed empty by walking around and then through it, blithely rolls up the previous background, revealing it to be a painted backdrop on canvas. The function of this would seem to be not so much an implicit claim that nothing in this film is to be believed, as a deliberately clunky and obvious effect that would be registered by even the most dimwitted spectator. By contrast, the appearance of the portrait makes use of genuinely cutting-edge film technology, and would have looked far more impressive to an 1899 audience. An experienced stage illusionist, Méliès remained an incorrigible showman to the last.

Sadly, this untinted print is the worst-preserved in Flicker Alley’s DVD compilation so far. At the start, severe chemical decomposition fights a running battle with the picture and frequently threatens to come out on top, and while the image improves later on, it remains soft and contrasty throughout, riddled with scratches and blotches, and ends too abruptly for comfort (though it’s safe to assume that the visual meat has already been served). Eric Beheim’s electronic score is pretty generic, though he does take the trouble to time a tinkling bell sound to the point where the portrait is summoned.

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Posted on 28th May 2008
Under: Stage Magic, Superimposition, 1899 | No Comments »

The Pillar of Fire

La Danse du feu/La Colonne de feu, 1899, 1m06s
Star Film Catalogue No. 188

In a room lined with grotesque statues, a green demon emerges from a large pan and performs a dance prior to setting light to the logs under the pan. He grabs a pair of bellows and pumps up the fire until a woman clad in a voluminous white dress emerges from the pan. She unfurls her dress and both the pan and the demon vanish. She performs an elaborate dance, the material of her dress swirling around her and changing colour. The room fills with smoke. The dance finishes, and she floats up to the ceiling.

Although it’s not at all clear from the actual film, The Pillar of Fire has a literary basis in the form of H. Rider Haggard’s 1887 novel She, of which this is the first of many screen adaptations, the best known being the 1935 version with Helen Gahagan, Randolph Scott and Nigel Bruce and the 1965 Hammer version with Ursula Andress, John Richardson and Peter Cushing.

The woman performing the dance that takes up much of the running time is Ayesha, whose bathing in a pillar of fire has made her not only immortal but an all-powerful symbol of womanhood. In Méliès’ film, she’s played by Jeanne d’Alcy, his future wife and occasional leading lady - she was earlier featured in The Vanishing Lady (Escamotage d’une dame chez Robert-Houdin, 1896) and After the Ball (Après le bal, 1897)

However, there is little discernible narrative content in Méliès’ film, the vast majority of which is taken up with Ayesha’s dance, performed after she has been successfully summoned by a green demon. There are a few examples of his trademark brand of jump-cut trickery, but for the most part the effects are generated with onscreen props - a large bellows, a torch emitting clouds of smoke, and of course Ayesha’s voluminous dress, the material of which gives her dance its primary visual interest. The set design is also splendidly grotesque, with its two bizarre statues on either side of the frame towering over the human performers.

Thanks to the colour tinting (a sepia base overlaid with various colours, starting with a bilious green for the devil and continuing through a cycle of changing colours for the actual fire dance), this is one of the most visually striking prints so far in Flicker Alley’s collection. That said, it also has some severe problems - it slips noticeably out of focus at an early stage, and towards the end some marked chemical damage is beginning to take its toll - there are so many bubbles onscreen that if the picture had been tinted blue it would produce a very convincing underwater effect. Brian Benison’s electronic score begins percussively before building to a climax as Ayesha’s dance becomes ever more frenzied.

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Posted on 27th May 2008
Under: Jump-Cuts, Mechanical Props, 1899, Literary Adaptations | No Comments »

The Devil in a Convent

Le Diable au couvent, 1899, 3m11s
Star Film Catalogue No. 185-7

In a convent, a priest adjusts the position of some chairs before departing. As soon as he’s gone, the devil emerges from the font, and looks around. Spotting a rope dangling from the ceiling, he tugs on it, and a bell rings. He wraps his cloak around himself and turns into a priest. Seven white-clad nuns enter and kneel on the chairs as the priest/devil mounts the pulpit. He begins preaching, and the nuns cross themselves. He turns back into the devil, and they react with horror, fleeing the room as he laughs menacingly. He descends from the pulpit and makes the font and then the chairs disappear. He summons up demonic gargoyles to decorate the walls. He opens a trapdoor in the floor and two small children emerge. He conjures up a large pan, from which four other devils appear. A giant demonic cat-like head appears, from which three women emerge. The head turns into a gigantic toad, which the devil mounts while the others dance around him. A nun enters the room and holds up a crucifix. The devil reacts as though scalded, and the others vanish. He gets off the toad, which also vanishes. He confronts the nun, but cannot get past the crucifix. Three more nuns appear, each holding crucifixes, and they surround the devil. They then vanish, leaving the devil on the ground. He gets up, and is confronted by a guardsman. They fight, and the devil sends his opponent packing. Another man enters and chases the devil up to the pulpit. The devil jumps to the ground and vanishes. Bemused, the man descends from the pulpit, only to find the devil emerging from another trapdoor. The man tries to assail him, but the devil disappears down yet another trapdoor, immediately reappearing in the pulpit. A group of men and boys clad in white surplices enter. A statue of Saint Michel appears, and when the devil attempts to climb onto its plinth, the statue comes to life and throws him off. The devil disappears in a puff of smoke, while the men and boys file out.

Like The Astronomer’s Dream (La Lune à un mètre, 1898), The Devil in a Convent is a triple-length production running just over three minutes, and given three entries in Georges Méliès’ Star Films catalogue. In terms of content, it fuses the religious elements of The Temptation of Saint Anthony (La Tentation de Saint Antoine, 1898) with the knockabout slapstick quasi-horror of The Haunted Castle (Le Château hanté, 1897). When combined with Méliès’ greater technical confidence, the result is one of his most enjoyable films to date.

When a baby is baptised and it begins to cry, it’s said that this is the devil emerging. There’s no baby here, but the devil initially emerges through the font, thus reinforcing its image as a potential doorway to Hell. After gliding to the ground in an effectively unnatural fashion (I suspect a wire was involved here, though it’s hard to spot amidst the print tramlines), he immediately decides to mount the pulpit and tugging on the bellrope to summon the nuns to prayer, with the specific aim of revealing his presence to them partway through his sermon. Having sown the seeds of chaos, he replaces the trappings of the convent with decorations more to his own taste before summoning up various hellish creatures for what can only be described as a session of orgiastic revelry. There are four devils, three presumably dissolute women and two small boys, one of whom picks his nose and makes discreet but clearly offensive gestures with his fingers - a touch that serves to emphasise the essentially childish harmlessness of this film.

Then, in an echo of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, the devil is surrounded by nuns who form a deadly crucifix-bearing circle around him. However, these are banished, and the rest of the film turns into a knockabout chase comedy as the devil is pursued by (presumably) two armed guards or militia members. The final visual coup is performed by a statue of a large, bearded, helmeted and indeed vaguely Vikingesque Saint Michael (popularly seen as representing the vanguard in God’s army) coming to life and spearing the devil, who vanishes in what has now become a characteristically Mélièsesque puff of smoke. As ever, the various transformations are generally triggered by jump-cuts, though Méliès also makes use of seemingly randomly-placed trapdoors in the floor.

As with The Astronomer’s Dream, the set design is most impressive. Although clearly consisting of two painted flats (so the nuns have a viable “corridor” to enter through), Méliès makes much use of foreshortened perspective to give a very real sense of depth, and he has a lot of fun with the devil decking out the walls with gargoyles: most vandalism isn’t nearly so aesthetically appealing. The giant feline head with its swivelling eyeballs and the equally grotesque toad from which the devil conducts his revellers are just as effective, though the fact that they’re also flat is emphasised by the final appearance of an equally fantastical but very three-dimensional Saint Michael.

The print on Flicker Alley’s DVD starts off in excellent condition barring a few tramlines (which, as noted above, have the unintended side-effect of hiding the wire used to help the devil glide to the ground), but as the film progresses there’s more overt physical and chemical damage, as well as some sharp fluctuations in exposure and contrast. It also ends abruptly, though it’s safe to assume that this is only by a few seconds, as the devil appears to have gone for good. Eric Beheim’s electronic score is conscientious enough to include bell sounds at the appropriate moment, and (entirely understandably) can’t resist slipping in a brief quotation from Camille Saint-Saëns’ ‘Danse Macabre’.

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Posted on 26th May 2008
Under: Horror, Jump-Cuts, Mechanical Props, 1899, Religion | 1 Comment »

The Conjuror

L’Illusionniste fin-de-siècle, 1899, 0m57s
Star Film Catalogue No. 183

A stage magician props up a female dummy on a table and lets it fall back before grabbing it and transforming it into a live ballerina. He helps her down and she performs some ballet steps before sitting in a chair. The magician places a large tube on the table and covers her with a cloth. She vanishes, and reappears inside the tube. The magician helps her down again, and picks her up in his arms. She dissolves into a shower of confetti. He places the tube on the table again, stands over the confetti and drapes the cloth over himself. He vanishes and reappears in the tube. Jumping down from the table, he turns into the ballerina. She climbs back onto the table, jumps down, and turns back into the magician. He takes a step back and vanishes, re-emerging on the left-hand side of the stage. He gets on the table, sits cross-legged, and disappears in a puff of smoke.

By now, Méliès’ stage-magician act was becoming somewhat familiar - earlier surviving films in that particular vein include The Vanishing Lady (Escamotage d’une dame chez Robert-Houdin, 1896), The Magician (Le Magicien, 1898) and The Famous Box Trick (Illusions fantasmagoriques, 1898), and there were doubtless many more. However, The Conjuror does manage to ring a few changes on the usual jump-cut transformations.

The key difference here is that instead of starting out with a human assistant, the magician initially brings a dummy to life as a ballerina before making her disappear in a shower of confetti in the film’s most spectacular effect. In the second half, the magician transforms himself into the ballerina and back again, as if to suggest that she’s a mere figment of his imagination that he’s somehow managed to share with us.

The original French title, L’Illusionniste fin-de-siècle, translates as literally ‘The Turn-of-the-Century Illusionist’. Since the film was made almost exactly at the turn of the twentieth century, it presumably refers to the now formidable array of cinematic tricks that Méliès had developed since he discovered the cinema - beforehand, he had of course been an actual stage magician, but the illusions he was able to conjure up by now dwarfed anything achievable on stage. Although nearly all the effects here are based on the usual jump-cut transformation principle, the timing here is particularly adroit - there’s a real fluidity about the movements of both magician and ballerina that must have required a great deal of planning and rehearsal to get right. As usual, Méliès himself plays the magician.

The print on Flicker Alley’s DVD is extremely grainy and there’s also a fair bit of exposure fluctuation and surface damage - it’s certainly one of the weaker prints in the cycle so far, though the picture underneath is sharp enough to compensate. Eric Beheim’s electronic score is broadly similar to the one he produced for The Haunted Castle (Le Château hanté, 1897), consisting of a straightforward call-and-response musical phrase, which is then repeated with only minimal variation (such as the final phrase being held slightly longer as Méliès takes a bow).

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Posted on 25th May 2008
Under: Jump-Cuts, Stage Magic, 1899 | No Comments »

The Temptation of Saint Anthony

La Tentation de Saint Antoine, 1898, 1m10s
Star Film Catalogue No. 169

In his cave, the hermit Saint Anthony prays before an effigy of the crucified Christ. A scantily-clad woman suddenly appears, and St Anthony shields his eyes from the sight of temptation. She vanishes, and he recommences reading the Bible. Two women appear either side of him, and he recoils in horror. They vanish, and he picks up a skull from the base of the cross. However, when he kisses it, it turns into another woman, with two more appearing in quick succession. They dance in a ring around the tormented Saint Anthony before vanishing. A desperate Saint Anthony kneels before Christ, who turns into another woman. But an angel also appears, to which Saint Anthony turns with undisguised relief. The woman vanishes and Christ reappears.

Although The Temptation of Saint Anthony contains a familiar collection of Georges Méliès’ trademark jump-cut-triggered appearing and disappearing acts, the overtly religious elements are entirely new - at least when it comes to his surviving titles (I don’t count the devil in The Astronomer’s Dream/La Lune à un mètre, 1898, as his role is more akin to the horror film than any spiritual dimension). The subject of the various mental and moral torments of Saint Anthony was already well established, having inspired sixteenth-century masterpieces by Hieronymous Bosch and Mathias Grünewald, though Salvador Dalí’s variation was still several decades away.

From a distance of over a century, it’s hard to know how seriously to take Méliès’ film, since in essence it’s very similar to The Vanishing Lady (Escamotage d’une dame chez Robert-Houdin, 1896) - the only differences being that the various scantily-clad ladies are appearing and disappearing entirely unbidden by the hapless Saint Anthony, who would rather be left alone to read his Bible in his cave.

The first two encounters - with one and two women respectively - help set the scene, but Méliès then rings a more intriguing change as he has Saint Anthony picking up a skull from the base of the effigy of Christ on the cross, kissing it as if to exorcise the image of the women. But the skull then turns into another woman, followed by two more, who join hands around him, completely trapping him in a circle of temptation. Having failed to obtain satisfaction with the skull, he turns to the effigy of Christ Himself - surely He will remain pure? But no - his eyes are further sullied by the image of a crucified woman clad in a diaphanous dress, who descends from the cross and advances on him. When an angel then appears and banishes her before blessing Saint Anthony, his relief is almost palpable.

Although on a technical level The Temptation of Saint Anthony is something of a step back for Méliès (there are no effects more sophisticated than those he developed two years earlier), it nonetheless marks an advance in terms of subject matter, being one of the earliest films to tackle an explicitly religious theme. In this respect, Méliès proves himself the ancestor of Cecil B. DeMille and Franco Zeffirelli, whose own religious epics offer a similar blend of the solemn and the kitschy.

The print on Flicker Alley’s DVD is marred by noticeable chemical blotching pretty much throughout, though the underlying image is very sharp and clear - rather too much so, in fact, since it is obvious that Christ is a painted flat, as is the cave set. Neal Kurz’s piano accompaniment begins with shimmering scales before heavier chords signal the increasingly intolerable moral pressure being placed on Saint Anthony.

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Posted on 24th May 2008
Under: Jump-Cuts, Historical Re-enactments, 1898, Religion | No Comments »

The Four Troublesome Heads

Un Homme de têtes, 1898, 1m04s
Star Film Catalogue No. 167

A stage magician stands between two tables, removes his head and places it at the far left of one of them. He then grows another head and crawls under the table to prove that the head is indeed completely detached. He then removes his second head and places it alongside the first one: they strike up a conversation. Having grown a third head, the magician removes it and places it on the right-hand table. He grows a fourth head, picks up a banjo and starts to sing, the three other heads joining in. Unable to stand the racket, the magician hits the two left-hand heads with his banjo, and they vanish. He removes his head and tosses it away, replacing it with the head on the right-hand table. He bounces the new head on his shoulders as though it was a football before taking a bow.

At least in terms of his surviving films, The Four Troublesome Heads marks the most sophisticated advance in Georges Méliès’ special-effects arsenal since his discovery of the jump-cut some two years earlier. That was a primitive but effective technique that facilitated rapid appearances, disappearances and transformations, but the superimpositions on display here push Méliès’ cinema further away from his theatrical roots and towards something altogether new.

In the earlier The Magician (Le Magicien, 1898), Méliès used a combination of jump-cuts and cunningly-designed props (including a fake tripod stand that wasn’t as see-through as it appeared) to create the impression of a disembodied living bust. Here, by contrast, we can actually see Méliès apparently removing his own head and placing it on a table, where it continues to talk as though nothing had happened.

The initial effect is created with Méliès’ now-familiar jump-cut technique, firstly between a shot of Méliès reaching up to his head, and then one of him sporting a black bag on his real head (the lighting doesn’t quite manage to hide this, sadly) placing a dummy head on the table. But the next jump-cut leads to something altogether more sophisticated, as the dummy head is replaced by Méliès’ real one, superimposed via (presumably) a primitive matte arrangement onto the table top. Another jump-cut causes Méliès’ head to reappear (or rather appear, since there are now two on screen), and he then gets on his hands and knees to crawl under the table, proving to sceptics that it really is bearing a disembodied head. While the joins are certainly visible (in addition to the bag, the registration between the shots is imprecise, leading to flickering round the edges of the table), this arguably adds to the film’s charm, since the sheer amount of planning and effort is all too apparent.

He could easily have stopped there, and the film would be impressive enough. But instead, he repeats the trick a second and third time, so that he now has three separate heads on two tables. Meticulously calibrated timing means that they chat to each other and eventually sing in unison, accompanied by the full-bodied Méliès on the banjo. And then, in a moment that’s laugh-out-loud funny to this day, he detests their caterwauling so much that he beats the two left-hand heads with the banjo, causing them to vanish. Finally, almost as an encore, he removes his head again, replacing it with the remaining head on the table, “heading” it football-style before letting it find a permanent resting-place on his shoulders.

The sheer breadth of Méliès’ imagination and his technical adventurousness take the breath away to this day. It’s not certain whether this was the first example of synchronised split-screen multiple exposures in cinema history (on the other side of the channel, G.A. Smith made at least half a dozen similar films, and the surviving example, 1898’s Santa Claus, combines multiple exposure with parallel action), but it’s certainly one of the earliest - and very easy to believe that it was the most complex and fluidly achieved to date. Buster Keaton would go further, and with more technical finesse, in The Playhouse (1923) with its nine performing Keatons in perfect synchronisation, and of course such effects are easy enough to achieve in the CGI era without any of Méliès’ seams, but that doesn’t remotely detract from his achievement here. If he looks a little smug when he takes his final bow, that’s entirely understandable.

As already mentioned, the definition of Flicker Alley’s print is good enough to reveal the joins, though it’s beset with faint vertical tramlines pretty much throughout, as well as mild chemical blotching. There are also significant exposure fluctuations and the image as a whole is softer than on many other prints in this set. (However, this may be a side-effect of the multiple exposures in the original). Disappointingly, Neal Kurz’s solo piano accompaniment is fairly generic - there’s no attempt, for instance, at conveying an impression of the banjo-and-heads performance - though it otherwise does an adequate job.

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Posted on 23rd May 2008
Under: Jump-Cuts, Stage Magic, 1898, Superimposition | No Comments »

The Astronomer’s Dream

La Lune à un mètre, 1898, 3m13s
Star Film Catalogue Nos. 160-162

An astronomer is writing notes at his desk. A devil appears in a puff of smoke and taunts him, but the astronomer ignores him. A woman with a crescent-moon tiara appears and banishes the devil before disappearing herself. Oblivious to all this, the astronomer gets up and draws a geometrically precise globe on his blackboard, complete with a moon in the top left corner. The moon grows a face and hair and descends to join the globe, which sprouts arms and legs. Annoyed, the astronomer dashes the blackboard to the ground. He picks up a telescope and tries to look through it at the moon, but it turns into a rolling pin, which pokes him in the eye. He angrily tosses it aside and returns to his desk, placing his head in his hands. The desk vanishes, and he topples over onto the ground. He looks through his large telescope and sees a gigantic face in the moon, which promptly invades his study and swallows the telescope and one of the astronomer’s chairs. He tries to retrieve his property, but is rebuffed. The moon emits a puff of smoke, knocking the astronomer to the ground. He picks up a parasol to shield himself, but it is torn to shreds. Two small, identical children emerge from its mouth, and the astronomer promptly hurls them back in. He then tries to hit the moon with a broom, but it retreats to a point beyond the end of the astronomer’s balcony. The astronomer tries to throw a chair, his notebook and a table at the moon, but they all vanish at the crucial moment. Suddenly, the moon becomes a crescent, supporting a woman in a bridal veil. She descends onto the astronomer’s balcony and removes the veil. He tries to hug her, but she shoots up in the air. Another woman appears on the crescent. The astronomer gets up to greet her, and falls through a trapdoor into a room where he is confronted by a suit of armour. He hits this with a broom, and is transported inside the moon’s mouth. The moon swallows him whole and spits out various limbs. The devil reappears, followed in quick succession by the moon-goddess, who banishes him and stuffs the limbs back into the moon’s mouth. As she does so, the astronomer reappears in his chair, bit by bit. The astronomer wakes up in his observatory, heaves a sigh of relief that it was only a dream, and returns to his desk.

At over three minutes, The Astronomer’s Dream is three times longer than a typical early Méliès short, and has duly been given three entries in his Star Film catalogue (presumably this meant he could charge triple the fee). It begins as a virtual remake of A Nightmare (Le Cauchemar, 1896), but it’s conceived on a far more elaborate scale.

The nightmare here is being suffered by an astronomer (dressed, rather charmingly, as a wizard complete with pointed hat and long white beard), who is first taunted by a devil and then by a moon that’s a very considerable advance on the cardboard cut-out in the earlier film. It’s also rather more threatening, as its grotesquely distended mouth chews up anything within range, be it objects, children or adults - and it also spits out severed limbs in a Grand Guignol moment reminiscent of the same year’s The Adventures of William Tell (Guillaume Tell et le clown, 1898).

But the most significant advance made by the film is that it develops a more or less continuous narrative across three minutes, making it the clearest precursor yet to Méliès’ far more elaborate fantasies of the early 1900s. The astronomer’s dream runs the gamut from battles between devils and angels, being terrorised by a vast moon, and seduced by a female figure initially seen reclining on the crescent as though practising for the DreamWorks logo a century early.

In terms of special effects, Méliès is still heavily reliant on the jump cut, but he also concocts some live animation (the blackboard with its moving diagrams) and his mechanical props, especially the man in the moon, are conceived on a greater scale than before. The set designs, too, use perspective to create a strong sense of three-dimensional space, with the moon visible in three planes: the far distance, just beyond the balcony, and in extreme close-up.

Although there’s continuous chemical blotching throughout, the untinted source print on Flicker Alley’s DVD is impressively sharp - you can clearly make out every star on the astronomer’s hat and gown. Donald Sosin’s score blends piano with occasional percussion, becoming increasingly frenzied as the moon increases in menace.

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Posted on 22nd May 2008
Under: Horror, Jump-Cuts, Mechanical Props, 1898, Dreams | 1 Comment »

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