The inspiration for this Filmjournal project came when I was asked to review Flicker Alley’s exhaustive, lovingly compiled five-disc DVD box Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913) for Sight & Sound. My editor apologetically said that he wouldn’t be able to offer me more than the usual capsule review – which would involve covering 173 films in just 175 words, making it impossible even to list the titles, let alone discuss their content.
Georges Méliès (1861-1938) wasn’t the only artist who was concocting wild and fantastical visions on film in the late 19th century, but he remains the most celebrated, the most inventive and the most influential. The pioneer of an astonishing number of narrative and special-effects techniques, as well as some of the fundamental building blocks of film grammar, Méliès’ work is at the start of a line that leads directly to the present-day fantasies of Tim Burton, Joe Dante, Terry Gilliam, the Quay Brothers and Jan Svankmajer. He made hundreds of films in his two-decade career (as of May 2008, the Internet Movie Database lists 552), though many have been lost both to the ravages of time and deliberate destruction: we’re extraordinarily lucky that nearly 200 still survive.
What’s even more extraordinary is how well they stand up today. Granted, you have to make huge allowances: the camera is invariably bolted to the floor, the sets generally resemble stage flats, it’s usually all too obvious how the various effects were created, and he certainly wasn’t above repeating himself. But the sheer fertility of Méliès’ imagination still takes the breath away – one of his best-known films is called The Impossible Voyage (Le Voyage à travers l’impossible, 1904), and it’s a good description of his career as a whole.
This blog will follow Méliès as he sets out on this impossible voyage, offering daily in-depth reviews of the 173 surviving titles collected on the Flicker Alley set and anything else that’s lurking out there. To add some context, I’ll also be writing pieces on Méliès’ contemporaries, notably the little-known W.R. Booth, himself a magician-turned-filmmaker who pursued a very similar path on the other side of the English Channel.