Archive for the '1896' Category

A Nightmare

Le Cauchemar, 1896, 1m09s
Star Film Catalogue No. 82

In the grip of a nightmare, a man tosses and turns in bed. He imagines a woman sitting at the foot end, clad only in a sheet, but when he reaches out to embrace her, she turns into a blackface minstrel with a banjo, and he reacts in horror, falling back onto the bed. The minstrel leaps up onto the bed and performs a song and dance routine. Unable to stand it any longer, the man grabs him by the shoulders, only to find him turning into Pierrot and the background changing to reveal a moonlit balcony. Pierrot leaps over it and runs away. The man in the moon comes closer and starts biting the would-be sleeper’s hand. He pushes it away, and Pierrot, the minstrel and the woman reappear on the balcony. He wakes up to find himself tangled up in the bedclothes. He puts his bed back together, looking nervously around all the while, before getting back under the covers.

A more elaborate essay in the art of the jump-cut than The Vanishing Lady (Escamotage d’une dame chez Robert-Houdin, 1896), this opens on the same drawing-room set of that film, and also resurrects the nightgown-clad would-be sleeper of A Terrible Night (Une nuit terrible, 1896), although here he is beset by altogether more sophisticated and alarming terrors than a single insect.

Whereas in The Vanishing Lady, Méliès merely changed foreground items while the background remained constant, in A Nightmare he mixes and matches both. The scene with both the woman and the blackface minstrel appears to be set in some kind of medieval castle (a suit of armour is on the left-hand side of the frame), the middle part of the frame being removed when Pierrot appears and the centre of the backdrop, framed by an arch, opens out to reveal a moonlit balcony.

It’s at this point that the film makes its historical mark, because this is the first - or at least the oldest surviving - example of one of Méliès’ lunar fantasies, which would culminate in the seminal A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune, 1902) six years later. Had A Nightmare been made later on, when he was more technically adept, Méliès would undoubtedly have attempted some kind of zooming effect so that the man in the moon would gradually bear down on the man in the bed, but he has to make do with another jump-cut. On the other hand, the abruptness also works well, since the sudden cut to a close-up man in the moon about to take a bite out of the would-be sleeper’s hand is genuinely startling.

After this coup de cinéma, the film reprises its previous elements, with Pierrot, the minstrel and the woman all reappearing at the same time to make the sleeper’s life hell. Small wonder that, after he wakes up, he looks around so trepidatiously before reassembling his bed and attempting fresh slumber.

Aside from some prominent tramlines, the print on Flicker Alley’s DVD is up to the usual high standards, with sharpness and fine detail being particularly impressive. Frederick Hodges’ piano accompaniment draws on Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’ and Golliwog’s ‘Cake-Walk’, together with a calculatedly off-key rendition of the traditional ‘Au clair de la lune’, with wittily-judged musical jump-cuts matching the visual ones before climaxing in an unholy mélange of all three. It’s quite startling to realise that Debussy’s now extremely familiar music hadn’t yet been composed when this film was made - the pieces date from 1903 and 1909 respectively.

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Posted on 11th May 2008
Under: Horror, Jump-Cuts, 1896, Mechanical Props, Dreams | No Comments »

The Vanishing Lady

Escamotage d’une dame chez Robert-Houdin, 1896, 1m15s
Star Film Catalogue No. 70

A magician enters a room and bows to an unseen audience. He opens the same door and invites a woman to join him. He unfolds a newspaper and lays it on the floor, placing a chair on top. He invites the woman to sit in the chair. He picks up a large tablecloth, unfolds it, and places it over the woman, carefully adjusting the bottom edge so she is completely covered. He then removes the cloth, to reveal the empty chair, which he picks up and spins around. He makes a gesture with his hands, and a skeleton appears in the chair. He tries to banish it, eventually covering it with the tablecloth. Removing the cloth, he reveals the woman, safe and sound. They bow to the audience, leave the stage, and return for another bow.

The full French title, Escamotage d’une dame chez Robert-Houdin, contains an explicit reference to the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, where Méliès had made his reputation as a stage magician. The film pays homage to Joseph Buatier de Kolta, one of Méliès’ inspirations, whose ‘vanishing lady’ trick made him famous in the 1880s. However, Méliès does not attempt to reproduce the stage version, as the film was made after he had accidentally discovered the transformative potential of the jump-cut (as the legend goes, his camera jammed while filming a street scene, and when he played the resulting film, a cab was transformed into a hearse). The Vanishing Lady is believed to be the first time that Méliès made deliberately creative use of this discovery, and although the technique is obvious to us now, it must have been far more intriguing to contemporary audiences.

Although shot from a single camera position, representing a member of the audience, the film actually consists of four separate takes separated by three carefully-planned jump-cuts. The first causes the woman to vanish under the cloth in a reasonably (though not entirely) seamless effect. The second is more blatant, as the skeleton appears out of nowhere (in fact, the film might arguably have been more effective if the woman had been transformed into the skeleton while under the cloth), while the third essentially reprises the first.

The film’s overt theatricality (the magician Méliès and his female sidekick acknowledge the audience at the start and end of the film, even returning for a second bow) paradoxically emphasises the difference between the two media: Méliès, a man of the theatre, was just beginning to discover the potential of the cinema for creating effects far beyond anything technically achievable on the stage.

The untinted print on Flicker Alley’s DVD begins in conspicuously worse condition than that of Playing Cards (Une Partie de cartes) or A Terrible Night (Une Nuit terrible, both 1896), but stabilises after a jittery, blotchy opening to reveal a quite acceptable picture with only the occasional tramline and other minor surface damage. The picture is sharp enough to make out fine details in the painted backdrop, which suggests a drawing room opening out onto a well-maintained garden. Eric Beheim’s electronic accompaniment adds to the effect of a well-rehearsed stage routine.

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Posted on 10th May 2008
Under: Jump-Cuts, 1896, Stage Magic | No Comments »

A Terrible Night

Une Nuit terrible, 1896, 1m08s
Star Film Catalogue No. 26

A bearded man in a nightdress and nightcap extinguishes his cigarette and bedside candle and lies back in bed. A gigantic beetle climbs up the bed, skitters across his prone body and heads up the wall, covered by a curtain. He leaps up as though electrified, grabs a broom, swats the insect onto the bed, and stamps on it. He then picks up its corpse and deposits it in the chamber pot that he keeps in the cupboard by the side of his bed. He then tries to get back to sleep, but finds it impossible.

Much more characteristic of Méliès than the relatively anonymous Playing Cards (Une Partie de cartes, 1896), A Terrible Night does at least feature a special effect, albeit one so primitive as to account for much of the film’s charm. The beetle, which is the size of a dinner plate, is clearly attached to a string, which someone is pulling from the other side of the curtain that covers most of the backdrop. Presumably the string was designed to be easily detachable via a well-aimed blow - you can see the man is aiming for a space just above its head, rather than the beetle itself.

His subsequent decision to dispose of the now-dead beetle in the chamber pot is a neat comic touch that inadvertently adds some historical interest: bearing in mind that Alfred Hitchcock scandalised audiences several decades later by showing a toilet being flushed, Méliès is completely laid-back about essential provisions in an era before such conveniences were universal. He also effectively conveys the paranoia that subsequently grips the would-be sleeper: though there is no sign of any other insect (and given the beetle’s size, one wouldn’t be hard to spot), he is clearly in for a disturbed night.

On a technical level, even aside from the hilariously unconvincing beetle, no attempt is made at realism: when the man blows out the candle, there is no corresponding change in the ambient lighting. As with Méliès’ other films from this period, it consists of a single shot from a fixed camera position, framing the entirety of the bed.

The untinted print on the Flicker Alley DVD is superior to that of Playing Cards, in that it lacks the latter’s frame jitter and is in startlingly good condition. Age-related surface damage is entirely excusable, and kept to a surprising minimum. Frederick Hodges’ piano accompaniment riffs on Schubert’s Allegretto moderato in D minor (from the Moments Musicaux cycle, D780) to good effect.

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Posted on 9th May 2008
Under: Horror, 1896, Mechanical Props | 2 Comments »

Playing Cards

Une Partie de cartes, 1896, 1m08s
Star Film Catalogue No. 1

Three men sit around a small table in the open air. Two are playing cards, while the man sitting between them summons a boy and sends him on an errand. A buxom middle-aged waitress appears with drinks, which the man in the middle pours for his friends, enjoying a lively conversation as he does so. One of the card players holds the drink up to the light before sampling it. They drain their glasses and the waitress reappears to collect the empties. The man in the middle spots a funny story in the newspaper and reads it to his friends, who laugh uproariously.

Shot in May 1896, Georges Méliès’ very first film (and the first entry in his Star Films catalogue) presents itself as a straightforward actuality record, essentially no different from what Louis and Auguste Lumière and R.W. Paul were also making at the time (indeed, it’s a direct rip-off of the Lumières’ 1895 film of the same title, also known as Partie d’écarté). Starring Méliès himself (as the man in the middle), his brother Gaston, and three unidentified others, it was shot in the grounds of Montreuil-sur-bois, the Méliès family property.

Filmed from a fixed camera position, Playing Cards does at least show that Méliès had already mastered the art of effective composition and blocking: there’s always something going on right across the frame. There are no intertitles, but the actors do a good physical impression of animated conversation that, while livelier than in the Lumière film, errs just the right side of caricature. There’s also constant interplay between the quartet: the waitress is particularly subtle here. While the men break into paroxysms of laughter at the funny story in the newspaper, she merely beams and surreptitiously wipes a tear of mirth from her eye - she’s clearly enjoying it as much as the others, but she knows her place in late 19th-century France, both as a servant and as a woman.

The untinted print on the Flicker Alley edition is for the most part in remarkably good condition. Occasional frame jitter may well be an unavoidable result of the fact that Méliès was unable to obtain pre-perforated film stock and had to do the job himself. There’s also a recurrent rippling visual blemish that suggests that the emulsion must have deteriorated at some stage. However, there are virtually no chemical blotches and even mild surface damage is kept to a minimum. Frederick Hodges’ lively piano accompaniment fits the material like a glove.

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Posted on 8th May 2008
Under: 1896 | No Comments »

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