Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 6 No. 24, September 2002

 

 

Marcus Doel

 

Pivotal Film History

Georges Melies as a Vanishing Mediator

 

 

 

Elizabeth Ezra

_Georges Melies: The Birth of the Auteur_

Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000

ISBN 071905396

x + 166 pp.

 

Elizabeth Ezra's almost pocket-sized book on Georges Melies -- magician and film pioneer -- is part of Manchester University Press's 'French Film Directors' series. According to the series editors, Diana Holmes and Robert Ingram, the series 'is designed for students and teachers seeking information and accessible but rigorous critical study of French cinema, and for the enthusiastic filmgoer who wants to know more' (vii). They 'intend the series to contribute to the promotion of the informal and formal study of French films, and to the pleasure of those who watch them' (viii).

 

Despite having almost nothing whatsoever to say about why one should be interested in either French cinema per se, or French film directors specifically, the book no doubt succeeds in conveying a considerable amount of information about the 500 or so films that Georges Melies was involved in making between 1896 and 1912, for the benefit of those students, teachers, and filmgoers who have such an interest. The book contains a useful list of around 170 of the surviving films -- complete with French and English titles, estimated lengths (in metres), and years of production (although there is no specific information on their archive location) -- and a lightly-annotated bibliography of some influential studies of Melies and early French cinema.

 

Since the book is mostly empiricist, with an encyclopaedic bent, there is a lot of information about Melies's films for the interested reader to engage with. This information is spread across four substantive chapters that deal with his cinematic trickery, fantastic realism, flying and disappearing women, and imaginary voyages. And yet, amid the seemingly endless proliferation of lists and film descriptions, there is also a brief illustration of the relevance of contemporary film theory to Melies's films: Georges Melies and Christian Metz (34-48). This illustration is brief because it is simply meant to demonstrate the affinity between our time and Melies's time, and so close the gaping chasm that has been opened up between the so-called 'cinema of attractions' on the one hand, and 'narrative cinema' and its avant-garde adversaries on the other: to sweep away the widely-held but crass notion that 'films before Griffith and theory after Bazin were separated by an unbreachable divide' (34). The fundamental thing for Ezra is that Melies was one of us. So, we must refuse the temptation to treat Melies's films as if they had 'the status of 'primitive otherness'', and recognize in them a 'kinship with the work of later film-makers, as well as [their] suitability for analysis using techniques of structuralist, post-structuralist, and post-post-structuralist film theory' (151). Editing, montage, narration, sublation, surrealism, etc., can all be found in Melies's oeuvre. Whence Ezra's ambivalence about the specific affinity between Melies and Metz that she is deploying in order to demonstrate the essential contemporaneity -- or 'shared kinship' (35) -- of *all* filmmaking and film theory. Rather than Melies and Metz, it could no doubt have been Melies and any-film-theorist-whatsoever. Indeed, she sets the scene for the encounter between Melies's filmmaking and Metz's film theory by noting that she will be bringing 'quite dated' (34) concepts to bear on the earliest films: a structuralist analysis developed in the mid-1960s (Metz's model of the grande syntagmatique). Despite this ambivalence, Ezra lists eight elements of Metz's model which are fully-illustrated by excerpts from Melies's films: insert, parallel syntagma, bracket syntagma, descriptive syntagma, alternating syntagma, scene, episodic sequence, and ordinary sequence.

 

Furthermore, it is not entirely clear why Melies has been selected for special attention, other than the contingent fact that this series takes a director-based approach to French cinema. While it may well be true that Melies was a 'pioneering' filmmaker who 'was personally involved in every aspect of production' (17), filmmaking in this period was inevitably a collective enterprise, not least because plagiarism was effectively the rule of the game. Moreover, this innovative plagiarism was itself based on a highly-sophisticated visual culture awash with all manner of optical novelties and long-standing techniques for producing 'living pictures': everything from camera obscura, magic lanterns, and flick books, to peep-shows, panoramas, and dioramas. All of the pioneering editing practices that Ezra finds in the work of Melies were already well rehearsed in other media: especially on paper (literally). In short, one may suspect that Melies can be made to stand out in film history only because he has been cut out from a wider historical geography of animated and living pictures. The absence of this broader context considerably hampers the book. Indeed, it is almost as if one were watching Melies through an iris diaphragm as it closes.

 

While the choice of both Melies and Metz may appear arbitrary, there is, however, a more persuasive rationale. 'The distinction of 'primitive' par excellence has always been reserved for Melies' (3). His work is the foremost example of the so-called 'primitive mode of representation' (2), whose traits of depthlessness, frontal presentation, histrionic acting, unicity of frame, noncentred image, medium long-shot, and narrative non-closure are anathema to the narrative cinema which achieved hegemony around 1906, and found its apogee in the Hollywood studio system. So, if Ezra can rid Melies of his apparent primitivism and irrealism, then the whole edifice of theory, history, and practice which is built upon it will topple. Specifically, the primitive otherness of early film is often attributed to its emphasis on *spectacle* (theatrical attraction) rather than *narrative* (cinematic story-telling). It is supposed to be 'more 'show' than 'tell'' (3). Whence the turn to Metz, who was one of the first theorists to insist on this distinction as a way to differentiate 'moving photographs' from film proper. So, 'to invoke Metz as a way of demonstrating narrative complexity in Melies is to pit Metz against himself' (34), and thereby to deconstruct the fundamental distinction between early film and modern film. Since the narrative case has already been made for the Lumiere films, and 'all of the seeds have been planted for establishing the narrative force of Melies's films' (4), it turns out to be rather easy to uncover the tell-tale signs of narrative in Melies's filmmaking. By drawing on the well-established narrative structure of tableaux, 'he was able to tell stories within a single scene' (33). Put simply, his single-shot films used mise-en-scene to fulfil a narrative function. This ''montage' without editing' was spatially rather than temporally arrayed: 'enframed rather than emplotted' (36). Even still lives tell stories.

 

All in all, then, 'Melies's place in film history' (3) requires us to reassess how we conceptualize film history itself. Specifically, Ezra wants to move us beyond the equation of early film (c.1895-1906) with either a 'primitive mode of representation' or a 'cinema of attractions' towards something else: the combination and permutation of reproduction, spectacle, and narration; a 'continuous tension between narrative and spectacle, rather than a series of mutually exclusive epistemological breaks' (48). Such is the implicit structuralism that animates an ostensibly empiricist text. 'Rather than a progression from recording (Lumiere) to spectacle (Melies) to narrative (nearly everyone who followed, with the exception of certain avant-garde filmmakers), film history is made up of different combinations of all three elements. Melies's films, like most films, both show and tell' (5). By refusing to estrange the practices of early filmmaking from those of modern filmmaking, Ezra attempts to dispel three myths about Melies: that he only made fairytales and fantasies characterized by childlike naivete; that he used theatrical rather than truly cinematic techniques; and that his films were largely devoid of narrative content, and so beyond the reach of modern film theory. Through the detailed analysis of innumerable films across a wide range of genres, Ezra argues that Melies not only 'performed magic in front of the camera . . . he also performed magic in the editing room' (24). He was one of the first to use and refine substitution splicing (i.e. stop-motion), multiple exposure, dissolves, matte shots, model shots, point-of-view shots, replication effects, transparency, panning and tracking effects, close-ups, staging in depth, montage, and overlapping editing. Whence 'the modernity of Melies's work' (46), despite the many constraints under which he and other filmmakers of the period worked -- such as an overwhelming reliance on natural lighting, indoor shooting, immobile cameras, short lengths of film stock, histrionic codes of acting, lecturers, and unregulated exhibition.

 

Beyond mere encyclopaedism and illustrated film theory, then, the point of the book is to demystify early film in general, and Melies's place within film history in particular. Basically, Ezra forcefully insists that neither early films nor Melies should be estranged and excluded from the concerns of contemporary film practice, film studies, and film theory. This is excellent advice. The comeuppance of Ezra's demystification is twofold. First: 'What is most clear is that Melies was a Janus-faced figure linking two centuries: he drew upon and developed the theatrical traditions of the nineteenth, but he also had a profound influence on cinematic art of the twentieth' (151). Melies was a pivot of film history, and Ezra compiles lots of case-notes to prove it. Second, Melies effectively took command of the cinematographe, a late-nineteenth-century 'optical novelty' that Louis Lumiere famously described to him as 'an invention without a future'. [1] (And while the novelty-value of 'living photographs' was rather short lived -- with interest waning even in the 1890s -- the self-serving hyperbole continues to live on.) Indeed, Melies was pivotal in giving film a future: of making films worthy of a future -- both as a technology for miraculously engineering space and time, and as a popular form of commodified mass entertainment. Above all, 'he was an auteur in every sense, and his work paved the way for future auteurs' (151), writes Ezra, having noted earlier that 'such absolute independence would never again be possible' (17). Little wonder, then, that Ezra should conclude her study by lamenting the fact that 'Melies's work has been detached from the body of film history. The traditional opposition between Melies and Lumiere has long been dismantled; it is now time to question the rigidity of the distinction between Melies and the century of film-makers he has (so far) inspired' (151). On that note the book ends.

 

I think that Ezra is absolutely right to reject both the difference in kind that is often set up between early filmmaking and modern filmmaking, and the difference in degree that regards the former as nothing more than an incomplete, inferior, and ultimately flawed version of the latter. However, I think that Ezra is wrong to elide the difference and argue for the continuity and contemporaneity of early and modern filmmaking. There is much more at stake in reassessing Melies's place in film history than merely welcoming him into our extended family and slotting his work into a matrix of cinematic combinations and permutations. Indeed, while the book suggests that a reassessment of Melies will disturb film history and film theory, the coupling of early and modern filmmaking has all of the explosive and revolutionary potential of one of Hollywood's happy heterosexual endings. No matter how much the pivotal characters deviate from the norm, one always has the impression that nothing will come of it. When all is said and done, film history and film theory are shaken but not stirred. We are simply asked to let Melies take his rightful place in the pantheon of cinematic auteurs.

 

It seems to me that in her eagerness to demystify film history and film theory, Ezra has missed the essential point about early film. Rather than consisting of a set of practices that may or may not add up to something truly 'other', 'primitive', or 'alternative', early filmmaking existed as an untotalizable *problematic*. This is why one should take Louis Lumiere's apocryphal quip literally: his cinematographe really was an 'invention without a future'. Take the London-based _The Optical Magic Lantern Journal and Photographic Enlarger_ of the 1890s and 1900s: the equipment, techniques, practices, contexts, and uses of 'living photography' all posed considerable problems -- for filmmakers, exhibitors, audiences, and other media. If Melies is to be considered a pivot of film history, then it is not because he employed this or that set of cinematic techniques, but because he was able to isolate a specific problem for which film would become the solution (just as Marx can be considered a pivot of political history insofar as he isolated a specific problem for which the working class would become the solution: the antagonistic nature of capitalism). However, for all of the detailed demystification of Melies in Ezra's book, there is little engagement with this pivotal issue. Moreover, to encounter early filmmaking as a problematic rather than as a regime or a matrix is to disrupt what we take for granted about filmmaking, exhibition, and reception, and about film qua film. These untimely disruptions vanish almost without trace in Ezra's familial tale. As for Georges Melies himself, he is made to disappear during the course of the Introduction. He is treated as if he were merely a magician's assistant whose sole purpose was to facilitate a seemingly impossible feat of transformation: of the 'primitive otherness' of early film as a 'cinema of attractions' into modern film pure and simple.

 

'Like the running story lines that Melies brought to disparate tricks in his magic acts, the seminal moments that punctuate his life can be strung together to form a cohesive narrative, bringing a sense of purpose and meaning to what might otherwise appear as little more than a series of spectacular feats. This narrative may be called Melies's Life Story' (6). It boils down to this. The French-speaking Melies went to English-speaking London in 1884, and took solace in the visual spectacles of the pantomime, through which he encountered all manner of fantastical creatures unfettered by the laws of physics, and acquired a passion for a certain class of magic act interwoven with narrative that both amused and amazed audiences. With an interest in fantasy (*feeries*), trickery (magic), automata, and optical novelties, Melies took charge of the Theatre Robert-Houdin in Paris in 1888. Eventually, these interests found themselves articulated through a new medium once Melies experienced his life-changing encounter with the public debut of the Lumiere cinematographe on the 28th of December 1895. 'As he sat spellbound in that darkened room, the master illusionist realized that the power of film was no illusion: 'I immediately said, That's the thing for me . . . an extraordinary trick!'' (12). Previously, he had been 'waiting to be impressed' (1). The rest, as they say, is history: 'film's seemingly magical effects, such as dissolves, splicing, and multiple exposure, became the basic vocabulary of realist film. Film history is in fact the story of this shift, this process of turning magic into reality; and Melies is the magician who first performed this feat' (2). The problem with this account is that Ezra takes for granted that Melies and others were overwhelmingly impressed by the power of film, and she begins her study with the obligatory spectacle of unsuspecting audiences being left awestruck by seeing for the first time realistic images of vehicles coming out of the screen: horse-drawn carts, bicycles, motor-cars, and especially trains. 'In the early days of cinema, watching a film . . . was an experience unlike any other that had been known before' (2). To the contrary. Consider in this regard Rev. Edward Stanley's recollection of the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester railway line:

 

'In the rapid movement of these engines, there is an optical deception worth noticing. A spectator observing their approach, when at extreme speed, can scarcely divest himself of the idea, that they are not enlarging and increasing in size rather than moving. I know not how to explain my meaning better, than by referring to the enlargement of objects in a phantasmagoria. At first the image is barely discernible, but as it advances from the focal point, it seems to increase beyond all limit. Thus an engine, as it draws near, appears to become rapidly magnified, and as if it would fill up the entire space between the banks, and absorb everything within its vortex'. [2]

 

So, even real trains could function as optical novelties and static vehicles. Their novelty consisted in the fact that they did not move: they grew. Indeed, the optical oddity of regarding three-dimensional movement as if it were two-dimensional expansion was famously exploited by Melies himself in _The Man with the Rubber Head_ (1901).

 

Having played his pivotal role as Ezra's vanishing mediator, Melies will only reappear throughout the rest of the book as a ghostly after-image. He returns as a repertoire of editing techniques that have always already been drawn into the combinations and permutations of the cinematic matrix. Ironically, by giving Melies a pivotal position in film history he is all the more concealed from us. Accordingly, there is almost no trace of Melies himself in the book's Index. All but twelve of its entries are people and film titles. These residual entries are: advertisements, cinema of attractions, deep staging, documentary, erotic films, *feerie*, Musee Grevin, pornography, realism, science fiction, stag films, and staging in depth. Meanwhile, the specificity of the 1890s and 1900s also disappear almost without trace, along with the transformations of the city, everyday life, and visual culture. Even Paris, France, and Europe vanish from the scene. Only fin-de-siecle imperial rivalries and gender relations retain a significant presence: and only then because they are impressed upon us in the content of many of Melies's films. So, Melies becomes for Ezra a good example of male anxiety about female sexuality. The prevalence of flying women and disappearing women in many of his films is interpreted as playing to the voyeurism and revenge fantasies of men with 'womb envy' -- 'the male magician appropriates the role of reproductive agent' (94). 'The desire for mastery, the wish to see punished those who threatened to disrupt established social order, was an explicit component of the literary genre from which Melies's *feeries* ultimately derived: the fairy tale' (99). As for Melies's 'outrageous flights of fancy', it is 'as if his voyage films were compensating for the camera's immobility' (118). Moreover, Ezra is keen to locate them in a context of imperial anxiety: 'the old world is shown in confrontation with the new; the inevitable collisions depicted in these films -- the smashing of cars into buildings, the crash landings of airbuses and rocket ships -- suggest . . . the collision of different cultural traditions and collective identities' (119). On this basis, _A Trip to the Moon_ (1902) 'can easily be read as a parable of colonial conflict', in which 'Melies mocks the pretensions of colonialist accounts of the conquest of one culture by another' (120). Nevertheless, 'many of his films trade in exoticism (and indeed, in overt racism)' (142), and 'the value placed on exoticism indicates a desire to preserve cultural differences that were threatened with disappearance as contact between different cultures increased' (146). So, although we often associate Melies with innocent and infantile fantasies, his films reflected the social and political anxieties of the time, and he actually worked in all of the emerging genres (including panoramas, advertising, and re-enactments). In addition, even his fantasy films strove for realism. In fact, Ezra reminds us that Melies helped problematize the very distinction between reality and fantasy, but that distinction had been problematized since at least the sixteenth century, and its instability was something of an obsession in nineteenth-century visual culture, as the experience of Rev. Stanley suggests.

 

Overall, Ezra does a good job of dispelling the dominant myths that hamper a full and proper appreciation of early film in general and Melies in particular. She also provides a considerable amount of information about many of Melies's films that will be of great interest to students, teachers, and filmgoers. However, I think that the book is let down by its failure to question the apparent self-evidence that Melies has a pivotal place in film history, film theory, and film practice. This failure has two main causes. First, Melies and his films are isolated from broader considerations of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century visual culture -- yet much of what happened in these formative years of filmmaking is only intelligible in relation to a wider set of practices, values, and institutions. Second, and much more importantly, Ezra fails to appreciate the fundamental contingency of film's emergence as a medium for engineering space and time. Unlike Melies's own experimental engagement with a problematic 'invention without a future', Ezra's film history -- like virtually all film histories -- remains settled. In this case, it settles on a certain set of ready-made editing techniques and the inseparability of showing and telling. We are still a very long way from composing film histories and film theories that live up to the challenge of film itself. In conclusion, I cannot help but feel that Ezra has given us a rather good *still life* when we, rather like Georges Melies, were 'waiting to be impressed' (1) by the promise of a truly *living photograph*.

 

University of Wales Swansea

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. See Ian Christie, _The Last Machine: Early Cinema and the Birth of the Modern World_ (London: British Film Institute/BBC, 1994), p. 95; and also Marcus Doel and David Clarke, 'An Invention without a Future, a Solution without a Problem: Motor Pirates, Time Machines and Drunkenness on the Screen', in Rob Kitchin and James Kneale, eds, _Lost in Space: Geographies of Science Fiction_ (London: Continuum, 2002), pp. 136-155.

 

1. Rev. Edward Stanley, 'The Railer', _Blackwood's Magazine_, no. 28, 1830, p. 825.

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2002

 

Marcus Doel, 'Pivotal Film History: Georges Melies as a Vanishing Mediator', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 6 no. 24, September 2002 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol6-2002/n24doel>.

 

 

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