The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences found themselves in a historicizing mood this year as two films (one showily silent and in black in white, the other in lavish 3D) harked back to the early days of French filmmaking. Between them, The Artist and Hugo, walked away with 10 Oscars.
The two movies put me in mind of that furiously productive era when grown up boys tinkered the modern world into existence. Alexander Graham Bell gave us voice communication, Thomas Edison gave us electric light and many other useful things including film technology, and Henry Ford delivered the affordable car. The Lilienthal brothers, romantic architects of castle-like homes and marketers of building toys, pioneered heavier-than-air flight with their glider designs almost two decades before the Wright Brothers lifted off at Kitty Hawk. Gustav Lilienthal labored for 30 years on an improbable bird-inspired flying craft. But Otto, Gustav’s brother, crashed his glider and died in 1896, the year that magician George Méliès, another tinkerer whose imagination took flight, began to experiment with films that stunned contemporary audiences with their exotic, cascading images. Over the next 17 years, Méliès offered images of massing moon men, mermaids, fire-breathing dragons and fearsome sea monsters, enormous lobsters and menacing octopi, submarines, see-through ghosts and angels, laughing devils, Joan of Arc, a man with a rubber head, armed pirates, arctic explorers, Cleopatra’s court, giants and fairies, and beauties who vanish in a puff of smoke.
Martin Scorsese, reverential about the history of his craft, celebrated George Mêliés’s career in the pleasingly sentimental Hugo, set amidst the whistling locomotives and monumental clockwork of Paris’ bustling Gare de l’Ouest. Hugo received Oscars in this year’s technical categories, fittingly, because Méliès invented techniques like dissolves and multiple exposures; he discovered the cunning “stop trick” to substitute one image for another; and he experimented with matte painting and time lapse to give his pictures scope and authenticity. The pioneering filmmaker churned out these special-effects extravaganzas at a breakneck pace, becoming the writer, producer and director, set designer, actor, and special-effects wizard of the 531 films he made before piracy bankrupted him in 1913.
Even if you haven’t seen Hugo, you likely recognize Méliès’s style by the well-known image of the space capsule plonked into the eye of an aggravated Man in the Moon that appeared in his 1902 film Le Voyage dans la Lune, an adaptation of Jules Vern’s bestseller. To give you a feel for both Méliès’s pacing and technique, here’s the plot in one long gulp: the film opened as a boisterous meeting of the robed astronomical society decides to finance and equip a trip to the moon; frantic construction follows, and then a group of dancing-girl sailors loads a bullet-like craft into the breach of a mammoth cannon that thrusts intrepid spacefarers past a comet and the Big Dipper to a fantastic and dangerous place treed-over by giant mushrooms and ruled by a society of cave-dwelling, insect-like, and occasionally exploding moon creatures, from whom the travelers eventually escape to fall back to earth to splash safely in the ocean. Film devotees of the day invented a word to describe the wild rush of outlandish, playful, connected dreamlike imagery that tumbled onto the screen; they called it “phantasmagoric.”
Méliès’s playful films abide by dreamlike rules; the plots suspend ordinary causality, permitting bizarre transformations. Strange symbols loom into frame. And dreams suspend physical law, allowing dreamers to fly high or swim unaided at depth, much as Méliès’s extraordinary explorers do. Like Méliès, too, children at play (and especially boys at play) soar with animated, dreamlike phantasmagoria during those chaotic backyard fictions that evolve on the run. The dream state and the freely-associating play state lie not far apart. Brian Sutton-Smith, a scholar who listened carefully and transcribed the patter that kids generated, concluded that “the play of disorder and phantasmagoria… [is] a universal aspect of all free play” whether you find it in the glassed-in film studio in Montreuil in 1902, or on the local playground today.
Though he worked in a fleeting, ephemeral medium, surely George Méliès stands in good order with the other more familiar innovators of his age—those who gave us steam engines, carpet sweepers, barbed wire, and the typewriter. It’s hard not to stand open-mouthed at the volume of Méliès’s output as well, and at the originality of his vision. But here’s the interesting point. Remember how five, six, and seven year-olds at play routinely and continually invent and improvise adventures in running, breathless, original performances. Few of us adults, Méliès and other masterminds excepted, can match their workaday genius at pretense. Eavesdrop on this ongoing creative productivity on the beach or in the backyard sandbox. You’ll discover how children will pile on with super-power rescues and undergo magical transformations in flexible scales of time and space. Like Méliès, when at play they make impossible things seem believable.